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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Wealth

Opinion | December 10, 2012

In light of Mitt Romney’s recent loss in the presidential election, the Republican Party has a unique opportunity to reexamine its principles of freedom from the government in search of a reformed identity. Republicans, along with many non-conservative Americans, pride themselves on the groundbreaking principles of self-reliance, independence, and liberty. These widely held philosophies can be traced to America’s early thinkers, such as transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet, perhaps out of a lack of awareness or interest in the complete arguments of these philosophers, Americans frequently connect self-reliance with the (greedy) pursuit of wealth.

This common association, however, has influenced this nation’s unilateral foreign policy that continues under the pretext of democracy. While an ethos of freedom permeates our culture, we, like Emerson, must ask ourselves an important question: to what extent are we securing our own self-reliance and liberty by removing the liberties of others?

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Even the name puts some Americans to sleep. However, it should also stir up patriotic pride. Regardless of Emerson’s appeal—or lack thereof—his ideas about independence have found themselves firmly grounded in the mentalities of most Americans. In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson urges Americans to “trust thyself, trust thy emotions,” and refrain from conformity. He argues that humans have the right to pursue their own happiness, freely question authority, and express their individualism. Whether or not we are intellectually interested in Emerson, or even know who he was, does not change the fact that we widely praise and regard these philosophies of self-determination as distinctly American. Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, and many other political groups use their respective understandings of self-reliance to outline their defining political platforms.

For over two centuries, Americans across the political spectrum have fervently maintained their respective ideas of self-reliance. Prominent Republican leaders, like recent presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have controversially argued that many Americans—especially the 47% that Romney claimed would vote for President Obama no matter what—are too dependent on government aid programs. These Americans, Romney asserts, “believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” This dependency, in his belief, undermines self-reliance and individualistic ambitions for financial success, a hard work ethic, and self-sufficiency. Although many Republicans, like Scott Brown and later Romney himself, regretted the offensive implications of the comment, most conservatives consider a high economic dependence on the government to be counterproductive to financial self-reliance.

In some regard, this conservative belief is analogous with transcendentalist principles of government protection. Emerson argues that, “The reliance on property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance.” He argues that this dependency on material possessions falls short of true self-reliance. On the surface, his theory of government’s role is similar to that of conservatives. Ronald Reagan expressed the conservative spirit against large government when he asserted that, “Every time the government is forced to act [rescue Americans financially], we lose something in self-reliance, character, and initiative.” From a conservative standpoint, excessive dependence on the government for financial protection embodies a failure of self-reliance. Therefore, this particular conservative belief seems to parallel Emerson’s idea of independence and self-determination.

However, the difference between the transcendentalists and modern conservatives, in this regard, is that these particular conservative ideals focus heavily on monetary prosperity. To many conservatives, money and self-reliance are connected at the hip. For example, Romney’s comments on self-reliance imply the importance of the pursuit of wealth while still criticizing a dominant government role. His claims center on the fact that Americans who are financially more dependent on the government are failing to make money independently as self-reliant individuals. Like most conservatives, Mitt Romney values an American dream that centers on amassing wealth through individualistic concepts of hard work.

Conservatives, in particular, tie self-reliance to economic liberty. Yet, the discrepancy in their principles becomes apparent when examining their concepts of individual liberty. Conservatives value commercial freedom for large businesses, while they seek to limit social liberties, such as the right for homosexuals to receive marriage contracts. This heavy concern with financial prosperity directly translates into American foreign policy. While many liberal strategies are often equally obsessed with wealth, it seems that conservatives consistently pursue a foreign policy of securing economically valuable assets.

Finally, a primary economic resource that influences conservative foreign policy is oil. According to the Washington Post, in 2007, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan stated that, “The Iraq war is largely about oil.” Greenspan, who served as President George W. Bush’s primary economic advisor, clarified that he had “never heard them [Bush and former vice-President Dick Cheney] basically say, ‘We’ve got to protect the oil supplies of the world,’ but that would have been my motive.” President Bush’s public justification for invading Iraq was that President Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear arsenals – a threat to democracy in the region. However, evidence of the development of these weapons was never discovered. This sobering realization, along with Greenspan’s confession, suggests that financial motivations largely inspired the American invasion of Iraq. According to the released government intelligence from WikiLeaks, between 2003 and 2009, the war resulted in a total of 109,032 deaths, 66,000 of which were civilian. The destructive human toll of our materialistic-driven actions proposes that perhaps Americans should reflect upon, learn about, and fully understand the seemingly boring transcendentalist philosophies.

In considering the importance of America’s early transcendental thinkers, perhaps conservatives, along with many other Americans, can adopt a less destructive and material-obsessed concept of progress. For years, we have chosen the pursuit of wealth over a more transcendental self-reliance. Although these visions may never actualize in the conservative mentality, it provides a sobering perspective of the unilateral nature of a nation that prides itself on equality, liberty, and a material-obsessed self-reliance. Nevertheless, the Grand Old Party now has an exceptional opportunity to break the cycle and restructure an identity that, for centuries, has revolved around the pursuit of wealth .