Self-Sufficiency and the Individual: Where is This All Leading?

I posted this as my namesake, evilgenius, over at peakoil.com;

Look, there are two approaches taken in describing how The Civil War came about in the US. The dominant one today is slavery. The other one concerns Confederate ideals. The Republican Party is rife with Confederate ideals. It isn’t necessarily racist.

Take a look at the Republican approach to the very idea of the Federal Government. They don’t seem to like it, except for its role in providing national defense. They hate taxes mostly because money is what expanded government is a function of, and not so much people’s wishes for a better life. They seem to think we can all ‘Kumbaya’ get it together and self-organize whatever aid to the needy that truly needs to come about. Most Republican strongholds are full of churches that superficially accomplish this task, to the emotional satisfaction of those who assign the task. Never you mind what it is really like to deal with the petulant politics of most churches.

Aid to the poor is only a part of the mindset. It just happens to be an easy one to talk about. Taxes also touch upon the role of redistribution. Most Republicans believe their right to what they’ve earned is inviolable. They detest the idea of taxation not because it comes without representation, but because it is an affront to their idea of personal liberty. They see their ability to collect personal wealth as the token that it is, a proof that this is no longer the sole domain of the king. As such their acquisition of personal property in the form of wealth should not be subject to redistribution.

These are just a few points about the Republicans that are not racist. They may allow racism to develop because they undermine the legitimate work of the agencies whose work does keep racism in check, but they in no way condone that by their very existence. What they are is selfish. They are derived from a form of self-sufficiency which is capable of learning context.

When it was believed that human beings were not worth what we now hold life to be worth that self-sufficiency was more than willing to engage in slavery to bring about the success of the plantation. It killed the Indians off in order to promote the settlement of land, one self-sufficient homestead at a time. In a very real way it was the old aristocratic world order spread to the New World, only this time the sovereignty was not held by the elite aristocracy, but within the self-sufficient order. Their power was based within their sphere of influence and, therefore, was not capable of much projection toward other sovereign self-sufficient homesteads or claims. They feuded famously now and again, but largely kept from aligning into mega groups and going to war with each other. That only happened when they collided with the Industrial North, which was not based upon the same sort of self-sufficient mindset, although it wasn’t wholly as much a stranger to it as your average millennial from a large metropolitan area is today.

This post appeared in a string of posts in a forum about healing the partisan divide in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the office of President of the United States. To give it some context, I said this after many had said that the Republicans were pretty much all racists. I don’t disagree that some of them are, but to paint them all with that brush would be a mistake. I started writing this, therefore, in an effort to point out a few things that are not racist about Republicans.  Whether those things were bad or good I wanted to leave up to the judgement of the reader.

When I got to the subject of self-sufficiency I realized I really wanted to write about that in this  blog space, where I could elaborate further concerning a few points. Peakoil.com is not necessarily a place where I get a lot of feedback, and the kind of feedback I do get from my posts there tends to go in directions I hadn’t intended, so I thought this would be a better place to talk about it. It isn’t that I get many comments here either, but I do get some and they tend to be more thought out than those others. In addition,  when somebody follows me here in the wake of a post I usually go and check out their stuff. Yeah, so what I say is boring, as evidenced by the lack of participation, because philosophy is boring. Getting into the nitty gritty of what makes a thing tick is fun to me. It  does makes most peak oil nut’s, and most people who will read this post too most likely, eyes glaze over.

I talk about self-sufficiency as an evolving thing. By that I mean that operatively it has never been about a single person. We aspire to that, but at best it describes the actions of a unit of people, even if the characters within that unit change over time. This is true even if we are talking about single people with no children. As they say, no man is an island. So it’s true that it’s not about a single person in the performance of it. That may not be the story, however, when we talk about the benefits. The performance is orchestrated sometimes by a handful of people, like a family or a group of friends, and sometimes by a large enough group that all of the people don’t necessarily know each other, like a clan or a tribe. There are some smaller units than the clan or tribe within which the actors might have operated throughout history as well, like the feudal estates with their serfs.

