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July 4th - What Is Independence?
In 1776, we Americans declared our political independence from Britain. Tired of high taxes and a long train of abuses, and with no democratic controls on those who governed us, we decided it was time for us to run our own affairs. Besides, bowing on our knees before kings and lords was for slaves and serfs, not free men like us. But it was not just our break with Britain but also other manifestations of the virtues of independence that helped us Americans to make this the greatest country on earth.
To begin with, Americans as individuals exercised moral independence from the time of the first settlers. Colonists, whether they sought economic opportunities, religious freedom or exciting adventures, accepted the responsibility of making their own judgments about what was best for them in life. They took matters into their own hands and risked a dangerous ocean voyage to achieve these goals. In the centuries that followed, others crossed a continent seeking fertile land to farm, animals to hunt and flourishing towns in which to practice their trades.
Some cultures have stressed obedience as a virtue. But Americans couldn’t afford to be obedient. When you’re a pioneer facing death in a hostile wilderness, when you need to improvise a way to cross rivers where there are no bridges, or to build dwellings where there are no trees, stones or clay for bricks, or to plant crops in soil unlike anything back in the old country, who are you going to obey?
Clearly Americans also practiced the virtue of intellectual independence. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, “in most of the operations of the mind each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding.” In other words, we think for ourselves.
And “think” is the operative word for each and every individual. The illiterate fur trapper still had to find food and water, to survive burning heat or freezing cold, to cross high, trackless mountains; using his wits was literally a matter of life and death. America’s Founders were part of the Enlightenment culture that revered reason. Benjamin Franklin was a scientist who contributed to our understanding of electricity, and an inventor of everything from the stove that bore his name to a musical instrument on which one ran one's figures along the rim of glasses to produce unique sounds. He was one in a long line of independent minds of vision that produced Fulton’s steamboats, Edison’s light bulbs, the Wright brothers’ airplanes, Goddard’s rockets and Jobs's personal computers.
Americans have always strived to be economically independent. Our ancestors found it unthinkable to suggest that their fellow citizens owed them a living. Most of us have been happy for the opportunity to produce every kind of good and service imaginable to trade with others to earn our keep. Indeed, we’ve recognized that it is shameful for any physically and mentally capable individual to mooch off of others. We take pride in taking care of ourselves and our families. Most of us are happy to help relatives, friends and neighbors who might find themselves in temporary dire straits; but such situations are emergencies, not the chronic norm.
Today these virtues of independence are threatened just as our political independence was threatened over two centuries ago. In “The 2005 Index of Dependency,” William Beach of the Heritage Foundation showed that economic reliance by Americans on five huge federal programs covering housing, health and welfare, retirement, education and agriculture services for which there are private alternatives doubled between 1972 and 1980 and again between 1980 and 2003. The sum of all participants in those programs and of government employees administering them rose from about 30 million in 1972 to over 70 million today.
This economic dependence reflects a moral weakening as well. Too many Americans do not judge themselves fit to figure out what is best for them in life and how to achieve those goals on their own. Like infants they expect someone else – paternalist political elites and their taxpaying fellow citizens – to take care of them.
July 4th thus should not only remind us of our political independence from Britain. It should also call to mind the joys of being morally, intellectually and economically independent, and what is to be true Americans. If we recommit ourselves to individual independence, if we recognize what makes our country great and what can help each of us flourish, then at our picnics, parties and cookouts on Independence Day, we’ll really have something to celebrate!
Hudgins is the executive director of the Objectivist Center and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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