Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Bill Whittle on Responsibility

Bill Whittle writes an amazingly long-winded essay to make the simple point that the idea of personal responsibility has taken a beating lately. If you have the time it makes interesting reading. I agree with him to a certain extent. Certainly "political correctness" has been taken too far, and people need to learn to be less thin-skinned about things like "offensive speech."


Tale a look around you, wherever you are, and I will wager that what you see are not fields of prairie grass with herds of buffalo raising clouds of dust in the distance, nor virgin forests traced with pristine streams of sweet water, nor even fields of corn or wheat rippling in a gentle breeze. Most likely if you are reading this you spend most of your life in an office or a cubicle, or a car or a train, or a house or an apartment. And most likely these things were not built by you, but by large numbers of other people assembled into organized teams.

Why does this matter? Because Whittle's Utopian vision of rugged individualism and the swift certainty of frontier justice works a lot better on the frontier than it does in the inner city. Out on the frontier there is (or was) a wealth of natural resources that the rugged individual could exploit without offending his fellow man. Need shelter? Cut down a few trees. Need food? Shoot a buffalo.

But in the inner city if you try to cut down the trees (if there are any) you will be arrested, and there are no buffalo. There are very few options for the rugged individual to survive without offending someone because, except for so-called "public spaces", every last bit of it belongs to someone. In fact, in a typical American city you risk arrest simply by attempting to sleep in a space that you haven't paid for.

So I am all for accepting responsibility for one's actions, but that train runs both ways. We as a society have made certain decisions. We have decided to build cities. We have decided to allow companies to control vast tracts of farmland. Don't get me wrong, I think that the world is, on the whole, a better place for having made these decisions. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that these have been collective decisions, that these decisions have consequences, and that by Bill Whittle's own logic we therefore bear collective responsibility for those consequences.

One of the consequences of the corporatization and citification of our world is that it is now barely possible to survive as a rugged individual, and to thrive you have no choice but to submit to "the system" to a certain extent. The self-sustaining hunter-gatherer lifestyle is simply not an option in an overcrowded world.

Bill Whittle asks: "Who controls a nation of free individuals?" and answers, "No one." He's wrong. That might have been true in 1884, but in an overcrowded, industrialized nation of "free" individuals, who controls it is the people with money. The moneyed class didn't control people in 1884 because they had an option: stake your claim to five acres and mule and start farming. Today people dream of saving enough to put a down payment on a quarter acre.

Bill twists history in other ways too. He paints Democrats like Bill and Hillary Clinton as devils lusting after power, and tempting people by offering to relieve them of their responsibilities (and thus their freedoms). But it was not the Democrats who passed the greatest threat to our individual freedoms ever, the so-called "Patriot Act", it was the Republicans. (And they are mostly unrepentant. Donald Rumsfeld is currently on tour to tell everyone how wonderful the Patriot Act is, and that we need to imperil freedom even further in the name of security! To accuse Democrats of wanting to curtail individual freedoms to further their own power is to follow Joseph Goebbel's advice: repeat a lie often enough and people will start to believe it.)

Bill Whittle is right about one thing: with power comes responsibility. But he is utterly mistaken when he implies that this bargain runs only one way.

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