We probably have to say that self-sufficiency derives its essence from the degree of involvement that it has with the economy or economies that are exterior to the performance of its operation. At no time, except for a theoretically completely separated kingdom, has any self-sufficient entity actually not engaged with the economies which surrounded it. It must be some element of degree of participation, therefore, that helps us decide whether an entity is self-sufficient. That and whether the locus that it adheres to sees itself as involved or not. We might not look upon a street beggar as self-sufficient, but we might look upon one who was “down on his luck” and looking to get back into the fray as a self-sufficient entity that has simply gone bust but doesn’t have the life out of it yet. We’d have to reserve judgement until we saw how they acted going forward.

I think that now you can see what I am getting at by bringing up the topic of self-sufficiency. It’s what we really value when we talk about rights, or identity in society. History isn’t made up of what life was like for serfs. It is made up of stories about those who received the benefits, noble people who had a lot of serfs. The English parliament didn’t come about until various merchants, and other successful people like that in the mercantile economy of that time, developed the wherewithal to become self-sufficient in a manner that couldn’t be ignored. They were self-sufficient and they were connected to the economy. The old aristocratic way could not expand without them. Their inclusion, however, challenged the prior locus of the aristocratic order. The king had to cede power to the parliament in order to move forward. It didn’t mean that the old order went away, unlike the clean break achieved by the revolution of the states. In a very real way the old order expanded. What happened was a change in who was the locus. In a family the locus is typically the father. Previously, in the English example, it was the king. Now it became something like the people. It, of course, still wasn’t the people, but it was a precedent that set the stage for such thinking.

I find it very instructive that the founding fathers of the United States talked about rights in their documents with such fervor, and yet they didn’t see what they were building as a new country where everybody was actually equal. What they were getting at was a recognition of the importance of the landed gentry, so to speak. A person had to to be self-sufficient in a way that other self-sufficient people could recognize in order to be considered one of their own. This wasn’t written down in the flowery language of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States, but it was certainly understood. It helps that the divide between the individual person and their recognition as sovereign persons, like we see them today, and that of the self-sufficient man was not as great then as it was when the English developed their parliament. It sets the United States in a different light because the introduction of the language of its founding could be construed to mean that individual people are sovereign. It hasn’t always mattered that the founders might not have meant that.

What matters about self-sufficiency is that it has transcribed this arc that we can detail that has led us to the recognition of the sovereign self. It has actually paved the way. However, along the way, it has also created some problems. How are we to treat a person under the law when the law was not written in recognition of persons, but of self-sufficient entities? The way we’ve made up for that today is to interpret the Constitution of the United States in light of our understanding that individuals are sovereign. You can see plainly that is only a construct of our present view, however, and not necessarily a point of view that was actually written into the document. There is a danger present within “Strict Constructionism.”

To begin with, why is it that when the right resists taxes they do so as them being an affront to their personal sovereignty. You can cite the king as the model for this, but why shouldn’t an evolution of the way things are done bring about taxation of the king along with everybody else? Why do we go forward with an idea of personal inviolability that extends from that of the king without questioning whether the next step ought to be an expansion of what the king had rather than a redefinition? Of course this questions history. It’s a bad idea to judge history by modern standards. You are always better off understanding it according to what the people of the time understood themselves involved in. The expansion of sovereignty worked for them. As the competition between nations grew along with the economic and military advances it was becoming impossible not to expand it. Wasn’t our current view of personal sovereignty more or less accidentally derived from this? Didn’t the language of self-sufficiency invite us to think in larger terms?

