It never fails but if I’m talking to someone, particularly someone who is or thinks she is older than me (this is not rare) and the conversation turns to politics, they say something like “oh, you’re for small government and negative liberties because you’re strong. You’ve never experienced weakness.”
The funny thing is that there is no point to my explaining, because they won’t believe me, but not only am I not strong, but I am unusually weak.
I was born severely premature — I fit in my dad’s size eleven shoe. Yes, that is my family: faced with a severely premature child they didn’t expect to live out the night, they could think of nothing better to but see if I fit dad’s shoe. The strange thing is that I’m one of two sf fans in the family — in an unheated stone house round about the Cuban missile crisis. Until I was 12, I spent more time bedridden than standing on my own two feet. You name it, I caught it, and I probably caught things that no one has caught since the middle ages and which, as they swept the village, never got a name because they were just “one of those things.”) I probably had the scrubbies, the gnats and the gurgling peas. (Part of this is that we lived in close intimacy with animals and with sewage both human and animal. As most humans have, for most of history.)
Granted, after 12 or so I didn’t get sick more than normal human beings, but I still have some deficits. Part of my fear of driving is that I know I have never been good at physical things. I can in fact screw up something that requires coordination and agility and which I’ve executed perfectly a million times simply by THINKING about it. And I think too much. I swear whoever put me together left out the instinct module. There are things everyone else seems to know that I have to reason through, painfully. And sometimes I get it better than other people seem to, and sometimes I screw it incalculably worse, and I can never TELL which.
Besides, to compensate for no longer being sickly, I decided I needed other kinds of handicaps, and so I got married abroad. Not only abroad, but in one of the few places in the world in which neither mom or dad can claim relatives. Sure, we now have a network, of sorts, but we’ve gone through vast portions of our life where if we (or we and the kids, later) died in our house, no one would ever find out. Dan’s employer might get upset, but I don’t know if they’d have looked. And the same for the kids school. Chances are that eventually the house would get foreclosed and the new owners would get a surprise.
That type of isolation has its own weaknesses built in. When the kids were little, this was mostly that there was no one to lend a hand. Not even just the big important things, but for the little “all the time things.” No matter what else was going on, kids needed to be taken care of, house needed to be at least minimally sanitary, food had to be put on the table. And I suspect this is what some of the people who have argued with me think is “strength” but it is not. It’s the direst weakness. I had no give, I had no margin, I had to keep going till I got sick, and then I had to keep going when I was sick, because people depended on me. My kids and my husband depended on me (these were mostly the early days when Dan was working often 16 hour days) to keep the house running in such a way they had food and a place to sleep and weren’t unduly disturbed. And my husband depended on me to write, because when we got married he gave up his music and took a job that would take a lot of his time, so I could write, because my money was our retirement. The only retirement we could hope for. (I’m hoping for it, still. I have hopes, now there’s Indie.) Because though both of us intend to die with our fingers on the keyboard, we know old age means more of what my childhood was like: there will be times we can’t earn our keep no matter how we try.
So I know weakness. And it is out of weakness that I believe government should be small, almost powerless, providing to individuals only that which needs coordination and cooperation of many: mutual defense, for instance. I believe each of government’s actions should be overseen, watched for potential violations of liberty and cut back if there is a shadow of a doubt over its unintended consequences.
Usually in this part of the discussion, I get accused of wanting widows and orphans to starve in the dark.
Which is not just not the point, but is entirely beside the point.
Look, humans are tribal and therefore we identify with the weak and the needy in our group. And our group can and sometimes does extend to all the world.
I think it’s no small part of the fact we are the dominant species in this world (after grass) and have conquered all types of habitats, that we DO look after the weak. As far back as we go we find skeletons with the marks of injuries and illnesses they could not have survived without everyone rallying around. Even some of our cousins, now extinct or absorbed, were like that. This is probably because cousin Gugr, who broke his arm and can’t throw the spear, can sit around the cave long enough till he figures a way to make fire, or perhaps to make a new type of spear, or perhaps — Human invention often comes out of enforced idleness, so such a scenario is at least plausible.
However, what we have to think about is two fold — charity is a wonderful thing. Looking after the poor and the weak is a great thing but — Who should do it? AND Should it be a right?
The who should do it is important. The so called “positive liberties” which our current president is very fond of include some doozies. I think — but someone can fill in here, since I only think so because I heard it from sympathizers — the Soviet Union guaranteed housing, food and a job. At least that’s the sort of thing proponents of positive liberties here wish to grant everyone. Oh, and health care, transportation and, for the more daring ones, the right to free entertainment.
We agree these are all lovely things. Things we would all like to have. H*ll if I didn’t spend half of my time worrying about money (I know, I know, but the boys will be out of college in two and a half years and off our payroll) imagine the art I could create. (More on this later.)
But who should do that? Who has the power to grant these “positive liberties?” The only entity large enough is a powerful government. In the US a federal government.
So a lot of people (including the current president) think that it is the duty of the government to do this. Because you’re not truly free if you don’t have a car to drive wherever you want, or a place to live, or–
But the key word here is not freedom. It’s liberty. And liberty for what? Life and the pursuit of happiness.
