Category Archives: Philosophy
I found a rock the other day. A shiny metallic piece of schist about the size of a travel bar of soap. It’s a beautiful specimen of its own accord, found as part of the mélange of rocks jumbled up in Alaska’s glacially-formed landscape. I decided to keep the rock as a small souvenir, a tactile memento of my first winter spent in interior Alaska. Amateur geologist that I am, I thought the schist would make an excellent addition to my rock and mineral collection.
You see, I am a collector. My rock collection is testament to this. Boxes and boxes of rocks I have picked up from places I have visited now sit begrudgingly in my parents’ basement. The finest specimens I keep on display in a little nook in their basement workroom, but without a permanent space yet to call my own, most of my treasures still wait in expectation for when they will once again see the light of day.
The rocks I collect are not only intrinsically beautiful, but they all have added meaning for where I was when I collected them. I am a collector—of things, yes, but also of experiences. Working as a dog musher north of the Arctic Circle is just the latest life experience I am collecting. Though I won’t need to hold the little piece of schist in my hand to remember my winter spent in Bettles, Alaska, it can serve as a conversation starter or as a token to trigger my memories of time spent here.
At the same time that I am adding to my ever-expanding rock collection, I am also living in a repurposed trailer that housed construction workers who built the trans-Alaskan pipeline. Some nights I theoretically sketch out in my head if I could imagine an entire home being placed in the 8’ by 14’ unit that makes up my apartment. Kitchen here, bathroom there, sleeping loft above. It’s an enthralling exercise, as I have a growing interest in tiny homes. Living in staff housing, as I typically do, I am accustomed to occupying smaller spaces, though none of them ever being a bona fide tiny home and none ever being a permanent residence either. Regardless, constantly moving into and out of staff housing for the past number of years has given me great practice in small living, as well as showing me how simple it can be to live out of a couple duffel bags in a small space for an extended period of time.
But sometimes I have to wonder to myself: can a collector of things live in a tiny house?
It seems like my desire for tiny house living might be at odds with my natural inclination as a collector. The tiny house philosophy, after all, is about living a life with fewer things in general. To live in a small space, you have to cut out what is non-essential. I’m afraid it may be that my rock collection, though exceedingly cherished, is fairly non-essential to my everyday life.
And yet though I contemplate tiny house living more and more, the older I get the more things I accumulate, and the more reluctant I am to dispose of the things which I have acquired. Though I believe myself to be in one of the lowest percentiles for possessions owned by a 30 year-old American, my various hobbies have resulted in quite a collection of things. In addition to my rock collection, I now own a wide assortment of backpacking and camping gear, snowshoes, cross-country skis, a canoe, and two bicycles. And that’s not to mention other things like the massive volumes of books that I have accumulated. If push came to shove, I believe, I could still fairly readily pack all my essentials into my hatchback with my canoe and bicycles strapped on the outside. As for now though, with ample storage space at my parents’ place, I don’t yet have to make the decision between being a collector and living in a tiny house.
But if I do at some point opt to try the tiny house lifestyle, it might come to the point where I must make the choice between having more things and living simply in a tiny home. As that potential day is still far down the road, I can only speculate what the outcome might be. Perhaps in ten years, my collection of rocks won’t seem as important to me as it does today. Perhaps I’ll somehow incorporate my rock collection into the build of my tiny house. Maybe I will still be a limited collector of things. Or maybe I’ll have to switch to just being a collector of life experiences instead.
Only time and future experience will tell if being a collector of things can be compatible with living in a tiny house. In the meantime, I’ll continue practicing the tiny house ethic of being mindfully intentional with the items I do decide to keep. Each item I decide to hold onto must serve some practical purpose or be imbued with some sort of special significance. With that in mind, I will be very intentional about the one souvenir rock I will ultimately bring home to my collection from Alaska.
In many European countries, particularly Northern and Eastern Europe, there is a modern culture and deep history of rambling around the countryside in uninhabited or pastoral lands, regardless of the ownership status of the land—whether privately or publicly held. This ability to freely roam and travel comes with an implied responsibility for the user; wanderers have an ethic to keep—to act courteously, to not disturb the land-owner, and to refrain from exploiting the land or its resources. The travelers have to leave no trace of their passing through, save for the beaten paths of the various travelways that develop along common routes. This freedom—this right to travel—provided a means for the landless commoners of European society to travel and recreate, and neither were landed classes excluded from such benefits of access. The freedom to travel dates back to antiquity as a right of the masses. It survived medieval feudalism, it endured the changes wrought by the industrial revolution, and it thrives today in modern European societies. Known by various different names in their home countries, the common translation for this freedom is the ‘Everyman’s Right.’ Alternatively known as the ‘right to roam’ or the ‘right of public access to the wilderness,’ the Everyman’s right provides every man (as well as every woman) the right to free movement on lands and waters for leisure or recreation.
