Emerson’s 1841 essay Self-Reliance is an iconic classic of American thought. In it he asserts, among other things, the importance of transcending mere conformity and false consistency. He urges us instead to follow our inner compass. His ideal has survived, at least for many Americans, for over 175 years. Of course self-reliance in some form is an important issue in all societies. But it is the individualist cultures of the West that place it front and center. And among those Western peoples none fetishize self-reliance more than Americans. This is undoubtedly a function of the American backstory. The quest for religious liberty that drew some of the earliest settlers. The quest for economic and political self-determination that helped spawn the republic. And of course the quest for radically different lives, crafted from whole cloth, that motivated millions of immigrants and wilderness pioneers. I would label Emerson’s concept as primarily “existential” self-reliance: that is, taking personal responsibility for one’s beliefs, values, life choices and goals. But there are also other versions, including the more mundane concept of “economic” self-reliance. That is, taking responsibility for making a living, and for coping with the practical details of life. People are self-reliant in this sense when they earn their own money and navigate related daily challenges on their own initiative. Self-reliance is closely tied to conceptions of liberty or freedom. As discussed by various scholars, this includes both “negative liberty”, or freedom from constraints imposed by others, and “positive liberty”, or having the capacity and resources to act upon one’s will. If you wish to buy something and the government allows it, you have negative liberty. If you also have money for and access to the product, you have positive liberty as well. Self-reliance bears crucially on the issue of social cohesion. Nowhere is this summed up more succinctly than in this famous quote from Bertrand Russel: “Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers: ossification through too much discipline and reverence for tradition, on the one hand; on the other hand, dissolution, or subjection to foreign conquest, through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes cooperation impossible.” In my view this is the central question of political philosophy. We must have society, we’re built for it. We must also have independence; we’re built even more decisively for that. The question is, how far can we move away from cooperation with others and still maintain society? Borrowing a metaphor from our cell phones, where do we set the switch on the social cohesion slider? In the U.S. leftists place their emphasis on existential self-reliance, on increasing both negative and positive liberty so persons can choose their own beliefs, values, and lifestyles. Conservatives, on the other hand, stress more economic self-reliance, recommending reductions in welfare, taxes, and business regulations. Libertarians (in Europe more often known as Liberals) emphasize both goals, although in the existential realm they countenance only negative liberty. Leftists and Conservatives tune the social cohesion slider in different ways. Leftists balance the divisiveness of non-traditional choices with the bonds of an economic safety net. Conservatives balance the constraints of tradition and religion with the freedom of the lone entrepreneur. And Libertarians? Admittedly, in their case there is not much balancing of the slider. It is set as far as feasible to the independence pole. This has led some, including the current author, to wonder if they flirt too much with the societal dissolution referenced by Russel. To add to the complexity, self-reliance as a concept is fraught with irony. It’s something most of us want, at least most of the time, and yet its very existence is impossible to demonstrate. What we find when we examine the social evidence is a web of interconnection, not the emptiness of isolation. No one ever relies solely on herself. Ever. But be careful when pointing this out. People are touchy about self-reliance. The phrase carries implications of courage, maturity, and tenacity. Those who are not self-reliant can be seen as cowardly, or childish, or lazy. Or perhaps all three. It is one of our most inflammatory moral issues. So here are the perils in our self-reliance wars: Most of us want this thing, yet it seems to be a myth. We all claim to know what it is, but in fact we use the term in very different ways, and we often don’t acknowledging those differences. Furthermore we are extremely sensitive on the subject, and bitterness frequently ensues. Finally, how much we attempt to promote this debatable, divisive thing is literally a matter of life and death. Too little and the society strangles on authority; too much and it dissolves in anomie. What could go wrong?