The “On Your Own” Economy
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The “On Your Own” Economy

by Don Watkins | March 09, 2012 | Forbes.com

“From cradle to grave.” So goes the motto of the entitlement state, whose creator Otto von Bismarck said: “Give the working-man the right to work as long as he is healthy, assure him care when he is sick, assure him maintenance when he is old.”

Are you bothered by the thought of government embedding itself in every aspect of your life? According to President Obama, the only alternative is “a government that tells the American people, you are on your own. If you get sick, you’re on your own. If you can’t afford college, you’re on your own. . . . That’s not the America I believe in.”

It is, however, the America the Founding Fathers believed in. What made America great was the fact that it was the first country in history where you were on your own.

Roll back the tape a few thousand years to when every element of life was controlled by the tribe. You could not live an independent existence, you could not choose your own ideas, your own values, your own destiny. You belonged to the group. The group, in turn, gave you a certain measure of protection: so long as you obeyed its commands, kept your place, and tended to its needs, you would get your scrap of food (if there was food to be had).

The story of freedom is the story of how the individual escaped from ownership by the tribe. As Ayn Rand once observed, “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.”

The Founding Fathers took a crucial leap forward in that process, declaring that the collective has no claim on you; that the government exists only to protect your right to live your own life, earn your own wealth, and seek your own happiness. Other people’s wants and needs are not your responsibility.

The corollary was that you and you alone were responsible for securing your own wants and needs. You were responsible for developing the knowledge, skills, and traits of character you needed to earn a living. You were responsible for saving to meet life’s unexpected twists and turns. You were responsible for educating your children. You could ask for help from other people — but you could not demand it as a right. You were on your own.

Did people shrink from the twin values of freedom and responsibility? On the contrary, the vast majority of Americans during the 18th and 19th centuries eagerly embraced life’s challenges and flourished under the new system. People didn’t flee from America, they fled to America. They came here poor, but ambitious — ready to carve out a life for themselves in a country that offered them the only thing they asked for: an open road.

Of course, Americans during this era were not “on their own” in the lone-wolf, asocial sense implied by Obama. Free Americans developed complex webs of association based on voluntary agreement. An unprecedented division of labor — capitalists, businessmen, and workers coming together to create wealth on an industrial scale — was a product of this newfound freedom.

Far from leaving people unable to afford life’s necessities, it was this system of voluntary cooperation that enabled the masses to afford modern luxuries — things like cars, microwaves, and air conditioning, which the wealthiest men of past eras did not own.

What Americans of yesteryear lacked was not voluntary cooperation and trade, but involuntary servitude (slavery being the glaring, deplorable exception). Starting at the end of the 19th century, however, the Progressive movement began replacing individual freedom, individual responsibility, and voluntary association with an entitlement society. They promised to keep the benefits of the industrial economy that capitalism had created, while replacing the freedom that made it possible with a modern form of tribalism. The group would take responsibility for us from cradle to grave, and we in turn would become servants of the group, burdened with responsibility for the lives of others.

The Progressives and their present-day descendants have largely succeeded at eroding freedom. But the inevitable consequence is an economy nowhere near as vibrant as before. In a free country, you would decide how to live, whom to deal with, what obligations to accept, what projects to undertake, what values to uphold. But in entitlement America, you are forced to pay for other people’s tonsillectomies, other people’s Women’s Studies degrees, other people’s retirements, other people’s business subsidies, other people’s bailouts.

Americans today face a choice: Do we want to be on our own — or continue as society’s servants?

About The Author

Don Watkins

Former Fellow (2006-2017), Ayn Rand Institute