A few paragraphs separated by nearly two centuries chart a downhill slalom from liberty to dependency. First, heres Ralph Waldo Emerson in Self-Reliance: The education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
Then, on October 26, ABC News: At a million-dollar San Francisco fundraiser today, President Obama warned his recession-battered supporters that if he loses the 2012 election it could herald a new, painful era of self-reliance in America. Actually, what the president said was this: in the event he was not reelected, If you lose your job youre on your own, if you get sick, youre on your own. It was the ABC writers and editors who took it upon themselves to introduce self-reliance as a pejorative.
The term was not always viewed that way, as Emersons lauding of self-sufficiency in his 1841 essay shows. The ensuing decade proved the value of Emersons economic and moral philosophy. Some examples:
None of these accomplishments would have been possible without the quality of individual autonomy. None of these history-makers was seeking a federal handout; none was looking for guarantees in the pursuit of unprecedented goals. In their slipstream would come a parade of individuals who owed their success to self-reliance—from Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh to John F. Kennedy, the Apollo astronauts, and those supremely independent garage-tinkerers, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. For them, as for most Americans, self-reliance was seen as a virtue, not a liability, a characteristic worth promoting, not denigrating.
In the new millennium, safety nets abound, from Social Security to unemployment insurance. But these entitlements are meant to reinforce individuality by giving U.S. citizens freedom from catastrophic financial worries. They are not meant to encourage the seeking of ever more handouts, ever more dependence on cash-strapped federal and state governments.
If the folks at ABC are ever to understand the country they fly over, they would be well advised to stop misreading speeches and get back to some basic American literature. They might start with the great Transcendentalist and abolitionist who knew all about the wicked dollar and how, left unchallenged, it could lead to economic and moral serfdom.
Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of Tough Without a Gun, a biography of Humphrey Bogart.