The European land model of access (or sometimes in-access) developed based on feudalism and the lands known as the commons. In the feudal system, feudal peasants—i.e., the commoners—had property rights to small plots of land only when they were actively being cultivated. Once the crops had been harvested, the land reverted to being part of the commons. In general, the commons were lands that were commonly held by the people, and could thus be exploited by anyone for subsistence or for economic gain. Commoners could graze livestock or harvest plant resources from such common land within established feudal limits, just as well they could freely travel and recreate on such land. However, starting in England in the 15th century, manorial lords sought to increase their harvest of crops and thus began a practice of enclosure, whereby common lands were enclosed by hedgerows (primitive-day fencing) as a means of keeping the common benefits to themselves permanently. The act of enclosure removed the commoners’ access to benefit from the land resources economically, as well as creating a physical barrier for public access. Land enclosure progressed steadily in England until the late 1800’s when the start of the industrial revolution provided a momentum-boost for enclosure; just like the mindset of the industrial revolution, latter-day enclosure was commenced to create greater agricultural efficiency in production. The practice of enclosure eventually spread to continental Europe as well, and by the end of the industrial revolution, most enclosure on the continent—particularly Germany, France, and Denmark—was complete. The commoners of Europe found themselves displaced from the rural landscape and largely forced to migrate to large cities to work in the centers of industry. Though enclosure forced the end of commoners being able to benefit economically from common land, the practice of traveling through common land was retained as it was historically as a right to free movement. In modern Europe today, since the rise of the leisure class has given ample recreation time to the masses, the right to roam underpins the concept of using privately held lands for personal recreation. Though historically a de facto right, the Everyman’s right has only recently been formally legalized as a wave of European countries codified this practice into protected law, starting with the Nordic countries in the 1950’s and more recently with countries in the United Kingdom in the 1990’s and 2000’s.
I have never been to Europe. I have never gotten to practice the Everyman’s Right as it is the culture on that continent. Instead, I live in America where a different land access model developed. Unlike Europe, where residents lived since antiquity off the commons until the commons were enclosed, most American lands were systematically surveyed, partitioned, and essentially given away for free to private citizenry by a strong federal government all for the sake of rapidly settling this expansive country. And the land seemed inexhaustible in the early days of our nation. The outlook at this time by these Euro-american settlers and their government was that these lands were empty and owned by no one, free for the taking for whoever could claim and settle them (never mind the cruel fate of history where indigenous peoples were forced from their ancestral lands, often violently). Private property ownership was a draw for those European immigrants, displaced by the land reforms in the industrial revolution, who wanted land of their own and could find it plentifully in this country. And unlike Europe, where the commoner’s right to travel across land was respected, private property in America developed with the right—indeed the expectation—to exclude others from accessing their privately held lands.
It was not until some visionary leaders around the turn of the 20th century decided that America should hold back some of its lands from settlement to instead be held in the public trust for the good of the people. The influential works of these leaders included the environmental prophecy of John Muir, the scientific land management principles of Gifford Pinchot, and the political resolve of Teddy Roosevelt. John Muir, perhaps America’s greatest wandering vagabond, had a philosophy about land access that reflected his wanderlust-filled Scottish heritage and his first eleven years of life spent in Scotland; Muir’s penchant for free travel would be the underpinnings of his advocacy for recreational travel on wild lands. Political figures like Roosevelt and Pinchot worked to create the Forest Reserve act of 1891, which gave the president sweeping power to set aside vast swaths of public domain lands as forest reserves, and the Antiquities Act of 1906 which granted the president power to preserve public lands deemed as significant archaeological or public resources. These reserved lands would later become our national parks and national forests, the crown jewels of our public land system. As of today, approximately 27.4% of the United States land area is owned by the federal government, primarily administered by four large land management agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; many other agencies also manage smaller parcels of public land. These lands are held in the public trust for the “greatest good for the greatest number for the greatest time (Gifford Pinchot).” When Pinchot uttered those words, however, his intent was for the economic good of the people based on conservative resource extraction. Recreation on public lands as a good in and of itself, and as a governmental priority would not develop in earnest until post-WWII.
