This week we celebrate Independence Day. It got me thinking about the various meanings of the word “independence.” In the context of the holiday, it commemorates the day that a group of British colonies in the eastern part of the North American continent declared independence from the British Empire and formed a new country. On July 4, 2008, here in Hawai‘i we are free to celebrate the occasion by setting off government-approved fireworks between the hours of noon and 9 p.m.
Our founding fathers clearly believed not only in national independence but also freedom and independence for the average citizen — exemplified by the first 10 amendments to the Constitution — the Bill of Rights.
In a complex society, there can be no such thing as absolute liberty. Noah could build an ark in his backyard but it is doubtful that anyone could do the same with a 747. For a society with a division of labor, we must give up a certain amount of freedom or independence. The question is how much? This starts with the 10 Commandments, proceeds to English Common Law, and then the 10 trillion laws, rules and regulations promulgated thus far by our various government entities. Is the average citizen of the U.S. more independent than the colonists in 1775? The answer is a loud and clear “No.” Do we have more personal freedom than our neighbors to the north or our cousins in the Antipodes (islands near New Zealand) who chose to remain part of the British Empire? I don’t know but it is probably pretty close. We started our country with the concept that anything was legal except those things specifically banned as being harmful to society in general and agreed to by the majority. This has become distorted to the point where everything is illegal unless specifically allowed or licensed by the government.
Those colonies became states and our nation grew. In 1861 a group of southern states, for a variety of reasons — not just the slavery issue — decided to secede from the union. The Confederate States of America were hammered into defeat and since then no state has raised the subject of secession. I don’t know if this was good or bad — but it certainly settled any doubt as to which government was in charge. The federal government collects far more in taxes than it needs and after skimming off a portion returns the money to the states as ‘grants’ with the lion’s share going to the most senior congressmen. The states have thus become dependent on this federal “largesse.” If a state tries to give its citizens freedoms not approved by the central government, the feds either go to court or cut off state funds as punishment. It is interesting that the federal government rarely intervenes when states limit freedoms.
There is another definition of personal independence. A newborn baby is completely dependent. The only thing it can do is suckle. As the child grows it gains more and more independence leading up to that coveted driving license. Teens are more or less independent and ultimately go on to find a niche in society where they can provide for themselves and their families. Along with independence goes responsibility. If you are free to do what you want, then you must provide something of value to society to earn your rewards. Unfortunately, our welfare state and “politically correct” ideologies such as affirmative action, apologies and reparations for supposed events that occurred decades or centuries ago have made it easy for people to shirk the responsibilities, remain dependent and enjoy it. We have become divided into two types of citizens — the givers (who support themselves and pay taxes) and the takers. Much more government largesse is spent on the takers.
I believe that Ayn Rand’s book “Atlas Shrugged” should be required reading for citizens and politicians alike. It is as relevant today as when it was written 60 years ago. Its basic premise is that the political elite bleed the givers to nurture (and get the votes of) the takers. One glaring example is the current congressional cry to tax oil company profits and reduce the salaries of its executives in the vain hope of lowering gas prices at the pump. Without the oil companies, there would be nothing in the pumps.
There is one more very important definition of independence. The human body only lasts so long. Modern science and medicine have advanced life expectancy to the point where most of us start breaking down piece by piece. It is like trying to keep an old car running. No sooner do you pay for a brake job than a head gasket blows. Repair that and the transmission is likely to go. Eventually it becomes obvious that it is time for a trade-in — there is no sense in throwing good money into an old body.
No, I don’t equate human life with an old jalopy. But the comparison is not totally absurd. Those of us who have been givers all of our lives, and rejoice in the fact that we have left the world a better place, do not want to be taken care of. I can only speak for myself — but conversations with others and the proliferation of advance directives leads me to believe I am not alone. When it becomes obvious that I will no longer be able to live independently I would prefer death with dignity rather than being parked in a nursing home, bathed, fed, and diapered, waiting to die. One of the greatest miscarriages of justice was when Dr. Jack Kevorkian was sentenced to jail rather than being given the Congressional Medal of Honor for raising an issue of so much importance to so many of us.
The New Hampshire state motto is attributed Gen. John Stark who made a toast “Live Free or Die; Death is not the Worst of Evils.”
It is becoming harder to do either as time goes on.
A happy Independence Day to all. With all her faults, The U.S. of A. is still the best country in the world and I am thankful that I live here.
• Stan Godes is a retired computer programmer who lives in Hanalei. He has been a resident of Kaua‘i for 17 years.