What is Self-Reliance?

This is something I struggle with. A few years ago, my father wrote about the virtue of self-reliance. On the other hand, in the modern world we’re more deeply interdependent than ever. Russ Roberts went so far as to say that “self-sufficiency is the road to poverty“, given that we’ve known since Adam Smith that the wealth of nations depends upon specialization and trade.

But my father is no atomic individualist, and I don’t think he has complete Robin Crusoe self-sufficiency in mind. So what can meaningfully be said about a virtue of self-reliance in a world and for a species as interdependent as ours?

He characterizes it like this:

Self-reliance equals adulthood, in politics but also in social and family life. Adulthood is a lonely condition, full of cares and responsibilities. We are not minors. The fantasy life of childhood, with its adorations and superstitions, has been transcended, left behind. Nor are we cowards or weaklings, begging for the protection of powerful parental figures. The burden of every action falls on us, whether at work, in the community, in the political arena, or even in the unmowed lawn. We are now adults — we are no longer free to turn our back on the unpleasantness of life.

The payoff? The payoff is the freedom to engage, and from that freedom flows all the dignity of the human race.

The self-reliant person works not for lust of money, but for a wealth of choices inaccessible to the idle. He loathes debt, and will pay off his credit card bill each month. He rebels against favor-currying, and would rather do without than go, hat in hand, to trade away his independence for a mess of potage. Whatever his moral and political convictions, he will not bend them to attract a panderer or appease a bully.

As I see it, self-reliance is not about dependency per se, but having a particular relationship with those on whom you depend in particular areas. You depend on your employer to make your living but you won’t let that stop you from doing what you think is right, in the office or elsewhere; you won’t let yourself be held hostage by the possibility of losing your job. In short, you take ownership of your own life and your own choices; you make your life your own. Your relationship to the external goods on which you rely has been internalized into the practice of living well.

Just as self-reliance isn’t self-sufficiency, it, like all virtues, isn’t sufficient on its own. The unity of virtues applies. My father listed self-reliance as just one of the “virtues of freedom” alongside public-mindedness, self-rule, and tolerance. Self-reliance without these isn’t virtuous, just as courage without prudence becomes mere recklessness.

I think that self-reliance can and should be a meaningful ideal even when we acknowledge the extent of our interdependence, and the extent to which our membership in various communities is an embodied part of who we are. Really, it only can become a meaningful and practical ideal once we take both of those things into consideration.

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