As landlord, the federal government makes the laws and regulations pertaining to the use and access of public lands. The vast majority of these lands are open to the public for travel and recreation with few exceptions (see text in the above graphic); the public is free to use and enjoy these public domain lands usually free of charge, or sometimes with a small fee to cover land management costs. As an American proud of the natural heritage of my country and in admiration of the earlier efforts of the heroes to preserve it for the perpetuity of the generations, I look at my nation as a shining example of preserving lands for public use. I am proud at how over a quarter of my country’s area is protected for the good of the people.
But as proud as I am of America’s public land resources and as much as I have enjoyed them first-hand, there is a great and obvious disparity in geography. While more than 27% of America lies in the public domain*, 96% of this land area lies in Alaska and the 11 western states. That means that just four percent of federal lands are shared among the remaining 38 states. This includes states like Connecticut and Iowa where only 0.3% of the state’s land area falls under the purview of the federal government, and thus free public access is limited to those small holdings of land. And, even though the majority of the land in the Western United States is public, not all of it is accessible due to private property rights. Public lands in the west are often interspersed in a matrix of private land ownership, preventing access to some lands in the public domain. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ‘checkerboard’ lands which resulted from governmental land grants to private corporations in the 1800’s.
As a Midwesterner, growing up in a landscape of privately-held farm and forest parcels, I am used to a paucity of large expanses of public wildlands. But drawn to where the public lands are, I have spent abundant time exploring our public lands in the western United States. My latest trip in the west, my 463-mile canoe trip down Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah’s Green River, put public land access on the forefront of my mind once again. Though I’ve studied federal land policy quite a bit in college, nothing puts such study directly into practice like trying to plan a long-distance river expedition over a matrix of public and private lands.
Enshrined in the United States Constitution, under Article 1, Section 8, is the Commerce Clause, which establishes the doctrine of Navigable Servitude. The Commerce Clause establishes that the United States Federal Government holds the property rights of all the navigable surface waters in the United States, and Navigable Servitude stipulates that these waters be held in the public domain for the sake of interstate commerce. Later case law—in a 2013 decision by the 4th Circuit Court—determined that paddling is not a federally protected right. Yet, where not specifically prohibited by law, boating is an acceptable action on public waterways. The land underlying the surface of navigable waters, however, does not fall under the purview of the Commerce Clause, and as such is able to be privately owned. Thus, on my Green River expedition, so long as I was paddling on the surface of the river, I was on public property.
The challenge of a long canoe trip, though, is that a paddler can’t spend the entire time canoeing. Eventually you have to land to take care of basic biological needs and to rest. On the Green River, in the very upriver-most sections where the river flows through the Bridger-Teton National Forest (i.e., federally-owned public land), it was easy to paddle the river and always land on public domain lands which were open to recreation. But once the Green left the National Forest, it entered a matrix of publicly and privately owned land, and in those upper reaches there were long stretches of river with no access to public land. Wyoming state law extends private property ownership rights to the land under the river itself (remember, the river itself is federally owned). So every time I stepped my foot out of my canoe, I was technically trespassing!
Fortunately, with me through this challenging mosaic of private land was my ever-heedful friend Jon, who is extraordinarily conscious about not trespassing. Though along this stretch of river we saw few people and even fewer buildings, most of this land was still privately-held rangeland. Whereas I personally had fewer reservations about stopping to rest on an isolated cow pasture, Jon was adamant about not infringing on the property rights of others. Though it was a constant challenge and concern, we were able to find parcels of public domain lands every night to camp on. And thanks to the tone set by Jon’s vigilance, all 24 nights I spent on the river ended up being on some sort of pubic domain land. In these areas, the federal lands fall to ‘shared-use’ management policies, which meant that grazing interests had a right to use the land for economic exploitation just as much as I had a right to use the land for personal recreation; the result was that my campsites were often shared by grazing cattle. Identifying the federal land in the upper stretches of the Green River proved not to be too difficult either; while the majority of the river corridor was flat rangeland, there was the occasional steep, unvegetated butte that always lined up perfectly with the land ownership boundaries. These public lands were of those administered by the Bureau of Land Management, colloquially known as ‘the lands that no one wanted.’ Paddling down the river, it was easy to see why certain land parcels ended up in the public domain.
