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The Best We Can Do: Freedom and Independence For America
Tim Gerrity: We may not always get what we want. We may not always get what we need. Just so’s we don’t get what we deserve!
–True Colors, 1991
Do you ever get the feeling we’re getting exactly what we deserve?
As the Crisis deepens, 13ers will feel little stake in the old order, little sense that their names and signatures are on the social contract. They will have reached full adult maturity without ever believing in either the American Dream or American exceptionalism. They will never have known a time when America felt good about itself, when its civic and cultural life didn’t seem to be decaying. From childhood into midlife, they will have always sensed that the nation’s core institutions mainly served the interests of people other than themselves. Not many of their classmates and friends will have built public-sector careers, apart from teaching and police work. Most 13ers will have oriented their lives around self-help networks of friends and other ersatz institutions that have nothing to do with government.
–Howe, Neil; Strauss, William (2009-01-16). The Fourth Turning
It’s easy for Americans in the 21st century to believe we deserve better. Some people say everyone deserves free education through college, free medical care, free food, free transportation, free contraceptives, even free tampons. Maybe “deserve” is the wrong word. “Right to” is what people actually say.
What if we don’t?
Let’s play a thought experiment.
What if you woke up tomorrow on a tropical island. It’s not tiny, but it’s not too big. You find lots of tropical plants and animals but no other people. You are alone on an island. All alone in paradise.
Being alone, you won’t find a doctor or a professor. No stores to shop. No contraceptives. And no one to use them with. You are alone with yourself and all of your natural rights.
Sure, there’s no one to talk to, no one to kiss, no one to love, no one to comfort you. But there’s also no one to boss, no one to bully, no one to enslave, no one to rob. Just you.
On this paradise island surrounded by food that you can harvest yourself, you feel completely in charge of yourself. Perhaps for the first time in your life. There are no license bureaus to visit, no security lines to wait in. You pay no taxes.
You have all of your rights. You have a right to an education, but you can’t force someone to teach you. You must teach yourself to survive on the island.
You have the right to shelter, but you probably have to build one yourself. Or build twenty if you want.
You have the right to health, but you have to treat yourself. (What do the animals do when they get injured? How do they heal themselves?)
You have the right to eat, but you have to harvest the food yourself. (What do the animals eat? How do they get it?)
You have the right to transportation: your legs. You may crawl if you wish. No one there to laugh.
You have everything you deserve: your freedom and total independence.
You probably wish someone were there with you, but company comes at a price, does it not?
One day, long after you’ve developed routines and practices to ensure your safety, nourishment, and maximum happiness under the circumstances, something catches your eye. Out on the ocean between the horizon and the shore, you spot an object. It’s large and different from anything you’ve seen since waking up on your island.
Over the next hour or two, the object appears bigger as it drifts closer to your island. Soon you see the thing is a raft of some sort. Yellow. Crowded onto the raft are seven people. Some begin waving, so they must have seen you. They drift closer and closer, and you can hear them shouting. You cant make out their words over the surf and the breeze, but you know they’re trying to talk to you.
In a moment, the raft reaches shallow water. You wade out to help bring the craft ashore. Finally, you are no longer alone. You have company.
Everyone on the raft speaks the same language you speak. One of the “rafters,” the word you use to describe these visitors, is a doctor. One is a professor. Another is a former legislator. The other four are a young family consisting of a carpenter, his wife (a receptionist), and their two children— one boy and one girl.
“How long have you been here?” the politician asks.
“Huh. I’m not sure,” you answer. “A couple years, I guess.”
“And you’re alone?” the doctor asks.
“As far as I know,” you say. “I’ve pretty much explored the whole island, and I’ve never found signs of other people.”
“How have you survived?” asks the professor.
You start to tell stories of your time on the island. How you panicked at first but then learned to live.
“I was so angry for a while. I thought I didn’t deserve this. I felt deprived and lonely. And, honestly, scared. I had no idea how to survive out here. But I realized I had to eat, so I taught myself how to gather coconuts and pineapples and a lot of berries and plants. I saw the animals and birds eating. I stay away from all the snakes and lizards because there’s no telling which ones are dangerous. I built shelters for myself around the island, so I’d never be caught out without protection. I figured out how to spearfish–there’s so many fish in the waters here, it’s easy.”
“How do you cook?” the doctor asked.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” the doctor continued. “You could get all kinds of parasites and bacteria from raw fish. You should know better.”
“We need to figure out a way to make fire,” the politician said. Then, turning to you, “Since you’ve been here for two years, I think you should figure that out. You know this island better than anyone.”
“I agree,” said the professor. “I can tell you what might work.”
“Okay, but I don’t really need fire,” you say. “I’ve survived without it for two years. If I knew how to do it, I’d have done it.”
“Well, we need some organization, then,” said the politician. “Why don’t we take a vote?”
They vote. The professor and the politician decide that only adults may vote. The carpenter and his wife abstain, but the doctor, the professor, and the politician vote that you are responsible for finding a way to make fire. They also decide that you must teach them which plants are edible and which are not and make a map of the island to find their way around.
In the next few days, the group makes a lot of other decisions, all by vote. Your days get busier and busier trying to fulfill all the obligations the rafters dumped on you. First, because you’re the most experienced, you gather most of the food. Next, you help the carpenter build shelters for the others. (The professor decided your existing shelters were inadequate.) Finally, the rafters form a government of which the former legislator is the head.
You work day after day gathering firewood, building materials, food, and freshwater. At the same time, the doctor, the professor, and the politician spend most of their days deciding new rules that mainly apply only to you and the carpenter’s family. You’ve grown close to his family. Like you, they mostly do whatever the council tells them.
“Why don’t you tell them to get lost?” the receptionist asks you one day after the council decided that you may not refer to the others as “rafters.”
The receptionist had been down on the council ever since it voted to make her two kids attend class six hours a day. She and her husband want the kids to learn practical skills for life on the island, but the professor and the politician insist they need to know other things that will prepare them for college.
“Well, they vote on everything, so how can I just say ‘no?'”
“They just made up this system. So, really, we’re all on our own. We don’t owe any allegiance to them,” she says.
Her husband says, “yeah, they really don’t do anything but tell us to make them comfortable. You work your butt off for them. What did you do before we got here?”
You think about this. What did you do?
You woke up whenever and caught a fish for the day’s protein. Ate berries and fruit. Explored the island. Experimented to find ways to make paper, ink, and clothes. Practiced animal and bird calls.
But since the rafters arrived, you never seem caught up. Fishing takes hours every morning, and some people don’t like all the varieties of fish. Then you and the carpenter haul water and remove waste from the little village. Then gather fruits and berries. Then mandatory school for a couple of hours in the afternoon. And village meetings. Then do it again.
You think back to the days before the rafters. You were free. You were alone, sure, but you felt whole. You appreciate the family, but the others, the experts, are really just mild slave masters. They do little work and make all the rules.
On Independence Day, remember that you had all your rights when you were alone on that island. No one grants you a new “right” without taking away someone’s freedom. You probably don’t want to benefit from slavery, do you?
America was founded on the idea that people create governments to serve them, not the other way around.