My brother, Curtis, has a new blog, which I just discovered this week. Those of you who know Curtis won't be surprised that he has a lot to say about certain things, mostly regarding topics philosophical and/or political. I love that he's begun writing these things down and putting them out there for quasi-public consumption. He and I differ on a lot of things, but that's what discourse is all about. Intelligent debate. Not these vitriolic spit-fests leading up to political primaries, or the partisan finger-pointing and name-calling which inevitably arise once the elections are over. I'm talking about thoughtful, reasoned discussion.
Today, I commented on Curtis's blog for the first time. It's really a response to several of his posts thus far, but I enjoyed writing it out, so I thought I would share it here for fun. (Also to encourage anyone who likes to read Libertarian treatises on modern society to visit pCoast Compelled .)
In Curtis's most recent post-- Thanksgiving. To who? --he makes the case for personal responsibility and congratulation. An excerpt:
Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and as usual we all have many things to be thankful for. After all that's what the coming holiday is all about. But, in light of the current legislative terrors plaguing our society... I have a suggestion. I think people ought to think carefully about what they're thankful for, but most importantly - who provided those things for them.
We did, as individuals, provide for ourselves our current circumstances... So thank yourself. If you did well in school, be grateful for having the courage to persevere. If you landed a good job or kept one, be deeply appreciative of your own hard work and level headed decision making skills that made that possible. If you bought a new car or made any life-changing purchase, be grateful for saving enough of your hard earned money to do so, or for having the backbone to set priorities and goals and follow them through while navigating the financial and legal processes. If you have a wonderful spouse, be thankful that you have chosen to be attractive to that person (of course you'll want to keep this thought on the DL).
My comment is as follows:
Wow. Well, first, thank you for spilling your optimism about the average individual human all over the interwebs.
As I read through these initial posts, I found an interesting pattern. You're writing to a certain subset of people, and that subset holds close to a rubric set by your own life experience and personality. On Thanksgiving morning, you'll be patting yourself on the back for choosing a job which pays you enough money to be able to buy a new home. And you'll be praising yourself in the mirror for taking care of your own health. And you'll be looking at your brainy, beautiful wife and thinking, "It's a good thing I've actively made myself funny and handsome and successful enough that she wants to be with me." All across America, there may well be similar people giving themselves similar affirmations, but the grave weakness of this fallacy is in its incompleteness.
Allow me to apply what I'm talking about to my own life first. There are plenty of good things in my life which are here in spite of me or my choices. For example:
It will never cease to amaze me that I have the choice not to have children. Until the 1960s, married women either had kids until their bodies gave out, or they stonewalled their own husbands to reduce the odds of conception. Worldwide, women had only one dependable option to limit their family size: abstinence. A close second was abortion, which was illegal and, therefore, not widely available or safe when it could be obtained. The invention of the birth control pill and the legislative victories which made it legal are two things I can take ZERO credit for, but which affect me every day of my privileged life.
I am also thankful for the existence of extraordinary people who do good things for the world and spend their lives selflessly in service to their fellow man. Malala Yousafzai is one. Nelson Mandela is another. I am thankful for public defenders, inner-city teachers, first responders. I am thankful for my friend Jeremy, who pulled an unconscious woman from her burning vehicle and dragged her to safety. And for victims' rights advocates. And for people who pay for the coffee of the person behind them in line at Starbucks. And for whoever gave the homeless man on my street a new blanket and shoes last week. These people are empowered and making their own choices, and what they do has no direct effect on me whatsoever, but I am grateful to them. Humbled by them. Hopeful that there will always be people like that, because--on my worst days--I might need one of them, and--on my best days--I might be one of them.
You are dying to believe you earned all the good stuff in your life. But you didn't. Some of it comes from the people around you who cared for you and believed in you through the thick and the thin of your twenty-seven years on this planet. Some of it is just dumb luck. The latter is why I so often find myself thinking, There but for the...
You say : "I've even heard people say that they're thankful for being born in America, which is a nice sentiment, but this is an entirely lucky event which cannot be logically credited to anyone without giving credit to everyone throughout all of history. "
There's nothing wrong with being thankful for chance, for those times when the chips fall your way even if they don't have to. A majority of the global population have precisely none of the things you listed which you find worth being thankful for. This majority is lucky if they eat today. Lucky if they aren't raped in front of their children by enemy soldiers. Lucky if they aren't infected with HIV from the moment they're born. Lucky if they ever learn to spell anything beyond their own names. And in countries like the DRC or India or Colombia or Iran or China, this rarely has anything to do with a person's individual choices. You and I are not in the majority. Easy lives full of good choices and the wealth reaped thereafter are rare.
To discount the necessity of luck in our current situations is to blame everyone else who is less lucky for their illness, illiteracy, dogmatism, prejudice, high infant mortality rates, hunger, and inaccurate history books.
Well, that's the way the cookie crumbled. Better luck next time, Haitians!
I think it's admirable that you take the time to think about your circumstances and how you arrived there, that you take the time to develop a comprehensive life philosophy to stand as the foundation for your approach to the daily grind. But make no mistake, you are writing to people like you. Preaching to the proverbial choir.
People who could, if required, pay for the tolls on privately-constructed and monitored roads in order to reach a grocery store or a friend's house or a hospital. But what about those who couldn't? What you describe is no utopia. It's just survival of the fittest. Underlying everything you have written here--behind the bootstrapping, back-slapping Manifest Destiny-ness of your belief in individual responsibility and empowerment--is a selfishness which could and would scuttle society at large because it sacrifices compassion.
If you follow your ideas about personal responsibility and need-based trade and a supply-and-demand-style approach to infrastructure to their logical conclusion, there WILL be people who can't hack it. People who, due to illness or disability or even laziness, can't grow their own food or work in service to earn money to buy what they need. Who can't take care of themselves, and don't have anyone else there to care for them.
Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? If they're going to die, they'd better do it and decrease the surplus population.
And in such a society, no one is immune. Remember: A single disease diagnosis or a single debilitating accident can render irrelevant every good "choice" you've ever made.
Striving for independence is a good thing. Making sound, reasoned choices with an eye on the future and your personal priorities is a good thing. And it's nice to know that you have such a high self-esteem. I simply urge you to be wary of the tunnel vision which can develop around these ambitions and your proposed self-congratulatory cycle. For every one of you (or me), born in a time and place which allows for every other choice we've made since then, there are ten thousand less lucky. And the converse of taking credit is taking blame.