On my Green River Expedition, I successfully spent each night camped on federal or state land instead of on private land, which is a small moral victory in terms of doing things legally. However, the view from the ground showed little distinction between public and private lands. Sure, there were a few derelict fences marking boundaries. But cattle grazing occurs on both public and private land, and little to no structural improvements were seen on the private land along the course of most of the river. The type of place the Green River flowed through, even if it was completely private land, would have been such that I would have felt comfortable traveling and camping on such land despite its private ownership status. If the Green was a European river, it absolutely would have been the kind of place where recreational access would have been granted under right to roam laws.
In America, where right to roam laws do not exist, I have had to practice my own right to roam access where public lands are not as plentiful. I try to avoid this whenever possible, but the few occasions I have resorted to this self-granted right have been on biking or hiking trips in the eastern U.S. where sections of private land are expansive and public resources hard to find. Instead of benefiting from a universal right to roam granted by the United States government, I call my practice guerrilla camping, where I bed down for the night hidden away on private land. My knowledgeable and intentional trespass onto private property is not done without its own moral code, however; akin to the ethics codified in the Everyman’s Right, I camp as far away from development as possible, do no damage to the land, and leave no trace of my ever being there. In the few dozen times I have had to resort to guerrilla camping, I have never been caught in the act, and I remain doubtful that the landowner is any wiser to my being there. It is my own first-hand experience that an Everyman’s Right is feasible in America.
But Americans still have certain attitudes towards private land ownership and its use that is not shared by their European counterparts, particularly where the freedom of passage is concerned. In America, where private property ownership is a near-virtue, we think about possessing the land. We take the libertarian stance that we are free to do as we like to our private property. But we don’t often think about the limitations that are already placed on land ownership; environmental laws and building codes all limit a land-owners freedom to dig a strip-mine or to build a citadel on their land. At its essence, private land ownership is not so much the physical possession of the physical land itself, but a bundle of rights of what one can do on and to the land. For example, private property rights entitles the land-holder to the rights of harvesting plant, animal, and mineral resources found on the land for economic gain within existing legal regulations; likewise the land-holder has the rights to modify the land and to make improvements on the land itself within the bounds of civil building codes. In America, also included in this bundle of property-owners’ rights is the right to exclude others from one’s property. This right sets up a system where trespassing becomes possible and punishable on private lands; this property right to exclude others is often the first right that comes to mind when an American thinks of private property. In European countries, where there is a traditional right to roam, the right to exclude others from property is not a right conveyed by private property ownership.
To the American mind that is accustomed to the notion of private property being the physical space where one can exclude others, the ability to limit the access of others is held sacrosanct. And, it is incredibly easy to distrust others and fear for the worst of what might happen if the right to exclude others from private property is out-legislated like it has in Europe. However, the code of ethics built into the Everyman’s Right legislation should alleviate fears of lawlessness and mass trespass should an Everyman’s Right be passed in America. Everyman’s Right legislation specifies limits to the right of public access. Access to lands and waters are generally only permitted for non-motorized recreational uses such as walking, cycling, and horseback riding. Camping on private land is limited to one night in most places, and most laws specify a certain distance that any recreational activity is to have away from homes, structures, and maintained lawns and gardens. Excessive noise is discouraged and most fires on private property are forbidden. Visitors are in general restricted from harvesting plant and animal resources that are found on the land, and visitors are encouraged to stick to existing pathways while on private property. Lands that can be ecologically damaged or sensitive croplands are also excluded from this right to travel. While the rights and responsibilities codified in these right to roam laws vary according to the specific country, the general theme is to allow public access while limiting infringement upon the property-owner’s rights. Just because the public gains access to your land doesn’t mean they are automatically permitted to start camping in your front yard and harvesting your vegetable garden.
Fortunately there is progress in America as states and localities are gradually making moves towards this more European-style right to roam land ethic. Coastal states like Oregon, California, and Florida have made much, if not all, of their coastal lands and beaches free to public access. States are also passing liability legislation to reduce land-owner liability for injuries sustained by other parties while on private land; such legislation is designed to encourage landowners to open up their land to increased public recreational access. Many non-profit organizations, such as the Land Conservancy, are working with private land owners to grant public access to private lands through conservation easements; such easements are one big step toward allowing limited public access while maintaining the rights of private landholders. As Americans, we cannot rely solely on our legacy of federal public land protection to provide wildland access to all the people in our country. We must continually seek to make free access to land a priority. On the Green River in Wyoming, despite the riparian zone being privately owned, many easements have been granted by private landowners along the river to permit the use of fishing access. It is a good step for ensuring equitable access to our nation’s land and water resources.