What I’m getting at is that self-sufficiency and personal sovereignty are not the same thing. I think that, when we look at this legally, this poses a problem. Our system of rights based thinking is derived from the ideals that self-sufficiency would impose upon the human world. It doesn’t want to pay any taxes, so to speak. Essentially, it is saying that there is no negotiating ground. Of course, it would be ridiculous to say that there had to be negotiating ground for all things for which the system of rights holds sway. Certain things must necessarily be inviolable. I think, however, that one has to admit that need does not create right. We want it to, but in order for this to happen it would have to take from those who have what is needed. The system of rights isn’t designed for that kind of taking, since it is not at all clear that those in need are not there as a result of assuming risk. It’s one thing to ask for a person to receive from those who have oppressed them and another to ask those who haven’t oppressed to forfeit so that another who has failed as the result of the realization of risk can recover.

People will argue that it’s a lot easier to become self-sufficient if you come from the right background. By this they imply that there is a lot more than assumed risk at stake behind someone failing. I guess, in the context of how I’m arguing this, that’s not true. They do assume risk by either inaction or improper action. So far, people aren’t talked about as being actually born into debt. They incur that as they make choices with their word. As for being born into poverty, it’s very much what the book of Proverbs says when it says that “Wisdom shouts in the streets. She cries in the public square.” Debt aside, there is abuse that can shape a person to think in ways other than to recognize the world around them. I have misgivings about trying to argue my case in the face of that. I especially have misgivings when that abuse is systemic, as in the case of India’s famous untouchables or the black experience in America under Jim Crowe. But I am not saying that rights as a basis for thinking ought to go away. I am saying that the place we give them is what it is because of our idealization of self-sufficiency. Because rights don’t allow for the taxation of the king they don’t give us answers when there is conflict of the nature we discover when we legitimize abuse as the thorn we know it is in our conversation in this way. The arguments are even harder to parse when they come down from abuse a great deal, like those concerning educational access for all and the public school culture in the UK.

I offer that parsing arguments like these doesn’t take an examination of rights so much as it takes an examination of right-of-way. We understand right-of-way pretty well in terms of transportation networks. Transportation makes a good metaphor for the flow of information. It used to be that when a person declared that information described people so well that a lot of people made counter arguments. At this point in history that doesn’t happen much anymore. There are simpler ways to understand right-of-way, if the transportation network analogy seems too removed or steep for you. A very simple way has to do with economics. The way that it is relevant to the moment operates every day in supply and demand. Only those who are prepared to make offers that have right-0f-way can participate in a given transaction. You can’t look at the price of a stock that is now trading at a 52 week high over time and say, “I’ll have it at that 52 week low from earlier in the year.” You needed to have engaged in risk and bought it at that price, when it was available for that price, otherwise you have to offer a price that is in the range it is trading at now. Similarly, market forces of supply and demand alone can’t make you sell at a price that is a loss for you. Your circumstances can, and sometimes those of the security, but all things being equal the market can’t. Of course, it isn’t responsible for delivering you a profit either.

Right-of-way, as we seek to understand it in relation to human beings, doesn’t just operate in the moment. There are longer term examples of it at work, one of which kind of highlights how there is spillover in the manner of taxing the king. Worker’s wages, another economic example if you will pardon me, is another example of right-of-way at work. If, over time, worker’s wages do not keep pace with the rate of inflation in the general economy other things will have to happen to balance for their lack, like greater borrowing on the part of those who receive those wages than would otherwise take place. All kinds of things happen as a result of that, like the knock on increase of the money supply, but should the lack of worker’s wages begin to effect payment of that increased debt those things can roll backward as well. It’s important to note here, as well, that worker’s wages don’t receive consideration under right-of-way because of need. It isn’t the amount of suffering that workers will endure under low wages that gives them some entitlement to right-of-way. It’s because their wages in aggregate are so intertwined within the performance of the economy that gives them right-of-way. If they aren’t addressed things may happen. It doesn’t necessarily follow what will happen. It could be greater borrowing by underpaid workers, or something else that contracts the economy, as well as some combination of things. It’s not up to us to judge what those things benefit or not. It’s only fair to say that because they may happen in the vacuum they prove that right-of-way exists. And this offers another point, unlike rights based thinking, right-of-way is not inviolable. It merely determines what ought to be done. There may, or may not be consequences. In the absence of consequences carrying forward is preferable to holding a grudge. When right-of-way is transgressed it becomes time to turn the other cheek, so to speak. Disputes over the proper level of worker’s wages, since we are referring to them in aggregate, are a fine example of the principle of carrying a burden two miles if your enemy has compelled you to carry it one. Because the right-of-way under consideration is organic in nature the disrespect of it may bring about changes that effect the oppressor over time, so long as nothing has been done in reaction to derange the manner from which that right-of-way was derived.

