Self-reliance matters

Doug Wilson
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Posted: Mar 10, 2006 12:06 AM

Remember the satisfaction of receiving your first paycheck? I know I do. My first job was as a construction worker, and I’ll never forget depositing that hard-earned cash in my very own bank account. I was 15 years old, and I was becoming self-reliant. 

Self-reliance is a distinctly American virtue. It is why we feel proud when we put knowledge and skill in motion to provide for ourselves and our families. Self-reliance is also one of the cornerstones of my new book, Getting America Right: The True Conservative Values Our Nation Needs Today.

Conservatives often talk of the need to reduce the size of government, and we are right to do so. The realities of 21st-century government, however, are such that we must first reduce the demand for government before we can truly begin limiting its size and scope.

For example, consider a recent story out of Connecticut. A Bridgeport city councilman has proposed a new law that would require all public bathrooms to have a coat hook. Why? Because, he says, no one should be forced to put their belongings on the floor of a public bathroom.

Mandatory coat hooks? Do they need to be brass or silver? Give me a b-r-e a-k!

Maybe the citizens of Bridgeport will channel their rugged New England individualism and revolt against this foolish proposal. More likely, however, is a chorus of ‘Yeah, that sounds right. Government should do that.’

As conservatives, we are tasked with changing this mentality.

It all starts with individuals. But there’s more to it than a few throw-away lines about personal responsibility in a State of the Union address or some meaningless congressional declaration. Rather, it’s about implementing real government policies that facilitate and develop self-reliance.

Thankfully, American history provides numerous examples of government done good. Let’s consider two examples cited in Getting America Right that were both remarkably effective in utilizing government authority to cultivate self-reliance in America:

First, the Homestead Act of 1862, which invited any U.S. resident aged twenty-one or older to become a then vitally needed farmer at government expense. The applicant paid a mere $18 in filing fees for the opportunity to take over 160 acres of public land and farm it for five years. At that point, if the neighbors vouched for his or her success, the applicant kept the farm permanently as private property.

This transfer of authority from government to individuals led to the privatization of more than 270 million acres of public land. Thousands of citizens reaped the benefits—and fulfilled the responsibilities—of ownership. They were invested; America was theirs—and they had the prized patent certificate to prove it.

Our second example of admirable legislation that promotes self-reliance is the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. 

The bill was initiated by conservative Republicans to replace the failed social program known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The new program—Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)—aimed to get poor parents off welfare and into paying jobs, thereby reducing child poverty and combating illegitimacy.

The results speak for themselves.

Since 1996, the poverty rate has dropped by about 1.3 percentage points; some 1.8 million fewer children live in poverty; hunger among all children is down by over 50 percent; and welfare caseloads have decreased by more than half.

Why, you might ask, was TANF so effective?

Because it made welfare a two-way street between society as a whole and its individual members. No longer a perpetual handout, the program strived to temporarily help the down and out get back on their feet—and off the government dole.

In short, TANF prepared individuals with hope for a self-reliant future.

The triumphs of the Homestead Act and TANF, however, occurred in the past. Question: What is now America’s single best opportunity to match those classics of positive government action?

Answer: fixing Social Security to allow people to control how they wish to live in retirement. No other government action could equal this one in benefiting so many Americans.

Social Security as we know it is headed for a crash and burn, presenting us with an enormous opportunity to recreate it as a liberating system for individual autonomy in the mold of the Homestead Act and TANF—what it should have been all along.

Congress should enact market-based Social Security reforms, such as personal savings accounts to help develop future generations of self-reliant Americans who can manage their own money and retirement planning with minimal help from the government.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Self-reliance is more than a single policy reform, no matter how big. Rather, as Getting America Right argues, it’s a mentality, a way of life, a return to the virtue that defines our proud past.