Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

Losing Personal Independence

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Before World War II, income taxes were not withheld from paychecks.  Instead, citizens saved their money to pay taxes at the end of the year.  In 1944 E. B. White wrote an essay protesting the new practice of withholding tax from the paychecks of Americans.  He said, “It is bad because it implies that the individual is incapable of handling his own affairs.  The government as much as says: We know that, if left to your own devices, you will fritter away your worldly goods and tax day will catch you without cash.  Or it says: We’re not sure you’ll come clean in your return.”

He goes on, “This implication is an unhealthy thing to spread around, being contrary to the old American theory that the individual is a very competent little guy indeed.”

White’s piece demonstrates how America has changed.  His views on independence and self-reliance represented the thinking of most Americans at the time.  His thesis was in line with a long-standing tradition of American individualism and self-reliance going back beyond Emerson to the time of the founding fathers.  But his beliefs are far from mainstream thinking today.

White was a respected writer, an important contributor to and editor of the New Yorker magazine.  As late as 1963 White was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  But today anyone seriously taking a stand against income tax withholding would be ridiculed as a kook. Why?

What has happened in the country in those sixty-odd years since he wrote the essay?   If White’s thesis seems quaint or extreme, it is because of our willingness to accept the erosion of liberties.  We are more willing than White’s generation to trade personal independence for the security of a paternalistic government.     

Today, evidence all about us suggests that an increasing number of Americans are unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their lives.  A person spills hot coffee on herself and blames the coffee vendor for selling hot coffee.  A person kills her children and blames the crime on her own unhappy childhood.  In this way citizens may gain a certain kind of security, but it is a security bought with a loss of liberty.  Each time we show ourselves to be irresponsible, we invite the intervention of government. When we abuse our children or shift blame for our personal failures to forces outside ourselves, we are asking to be stripped of rights.  And there is no scarcity of governments, agencies, and politicians who are willing to take control of the lives of citizens.   

Advocates of big government always assume that citizens are incapable of looking after themselves.  Laws are being written and precedents are being set in law to accommodate this kind of irresponsibility.  Instead of holding individuals responsible for their actions, courts have started finding someone else to blame (typically some person or corporation with enough money to pay large fines).  The tobacco industry is said to be at fault when people choose to smoke themselves to death; the manufacturer of firearms is blamed when people misuse firearms.

What is being done to encourage responsibility? Not much.  Government has no inclination to make people self-reliant.  Politicians and bureaucrats have nothing to gain by fostering independence in citizens.  The founding fathers knew this very well.  The Bill of Rights that they incorporated as the first ten amendments to the Constitution are all restraints on the tendency of government to encroach on the rights of the people.

The prevailing view among sociologists and post-modernist philosophers is that the individual is typically incapable of taking responsibility for his own actions.  It may be true, but widespread acceptance of such a philosophy can paralyze a society.  It is a view that thwarts justice and is inconsistent with a functioning democracy.  How can individuals who are incapable of governing themselves govern others?

A better approach is to concur with E. B. White’s assumption that people are in control of themselves and are, therefore, responsible for their deeds.  Perhaps it is just an assumption, but it is one that appeals to our better nature.  Subscribing to that view in the past has inspired people to rise above their worst impulses.  After all, our nation’s independence was based on that same unproven assumption that people could govern themselves.

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Written by polemicscat

June 29, 2008 at 7:09 pm

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