Monday, January 11, 2010

On My Own Dime

A friend of mine was taken back when I revealed to him that I strive to consume seasonal foods that are locally grown. Apparently he was surprised that someone who advocates such conservative policies could be so "progressive" in some of their personal practices. If we would have delved deeper into my consumer philosophy, he would have learned that I generally avoid shopping at large chains such as Walmart, instead directing my dollars towards smaller, independently owned businesses. I can understand how this may come off as strange to my readers, considering my staunch opposition to legislation, primarily sponsored by Alderman Joe Moore, to block the entry of Walmart into Chicago.

The answer to these seeming contradictions is found in my belief that I only have the right to be "progressive" on my own dime. Or more importantly, it originates in the strong reservations that I and many other libertarians have about limiting the freedom of choice of others. I may be willing and able to pay more to shop at a mom-and-pop shop, but I have no right to limit the freedom of poor and working class families who rely on the savings provided by big box chains. I would never choose to work for a large corporation, but what right do I have to infringe upon the freedom of others to make that choice? And I may choose to subsidize less competitive local farmers and producers with my purchases, but what right do I have to force other tax payers to do so?

Some may say if this approach is too individualist, after all we lives in a society of interconnected individuals and communities? Don't you want more people to engage in socially responsible behavior such as directing more of their resources towards the growers, manufacturer and entrepreneurs that live and work in their communities?"

My answer is "yes, I do, however a just state is one that seeks to minimize the extent to which it coerces its citizens and usurps the fruits of their labor." Real change must come through engaged and educated citizenry working for change within the context of a vibrant and free civil society. This might sound like a tall order, but look at how many individuals have freely joined and formed organizations, contributing their time and money to educate and inform their fellow citizens to take action about pressing social matters, such as combating pollution and working towards a cure for breast cancer.

By looking at the state as the primary engine to express care and compassion for our neighbors, we in effect become socially and morally disengaded from our fellow citizens. This helps explain why conservatives are more likely to contribute to charities that their liberal counterparts.( And this also explains why those who freely and directly fund charities and not-for-profits guard against waste and ineffectiveness, whereas most people are indifferent to the billions of dollars of other people's money that the federal government wastes in programs of questionable effectiveness.

In contrast to most of other societies, the free hand of civil society is almost always the engine of positive change, rather than the heavy hand of the state. Does this mean that the state should never seek to promote common welfare through (for example) mandating clean air and water standards? Of course not. It simply means that our first instinct should be to convince our fellow citizens, rather than coerce them, our first impulse should be to spend our dime in the pursuit of progress, rather than that of our neighbor. Evolution from below may be a slow and at times painful process, but the temptation of the "wise" to impose a revolution from above must be avoided, for it is antithetical to a free and democratic people and provides a poor foundation for "real change that we can believe in."

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