A false self-reliance

Republicans have long presented themselves as the authentic champions of individualism and the American Dream. That posture is essential to Paul Ryan's appeal among conservatives. He's Mr. Self-Reliance, eager to wean the masses from the big government teat, freeing us to become truly prosperous. The Titantic American Self is not dead, Mr. Ryan wants us know. We are a nation of brawny individualists, and he is one of them.

Unlike Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan doesn't come from the super-rich. He's a kid from Janesville, Wis., who worked at McDonald's. He grew up from age 16 without a father, went to Washington to work as a lowly intern and shot up through the ranks to become, in Mr. Romney's phrase, "an intellectual leader" of the GOP. His biography, roughly sketched as it may be, appears to underscore the creed of self-reliance that Mr. Ryan's politics claim to promote.

His budget plan would shrink the federal government and lower taxes, mostly for the wealthy. Criticism of the Ryan budget has focused attention on its potential impact on social entitlement programs and the middle class. These attacks are often steeped in mathematical detail; they are valuable to the debate but fail to substantially blunt the emotional appeal at the heart of the broader conservative argument.

Mr. Ryan, speaking recently as Mr. Romney's newly tapped running mate, made the pitch this way: "America is more than just a place. America is an idea. It's the only country founded on an idea. Our rights come from nature and from God, not from government. That's who we are. That's how we built this country."

This was a successful applause line for Mr. Ryan; be prepared to hear it again. The GOP ticket contends that our national identity is under attack. The left wants to sabotage American individualism by burdening us with an ineffective and expensive welfare state, and we need Republicans in office to unleash the true potential of our free-enterprise system.

This argument has long found receptive ears among some voters because it's patriotic and hopeful about the country's genuine character. Inherent in the argument, however, is a belittling understanding of individualism and, in particular, the Emersonian ideal of self-reliance.

Progressives aren't likely to find much in the way of lucid talking points in Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance," but they will find there a refutation of the Republican claim on our heritage of individualism.

The essay famously presents a vision of the self that is capacious and in communion with divine wisdom. "What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?" he asks. "The inquiry leads us to that source at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. … In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin."

The goal of Emersonian self-reliance is not material gain but metaphysical insight and a heightened moral consciousness. Undue concern with wealth is an obstacle that Emerson warns against. "And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance," he writes.

A libertarian might cheer Emerson's knock on government, but the writer's primary point here is to diminish the value of property and exhort readers to spurn worldly affairs altogether in favor of cultivating a rich inner life. He concludes: "A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."

A true champion of this spiritual brand of self-reliance would not wed himself to a political orthodoxy the aim of which is to make the rich richer in a strictly material sense. The Romney-Ryan agenda to shrink government is based upon an unshakeable faith not in the transcendent individual but in the machinery of markets.

Mr. Romney, Mr. Ryan and their ilk are believers in market-based efficiencies and solutions, which, in this age of gargantuan multinationals, are detrimental to individualism, for they privilege profits over moral conscience, systems over people, corporate well-being over individual happiness.

In the 1990s, the Republican Party asserted itself as the defender of Christian values. The Democrats all but forfeited the argument, allowing their opponents to characterize them as unacceptable to many voters on moral grounds. Liberalism largely became the province of secular thinkers, while the GOP commandeered the pulpit. Impressively, Republicans accomplished this marketing coup despite their determination to curtail government programs devoted to helping the poor.

Progressives now appear too willing to cede the mantle of individualism to conservatives. Candidates on the left should speak more forcefully about individual liberty. Why do Democrats aspire to strengthen the safety net, extend educational opportunity and provide health care to all? President Barack Obama's answer is at times anemic.

Mr. Obama recently described the American Dream as a "bargain": "If you work hard, your work should be rewarded; if you act responsibly and put in enough effort, you should be able to find a job that pays the bills, have a home you can call your own, count on health care when you get sick, put away enough to retire with dignity and respect, and, most of all, give your kids an education that allows them to dream even bigger than you did and do even better than you did."

The language here is about what a person deserves, not what he can accomplish. Better to emphasize potential. The progressive agenda should be motivated not by the desire to provide but by the desire to liberate that which remains tied down by injustice.

In defending their priorities, progressives can steal the Republicans' thunder and extol the individual's capacity for greatness; they represent not those in need of a handout but a people determined to free themselves from the unjust constraints of scarcity and the demeaning limits of markets.

Paul Jaskunas teaches in the Humanistic Studies Department at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His email is pjaskunas@mica.edu.

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