Let me back track: as beautiful as those ideas sound and as much as, as an idealistic 14 year old I’d have told you yes, yes, we need positive liberties, any adult who keeps on thinking they’re a bright idea is either not really an adult in mind, or is so thoroughly indoctrinated he never thought through the consequences.
When you say someone should have “housing and food, a car, entertainment, health care” you’re not saying that angels will come down from heaven and grant this. Or if you are, you really should tell us how to summon these angels. What you’re saying is “we should violate someone’s most basic and fundamental liberties so that someone else can be the equivalent of a trustfund baby with never a worry in the world.”
Whose liberties? Well, builders and farmers, entertainers and doctors. And while you might think those people can “give” you’re not thinking of scale. If “everyone” is entitled to this what you’re saying is that these people have to work so that other people can have everything for free even without doing anything.
And if you say this is just a safety net, for when people fall through all the rest, you’re still missing the point that somewhere along the line you’re taking people’s labor and people’s goods to give to others, and since no human institution was ever free of fraud, and since that type of giving creates INCENTIVES for fraud, what you’re doing is taking from those who work to give to those who choose not to. At which point I must ask, who died and made you god, precisely, that you would take from others their G-d given liberties, those that exist if no one violates them?
And if you make these things a “right” people WILL stop working (enough experiments with guaranteed minimum income show just that. People can live on very little indeed, provided they have to do nothing for it and there’s no stigma attached to living from it. Oh, they’ll agitate for more, and therefore empower the government to give more and more “rights” on the back of fewer and fewer people working until–
We have readers here who grew up in the Soviet Union. They can tell you how the end state of this is people doing less and less while demanding more and more, till everyone is living in dire poverty and bitching about deserving the stars.
But let’s leave aside the fact it doesn’t work on the macro-level: does it work on the micro-level.
Humans are scavengers. This means we are instinctually designed to bring down (or more likely initially find) mammoth and then sit around and eat till mammoth all gone or too rotten to eat. We’re not instinctually designed to run around killing more mammoth while we still have mammoth because animals that act that way deplete the food supply and starve.
I too have illusions. One of my favorite games when stressed over money, is to buy a lottery ticket and spend a few days fantasizing about what I would do with 100 million or whatever. And the first thing that comes to mind is “I’d write a lot.” I might even do it. I’m broken on the instinct front. But most people wouldn’t. It doesn’t matter whom we’re talking about, someone always says “Yeah, he wrote those novels when he was paying a mortgage/putting his kids through college/paying off his divorce” This is always and inevitably the writers’ best work.
Sure there are others, people of means who spent years perfecting the single, beautiful work they’re known for. But they’re not nearly as many.
In the end that’s the worst thing. Grant everyone “positive liberties” and you turn the country into a huge project. No, I mean Cabrini Green type project.
Humans who don’t have to strive, and who by virtue of the system, don’t have the hope of getting much better, turn to the old human pastimes: fornication, fighting and mind-altering substances. (Yes, I DID try to come up with an f. No caffeine yet.)
You see it in the very wealthy throughout history, that sort of enui and a kind of “active despair”, the feeling that life is meaningless, and the appearance of all the vices of mankind.
The end of it is the destruction of the human, himself. Humans are made to strive. Remove the strife and we become less than human. Apes, with too much time on our hands, and nothing to strive for. When cousin Gugr was lying about in the cave with a broken arm, if he invented a new spear or a better way to preserve mammoth meat, he did it because he was conscious that without him the tribe was vulnerable, and he must find a way to compensate.
If you have no one dependent on you, nothing that you absolutely need to do, no matter how you feel, at best you go through life doing nothing and being nothing. At worse, you find ways to introduce strife to your life.
I won’t say that I think we should eliminate all social programs. I don’t say it, because I don’t think it’s achievable. Though with winter coming and the mess in the world, who knows?
And no, I don’t mean I want widows and orphans to starve. I wouldn’t let any starve that came within my purview (and before you say something about the circles I move in, let me say you know nothing of them. We spend almost as much on charity as we do on taxes, and beside that we give and help with stuff that isn’t official charity. We’ve bought more computers of writers — sometimes with the money coming out of our food money — than I can count. Literally. If I try to count them I always forget some.) because it’s my duty as an able bodied human to look after other humans. Even when I’m weak there are those who are weaker than I and need me. Which keeps me from being too weak and therefore keeps me moving.
But I have no interest or need in supporting also a tribe of bureaucrats who eat the substance of that which would go to the poor. And I have no interest in making the poor and needy feel these are permanent conditions, that they’re entitled to all care, and that no one, ever, should have to strive. Because that’s denying them their essential humanity and the right to stand on their own two feet and find strength in their weakness.
Because I’m weak and because some days I’ve sat and wondered where the next meal was going to come from, I understand them perhaps better than most of the children of fortune addicted to “positive liberties.” Give a man everything he wants and needs, and you’ve just destroyed him. It would destroy me.
So because I’m weak, because I still have no idea what we’ll do for food or housing when we can no longer work, I say: leave us alone. Leave us our negative liberties, those we have without your interference. Don’t kill us, don’t imprison us, don’t take our stuff, allow us to struggle for what we want and need.
Because only then can we find strength.