I would like to see the day when the United States adopts its own right to roam legislation. I would like to see a future where everyone, regardless of where they live, will have access to travel through our nation’s wild lands. I would like to be able to travel and roam myself and not have to worry about breaking trespassing laws when looking for a place to camp for the night. Until the time comes when America adopts its own right to roam law, we ought to start re-envisioning the greatest good for the greatest number for our privately held lands as well as our public lands.
*Additional public lands exist at the state and local government level, which get excluded from this analysis which focuses on federal lands due to various public access differences and due to lack of statistics on other public lands distribution.
“For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes or what he hopes for, but what he loves.” –St. Augustine
Years ago, when I first moved into an intentional living community, one of our initial get-to-know-you activities was to create what was known as a ‘Loves List,’ a collection of things, experiences, and ideas that each individual described as being among their loves. This exercise was a novel way to get to learn more about my new housemates right away. In the course of everyday conversation with new acquaintances, a lot of the things that people admire don’t frequently get brought up. The Loves List, instead, aims to put all those loves out there in the open right away. It is a way to discuss and learn about the things people love—that is, to say the things and ideas that people value and cherish and esteem. These things are the tiny traces and connections that make up the gestalt of who people are. As philosopher Gideon Strauss put it (who is a mentor to my mentors who taught me the Loves List) “it is in consideration of what we love that we come to know, most deeply, who we are and who we can become.”
My first Loves List was created in 2011. I have since created subsequent versions of my Loves List, some as revisions from past lists, and others created independently. It is an act of self-discovery to look and re-look over past lists to see what made the list and what was left off. My own loves have migrated through time, yet have also stayed fairly consistent too.
The latest version of the Loves List that I have made, stemming from an independent re-evaluation in 2016, has gotten pretty complex. I guess it turns out that I have been growing fond of quite a number of things. For the sake of clarity, I categorized my latest Loves List into different categories, but this is not necessary. I encourage you to try the activity yourself. Take some time to write down a list of what you love, and see what you learn about yourself. Here is my Loves List as an example, or perhaps inspiration for you to try it yourself.
Ty’s Loves List
|Beachcombing for seashells|
|Cold snowy moonlit winter nights|
|Crisp, cold winter days|
|Living in a place with four distinct seasons|
|Plants and trees—of all sorts|
|Quiet walks through a garden or forest|
|The changing seasons|
|The first few crisp nights at the end of summer, signaling fall is on the way|
|The way clouds are colored at sunrise and sunset|
|Warm, humid, breezy nights|
|Watching ants crawl around|
|Watching plants grow|
|Watching thunderstorms roll in—and getting caught in the rain|
|Weeds growing in the cracks of the sidewalk|
|Always trying to learn something new|
|Cuddling up with a good book|
|Eastern philosophy and religious traditions|
|Finding a good podcast unexpectedly on the radio|
|Keeping a journal of my thoughts and activities|
|Learning about geographical differences|
|Making plans/alternative plans|
|Monastic Life and Monastic Communities|
|Personal Reflection Time|
|Public Media (i.e. NPR, PBS, BBC)|
|Reflecting on shared experiences|
|Sitting in quiet contemplation|
|Understanding how things work.|
|Urban Planning and City Design|
|Adopting second hand goods and giving them a good second life|
|Avoiding doing things the easy way|
|Being friendly to people|
|Being tolerant about how others live|
|Encouraging positive growth in others|
|Envisioning possibilities for the future|
|Having well-thought out reasons for even simple decisions|
|Imperfection—loving things with visible flaws that don’t hide behind the veil of artificial perfection.|
|Looking for the good in the situation|
|Reading the directions—and then doing it my own way anyway|
|Sleeping on any important decision I have to make|
|Supporting local communities|
|The Circle of Life|
|The feeling that what I’m doing might make a difference in the world|
|Thinking about things philosophically|
|Throwing myself wholeheartedly into what I do|
|Abandoned objects and places|
|Alternative music (or instrumental/foreign language songs)|
|Aquariums, big and small|
|Brown Road Signs|
|Cacti and Succulents|
|Dr. Bronners Soap|
|Ginger, prepared in all kinds of varieties|
|Independent coffee houses/cafes|
|Locally brewed micro-beers|
|Nalgene Water Bottles|
|Puzzles, of all varieties|
|Browsing used bookstores|
|Buying something used and giving it a second life|
|Finding seaglass on the beach|
|Fixing broken things|
|Growing a garden|
|Making food items from scratch—especially if it’s grown or foraged by me|