Along with not being inviolable, right-of-way has other characteristics. It is also transferable. I’d like to use an example from contemporary life that many find intractable under the system of rights way of thinking, the question of abortion. Under rights based thinking people have had to conjecture as to when a fetus becomes a person. They have had to say that it doesn’t become a person until viability outside of the womb or birth because many say that otherwise a woman who aborts her unwanted pregnancy has committed murder. They say this because they reason that if a fetus is a person and then it is aborted its death must constitute murder because human life, under the system of rights mentality, is that sacred. Human life may be sacred, but its progress in competition with other human lives may not be. Right-of-way thinking would say that the mother carrying the fetus, being a pre-existing and wholly viable person, has right-of-way. The real question, in terms of parsing, is whether there comes a time before birth where there is a change because viability outside of the womb at a certain stage of pregnancy creates a call on right-of-way. The precedent for this is not to do with pregnancy, but accidents among the already living. In backward countries it is common for people passing to ignore road traffic accidents. Along with a poor infrastructure for dealing with them there are also often many holes in the law that open a Good Samaritan to liability. In the same way that more developed countries, either by law or by culture, lend aid without fear there can be construed to be some call upon late term pregnancies for the fetus to have some right-of-way, unless there is a threat to the life of the mother. This points out how right-of-way is transferred, through compassion. The law in more developed countries may sometimes be the reason why aid to victims is lent, but compassion as a norm in those societies is the reason why such a law would even be on the books. I would wager that most people in highly developed societies that lend such aid don’t do so because they are thinking about how the law either compels them or protects them. You can see from the less developed examples that such compassion is not a state of nature people are born into. It comes from the culture.

This type of compassion is not wholly cultural. People experience it personally all the time. When it happens that enough people understand its merits it may permeate a culture. In its absence from the culture it might still rule in an individual’s life. Such is the case with unwanted pregnancies. My guess is that the vast majority of them go to term not because the fetus had right-of-way to begin with, but because right-of-way was transferred to it through compassion. As I said previously, need does not create right-of-way. Without either compassion or compunction those in need who do not have right-of-way cannot receive it. It doesn’t change the nature of the actors to receive it either. The issue of whether a fetus at conception is a human being becomes far less important than the dependency upon the compassion of the mother. In this way issues that pertain to crimes against the rights of the unborn, such as violence against its mother resulting in its death when it was a wanted pregnancy, can be framed in a whole different light than when we have to subsume the unborn’s humanity. It’s also much more possible to assert things like parental rights, especially amongst estranged parents, at certain stages when we can picture the evolution of right-of-way over time. There is certainly a different picture that emerges, so long as we don’t consider women as possessions,  when a child has been born as opposed to when it hasn’t when we are considering those things.

I’ve pointed out the nature of our common view of rights, that of self-sufficiency. This point of view naturally ranks people, one over another. There is a different way, one which allows for the ubiquity of human rights and the high regard of them the same. Right-of-way exists as a means of regarding not who has rights, when everybody does, but who has place to exercise their rights. To be sure about my assertions I have offered some examples. I’ve tried to stay within some very narrow confines in offering these. I’ve done this because though I’ve tendered this concept I by no means can hope to address the complexity that it requires when dealing with the many facets of the human condition. That sort of determination can only come about through the deliberation of man, perhaps in the same manner as he makes law.

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