How Independent Am I?
That’s a good question to be asking yourself in this year in which we are celebrating our 200th anniversary of the independence of our country. If you are like most Americans today, you will have to admit that you are not very independent. You are free, in the sense that you have liberty to say pretty much what you want, to worship as you please, to move about freely, to own property, to have a fair trial, and so on. Independence, though, is something else. To be independent means that you have a basic liberty of existence. You are not tied to others when you are independent. You are able to support yourself, working with your own resources. The person who is truly independent will live well no matter what happens to the rest of society.
Total independence, of course, is almost never experienced by anybody. Even in primitive cultures, where people live by hunting animals and gathering wild foods, the individual depends on the family or tribe for support. But a small group of people can be independent, as long as they are content to use only food produced in their own area and things that they make themselves. I am not citing that as a desirable kind of life for anyone to aspire to, but only as a point of reference, a benchmark of our past independence as people.
Prior to 1776, when we were still a colony of England, our people were much more independent individually than you and I are now. America then was a country of small farmers, craftsmen working in their own shops, and storekeepers enjoying primarily local trade.
Few organizations of any kind existed in our society, and there was not even much communication or trade from one region to another. People made their own way. They built their own furniture and houses, produced much of their food, wove cloth for their clothes, and usually entertained themselves. Acts of God, like storms, drought, or fire, were a greater threat to their security than today’s people-caused problems like layoffs, business failures, inflation, and governmental corruption.
Now, by contrast, hardly any American does anything without leaning on hundreds of other people in some way. Even simple acts, when examined closely, reveal connecting threads leading to unexpected places. Consider picking your teeth. A couple of hundred years ago, gaps between molars were cleaned with a sliver pried from a convenient piece of firewood. The “tool” for the job was made on the spot by the user, at no cost. Today, toothpicks are items of commerce. You can choose between many types, plain or flavored, colored or natural, plastic or wood, and so forth. Toothpicks are made in factories, packaged, advertised, sanitized, and entered in the gross national product. Probably a thousand or more people are occupied doing dozens of jobs related to the toothpick trade.
Look at a more complex act, like eating a slice of bread, and the web of interdependence expands dramatically. Not far from where I live today is a small stream, the Little Lehigh, which was a center of grain milling during Revolutionary times. A dozen water-powered mills dotted its banks, grinding local wheat and corn into flour and meal. People who lived in this area then grew their own grain, or bought it locally. No power other than the falling water of the stream was needed to process it, and wood was used for cooking. Making bread then was simple—an almost personal act.
Today, bread flour is shipped here from the Middle West, where its production calls into play a stream of complex resources. Chemical plants in several states churn out the emulsifiers, preservatives, colors, and other additives used by modern bakers. Truckers living in at least 10 states are in some way involved with the supply of bread to the Lehigh Valley. So are advertising people in New York, economists in Washington, machine builders in Chicago, and plastics plant workers all over the place. Eating bread in America today is an act of faith in the smooth functioning of one of the most complex food-supply systems ever conceived.
I am not advocating that we turn back the clock. As much as anyone, I enjoy choosing just the kind of toothpick that works well for me. And you and I both know that the world has changed so much since 1776 that there’s no way we can feed everyone bread today with water-ground wheat.
There is plenty of value, though, in looking carefully at the state of personal independence (or lack of it) of the average American. Few people have done that in the past 200 years. The thrust of industry and government has been to develop the country in the fastest way possible regardless of the consequences. That has meant creating new products, building more homes and factories, improving transportation, and trying to keep as many people as possible employed. Those goals have been paramount, and few people have seemed to care that in achieving them we have tied ourselves together in a tight net of dependence. And even fewer people have dared to think about what effect this growing dependence is having on our national character. My opinion is that many of the social faults that we now see in ourselves are the result of the almost total elimination of personal independence as a quality of American life.