|Making music on an instrument—or at least trying to|
|Perusing Thrift Stores|
|Picking up litter|
|Spending time on the water: in kayak, canoe, paddleboard, boat, etc.|
|Staring at maps|
|Swimming—pools, lakes, and oceans|
|An evening at a wilderness campground|
|Being outside in inclement weather|
|Caring about those who are close to me|
|Collecting things—and experiences|
|Creating something one-of-a-kind for myself or someone else|
|Finding coins on the sidewalk|
|Hanging around people who know who you are and are ok with it.|
|Having a discussion after watching a movie with others|
|Indie bands and coffee-shop performances|
|Living communally with others|
|Lying on my back staring up at the sky through the branches of a tree|
|Nighttime walks along the ocean|
|Reducing our impact on mother earth|
|Sharing a home-cooked meal|
|Sharing conversation with friends over a beer|
|Singing in my car or in the shower|
|Trying anything once for the sheer experience of it.|
|Using my hands to perform a skill|
|Waking up before the sun rises|
|Watching campfires burn wood down into embers|
|Watching the sunset|
“Of Love,” by Mary Oliver
I have been in love more times than one,
thank the Lord. Sometimes it was lasting
whether active or not. Sometimes
it was all ephemeral, maybe only
an afternoon, but not less real for that.
They stay in my mind, these beautiful people,
or anyway beautiful people to me, of which
there are so many. You, and you, and you,
whom I had the fortune to meet, or maybe
missed. Love, love, love, it was the
core of my life, from which, of course, comes
the word for the heart. And, oh, have I mentioned
that some of them were men and some were women
and some—now carry my revelation with you—
were trees. Or places. Or music flying above
the names of their makers. Or clouds, or the sun
which was the first, and the best, the most
loyal for certain, who looked so faithfully into
my eyes every morning. So I imagine
such love of the world—its fervency, its shining, its
innocence and hunger to give of itself—I imagine
this is how it all began.
“This is a free country,” was his terse response.
This all unfolded recently at my local public library, while I was quietly working on some writing projects. Around the corner of the room another patron started up a loud, profanity-laced phone call.
No longer able to concentrate and firm in my conviction that this was not the appropriate venue for such a call to be held, I calmly approached the man to inform him of my grievance and offer the radical suggestion that he should, in fact, take the call outside.
“Who are you to tell me what to do,” he bristled, “this is a free country.”
No, this is not a free country. This is a public library. You do not have the right to be an asshole to those around you. At least that’s what I had wanted to say to him, but lacking quick wit and impulsive retorts, I merely reminded him that he ought to be respectful to the other patrons. This diffused the situation, but I was left fuming over his cavalier attitude.
‘This is a free country:’ the battle cry of the libertarians. Who are you to tell me how to live. Leave me alone and let me do what I want.
It’s all evocative of talk we hear in America quite frequently. Ours is a nation that highly values its liberty. The very founding of our country, in fact, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence, was built upon the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But of those unalienable rights, liberty has become the most proudly flaunted, not to mention the most fashionable. Think of all the t-shirts and Americana tchotchke you’ve seen emblazoned with eagles, red, white, and blue with the big word ‘FREEDOM’ written in bold capital letters. Liberty, understandably, is a quite attractive value.
Liberty indeed has been a vitally important core founding principle of America, and the resulting American psyche of being able to choose one’s own destiny factors greatly into our national pride and identity. However, there becomes a problem when liberty is touted above all other American values, such that even other rights enshrined in the constitution including justice, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare take a backseat to liberty. When this occurs, we lose sight of the reality of America as a nation. For, contrary to Americanized myth, we are not a country composed of rugged individuals best left to our own devices. We are instead a multitudinous society comprised of a diverse cross-section of humanity struggling to live out all the founding values of our nation. Though the founding fathers valued liberty, they themselves also came together to practice the compromise of their desires in order to form a more powerful nation capable of generating more of the common good for more of its citizens. We cannot operate for the greatest general welfare of all citizens of this country with an unabashed ‘leave me the fuck alone’ mentality. We need to transcend the simplistic thought of this being a free country—as in free of obligations to other people—and realize that it takes more than just liberty of conscious to promote other American values like fairness, equality, and protection of the minority. It takes a collective effort of knowing the limits to your freedoms and practicing the extent of your responsibilities.
