The imperative of individualism

Par George Jonas le 16 février 2011

When I was 10, a rusty mastiff followed me home from the playground. It accepted a dish of liver from my mother, then curled up in front of my bed. Whenever my parents approached, it raised its massive head and growled.

I felt flattered. The dog had a collar but no tag. “Can I keep it?” I asked my father.

“If that were a real question,” my father replied, “my answer might be yes. But you and I know that what you’re actually asking is: Will you, dear parents, keep a dog for me? Feed it, walk it, groom it, muzzle it? And the answer to that is no.”

Considering the rusty beast sucked down more liver at one sitting than my weekly allowance, Dad was probably right. Letting a child adopt a dog teaches responsibility, but parents adopting a dog for a child teaches only indulgence. Mostly Mastiff, as father dubbed the liver-guzzler, went to an acquaintance’s farm, where it soon distinguished itself by staring down a fox that was after a prize turkey cock. This act of bravery netted Mostly Mastiff many Brownie-points, only to lose them a week later when it gobbled down the gobbler it saved.

Father saw a lesson in this for me, as he did in most things. “Any dog sturdy enough to stare down a marauding fox is sturdy enough to eat a tom turkey,” he commented. I often thought of this in later years while observing the watchdogs of the state in action. Long before I heard the question “Who is guarding the guardians?” Mostly Mastiff had answered it for me.

Perhaps this is why President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural exhortation to Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” never inspired me. States doing things for individuals and individuals doing things for states seemed two sides of the same coin. A call for individual responsibility: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for yourself!” would have impressed me more.

Such a call would have cut against the grain of the times, though. People doing things for themselves were the last thing governments wanted. As the 1950s receded, modern welfare states started recognizing everywhere what a treasure irresponsible and dependent people were to them. Dysfunctional citizens were a master key in the hands of the official bureaucracy, the new ruling class. They could open every private door that the responsible and the independent had locked, turning a man’s house from a man’s castle into the government’s theme park.

In officialdom’s daily raids on personal sovereignty, in its oozing takeover of the individual, the irresponsible have become the battering ram of the state. They provide the excuse, the justification, the casus belli for government intrusion. We’re in a period in which dependence is patriotic, the role model is a snitch, and the ideal citizen a ward of the state.

Paradoxically, it’s the recreational world, the world of sports, the seemingly frivolous playing fields, that continue to foster a willing assumption of personal responsibility, along with daring, risk-taking and independence. If athletes, from parachutists to sumo wrestlers, share one principle, it’s that there are no excuses. Unless individuals pull their weight as competitors or members of the team, no one can (or should) pull it for them.

Nowadays, sports are almost alone in defining the concept of “fairness” accurately as one person having the same chance as every other. Competitive sports teach us to expect equality of opportunity, not equality of results. Virtually no other social arena does that anymore.

Sports come in two kinds, gladiatorial and athletic. Both require skill, endurance, and determination, but gladiatorial sports routinely involve mortal risk as well. In gladiatorial sports, failure doesn’t translate into the loss of points on a scoreboard but the loss of one’s life, at least potentially.

Skiers, mountaineers, speed contestants, and aviators are among those who engage in gladiatorial sports. Their performance is usually measured by a stopwatch rather than opinion, and their worst penalties are assessed not by a referee but by gravity. The laws of physics are unforgiving but fair. They consider no one’s gender or religion. Friction acts equally on the privileged and the dispossessed. Inertia has never heard about prejudice or affirmative action. This understanding often makes risk-takers highly responsible individuals, contrary to the stereotype cultivated by our risk-averse society.

Take seat belts. Responsible risk-takers had them installed in their cars long before anyone obliged them — I did in the early 1960s — but this didn’t make mandating seat-belt use less intrusive. Seat belts save lives that seat-belt laws demean. That’s simple enough — but it’s unfortunate that some people protest Big Nurse’s intrusion by choosing the worst of both worlds. They refuse to put on their seat belts — until they see a policeman.

Unwise. It’s not just cutting off your nose to spite your face but risking your life without making a point. A responsible civil libertarian keeps buckled up. The time to release oneself from the grip of the nanny-state is when a police officer pulls alongside. Do it then — the more ostentatiously, the better.


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