There s a tee shirt that seems to be popular at some political rallies emblazoned with the defiant message: “You don’t own anybody anything.” The message is apparently popular as a riposte to the welfare state, fueled by the perception that unwed mothers shooting heroin suck up most government money-not primarily middle class entitlements such as Medicare or Social Security and middle class oriented tax breaks such as the sacrosanct tax deductions for mortgage interest. It is also very American–a defiant individualism suspicious of the government and wary of any social obligation other than those we choose to accept. Unfortunately, it is also not true. All of us owe others more than we could ever possibly repay-from our parents to all the generations that preceded us who struggled to make a world that is immeasurably more comfortable for us than it was for almost all of them. We also owe a huge debt to all those people who steadily work at all those jobs we don’t typically want, from the barista who gives you that coffee you need to jump start your heart at 7 am, to the janitor who makes sure your office is clean, to the EMT who will try to revive you when you collapse from the strain of being the center of the universe.
Of course, recognizing this debt doesn’t mean you owe your spendthrift sibling a loan for his down payment on a house, nor does it mean you should expect that the world owes you anything. The happiest and sanest people are probably those who recognize their debt to others but don’t expect the same recognition cast back on themselves.
A society where most people actually believed and lived out the philosophy summarized on that tee-shirt would not survive for very long, even with countless aircraft carriers, drone aircraft, walls at the borders, endless security lines at airports, and intrusive surveillance of our personal lives. In this society anomie (rootlessness ) would be the rule, not autonomy or a genuine independence. A society where anomie prevailed would be one with a high degree of distrust among its members, fragmented social bonds, and large numbers of individuals only marginally attached to the whole, with some of these lost souls convinced that they have the right to their own rage and to whatever means they choose to express it. If some of this description seems to fit the world we live in, that similarity is a sign of how far we have already gone down this road into a very dark forest.
Autonomy is the opposite of anomie. It arises from shared values, respect for others, and a self-respect based on an awareness of our own limitations and our obligations to others, even those we don’t especially like. Autonomy is almost certainly necessary for any democracy to function in the long run. The unease some of us feel about the future of democracy is in part a result of our suspicion that anomie is creeping into almost all corners of American life precisely at a time when what is needed will be a common effort to rebuild and improve our inadequate infrastructure (if you don’t believe me, try driving on I-95 on a weekend in the summer), confront climate change, and figure out how different races, ethnicities , and religions can live together peacefully and productively. These areas may seem removed from this blog’s main theme of micromanagement at work and the consequent loss of autonomy in the workplace, but autonomy doesn’t start or end when we punch in the clock. More on this matter later.