Vermont Values: Self - Reliance and Freedom

The traditional image of Vermont has at it's core the idea of a rugged, taciturn, and free people who work hard and can take care of themselves, whatever the circumstances. This was perhaps best epitomized by the perhaps apocryphal story of Governor Weeks who declared that Vermont didn't need any federal assistance after the devastating floods of 1927.

This romanticized image strikes a chord in us because it addresses a core value: that the basis of human dignity and self-worth is rooted in self-reliance - the ability to provide for ones self, family, and community.

In today's world, skills are more specialized. Most of us are not going to grow our own food or build our own houses, but the concept of self-reliance is still important. There is deep satisfaction and value in being a productive member of society - being able to meet your needs and improve your life by applying your skills, knowledge, and willingness to work hard.

Freedom is the ability to make meaningful choices about how to live, work, and play - how and where to spend your time, effort, and resources. Freedom makes moral behavior meaningful. 'Study hard, work hard, eat your vegetables, and save your money, be faithful to your spouse' - these behaviors are virtuous if we have the opportunity to do otherwise. If a choice is meaningful, that means that there are real consequences. In some cases the payoff might be spiritual - the satisfaction of having done the right thing. However, it's important to have more tangible consequences as well. If a teenager studies hard and goes to college, that should improve their chances of getting a rewarding job or starting a successful business.

While some restrictions are necessary for the good of society, every restriction diminishes our freedom. Our country is justifiably proud of the freedoms enjoyed by it's citizens. Our founding fathers took great pains to limit the ability of government to intrude in our lives or limit our choices.

There is a troubling trend in political thought that goes something like this:

  1. Everyone needs such-and-such (prescription drugs, child care, retirement income, health care...).
  2. Since people need it, they have a right to it.
  3. The government should provide it.

Even under the best of circumstances, this approach has the effect of making recipients dependent on the government rather than being able to take care of themselves.

In the case of retirement income, the government takes more than ten percent of your compensation in exchange for the promise to provide you with social security. If you have a better idea of how you could provide for yourself with that portion of your income, it doesn't matter - you do not have that choice. Your ability to be self-reliant is diminished, as is any freedom to make meaningful choices about how to spend that portion of your compensation. Of course, you still have the rest of your income to work with, but every similar program diminishes your options a little more.

After retirement, you are at the mercy of the government. If you think the amount you receive is unfair, you are essentially reduced to begging the government for a bigger piece of the pie.

Underlying this is a blend of condescension and arrogance: You clearly cannot be trusted to take care of yourself, so the government will take your money to ensure you don't do something foolish with it.