What Personal Independence Really Means

The Europeans who came to the New World were a hardy and ingenious lot. For centuries there were no stores where they settled. If you wanted something you had to either make it from raw materials or grow it. We even had to build our own houses. The few manufactured things came from the Old Country, and tended toward the very practical. Axes. Calico. Hunting guns. This is where the ideal of the strong and independent American came from.

Half a millennium has passed, and everything we could conceive of wanting has become available to us without having to chop down a tree or plow a furrow to get it. Most likely it came from China, or some other place in the poorly-paid world. But as this sea change occurred we lost much of our ability to survive on our own.

Most of us don’t know how to roof a garage, rewire a lamp, or grow and can tomatoes. Many of us couldn’t change the oil, poach a fish, install a new pane of glass, or make beer. Instead of fixing something easily repaired, we buy a new one, which is possible because so many consumer goods are inexpensive on the global market, where fair pay is rare.

Independence is the Republican ideal, one they take pride in and wrongly presume nobody else does. The Republican belief in the centrality of the nuclear family is supposedly based on the Bible, with a dominant father who makes all the decisions, a supportive and submissive wife, and obedient children. There are things to recommend this scenario. But most of those that are commendable are not specifically Republican. They are just common sense. You may never need to change a tire, but if you are stuck in a wild place with a blizzard coming on, you want to know how to do it. Politics has nothing to do with it.

Times have changed since biblical days. For one thing, the modern world knows that women are not inferior help-meets, but their abilities are fully equal to men’s in almost every way. Women have become a powerful strength for the modern world, one that spells the difference between modern and antiquated. Only in the conservative Muslim world are women viewed as worth some fraction of a man’s value. And among simplistically minded Republicans.

The more extreme conservatives imagine a world in which government is minimized to the point that almost nothing is supported by taxes except a powerful military. We the people are required to be independent and strong, as our pioneer ancestors were. And it’s true that we could certainly as a nation cultivate more of that can-do independent attitude. After all, even if our parents didn’t teach us how to install a new toilet or how to dry fruits for winter, we can easily get books and DVDs that tell us how.

But when we get really sick, being independent may not help. Only professional medical care may be enough. And where do we get that, if our job doesn’t give us enough income to pay for health insurance, and the bill is going to come to $100,000? And what will happen to us when we can no longer work, if our income barely covered common expenses our whole life, and we simply couldn’t save enough for retirement?

The value of independence comes to an abrupt end there. Your neighbors and your community may help, but only the concerted effort of everyone acting for the common good will be enough. That is, as a nation. The classic need, of course, is medical, but there are many other reasons that only community action, state action, or national action is the only reasonable course. What does government give us for our taxes? Thousands of things. The very thought of each family being responsible, for example, for the street, sewer, and water supply in front of our house is ridiculous. Imagine yourself digging in the street with a pickaxe to repair a water line.

The essential reason that we cannot rely on ourselves individually for all these things is that to do so is not economically efficient. It is far less expensive and far more practical to pay for street services from a tax-supported work crew that uses city-owned machinery. This is true for thousands of services that only the government can supply efficiently. That goes literally double for health care.

We pay double what good national medical care programs cost, and for the same reason: our health care is private, non-efficient, and for-profit. There is efficiency in size, and national plans provide the largest possible funding base. National plans also have the power to regulate and control costs. They also simply do away with most insurance costs, which presently consume one out of every three dollars we spend on health care without providing any benefit at all.

Being strong and independent is a good idea, and something we have lost too much of. But the value of personal independence ends with the many things that require expertise and cooperative effort. There are many such things, virtually all of which are most efficiently paid for with taxes. The most important of these, the one that costs us double, the one we don’t currently pay for with taxes, is medical care. National health care would save us many billions, and save many lives that are presently lost because of unaffordable cost. Even more, the loss of any American to an untreated medical condition costs us more in social costs than it would have cost to save her.

We remain the only nation in the advanced world that lacks affordable medical care for everybody because we have no national plan. This is a national tragedy that is completely unnecessary.


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  1. Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.


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