The classic litmus test for the limits of liberty is that your rights end where my rights begin. Your rights to swing your fists freely end where my nose begins. Your right to speak freely ends where disorderly conduct begins. There are inherent limits to our liberty in this country, and that is designed for the better of society as a whole. But beyond basic limits to freedom, there is a certain respect and civility in public life that libertarian ideals don’t aspire to. The live-and-let-live philosophy makes little impetus to improve society for us all. The belief that everyone left to their own devices would make an ideal society ignores the systemic and structural inequality we have in America, let alone doesn’t compel us to become better citizens of our country.
The English philosopher Alain de Botton makes an observation that Western political theory prizes liberty as the ‘supreme political value,’ and that libertarian ideals have infiltrated all political parties, not just the namesake Libertarian Party. In his book Religion for Atheists, de Botton explains how libertarian thought, in political life, seeks to cast no moral judgment on citizens and offers no vision as to how best to live together; in other words, that the greater welfare of the group is not a sufficient warrant to necessitate interference from the state upon the individual. The libertarian ideal, de Botton argues, is that moral behavior is a question for the conscious of the individual alone and should not be subject to judgment from a committee of governmental regulators. In America, any moralistic push of the state is viewed as paternalistic at best (nanny state), and suspect of a devious agenda at worst (fascism). But the downside of all this liberty is that we no longer know how to handle ourselves properly with all of our freedom. We often find ourselves in want of some moral guidance for how best to live our lives in relation to others. Here, de Botton argues, is where civil governments can take a cue from religions and not be afraid of being seen as paternalistic, but instead work to foster qualities, like harmony and forgiveness, which often run counter to our basic human nature. In a pluralistic society, it would take just a little nudging from the civil government to get us to behave on our best behavior.
Let’s think about how libertarian ideology can be harmful in this analogy:
A large group of individuals are traveling on a massive ship. They don’t all know each other, yet they share the same vessel. One day, the travelers begin to notice that the ship has started to list to one side, that is has started taking on water. They employ a sudden search to find the source of the leak in order to save the ship. Upon searching the lower decks, they find a stateroom that is the source of the water. They pry open the door to find a man standing over a hole in the boat. The man yells aggressively at the others who have found him: “I paid for this stateroom. I can do whatever I want to it!”
America, it could be said, is a giant ship, the home to a diverse multitude of people. As citizens of this country, we cannot do absolutely whatever we please and still expect to form a prosperous and civil society. There are limits to our freedom put in place to promote the common welfare, just as there are civic duties that it is our obligation to uphold for that same welfare. We are all in this together. The libertarian philosophy, unfortunately, often blinds itself to this interdependence to others in society.
Though we must value our liberty as Americans, we must also exercise that liberty with constraint. The freedom of speech does not give one the right to falsely yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theatre. The right to bear arms as part of a ‘well-regulated militia’ does not imply that there should be no restrictions on civilian firearms. The norms for behaving properly in this country have been developed as practical limits on our freedom in order to promote a compatible society of diverse people. Once we can embrace the fact that indeed our liberty is not the sole virtue of our American society, we can move on to creating a better government. For, even in the text of The Declaration of Independence, with its intended purpose of severing ties with the English Crown, the abolishment of government altogether for the sake of increased liberty was not an end in itself. Rather, the alteration and re-institution of government mentioned was expressly intended to protect the rights and welfare of the people—not just for the sake of increasing personal liberty alone.
It was late on a Thursday evening, high up in Tuolumne Meadows in the Californian Sierras. I had just returned from an hours-long hike up to Mono Pass in Yosemite National Park. With the August daylight fading earlier each day, I rapidly got to my post-hike business of cooking a hot meal of gnocchi and red sauce over my camp stove. Already a couple of months into an extended road-trip in the great American West, I had gotten the dirtbag lifestyle of camping and living out of a vehicle down to a science.
Yosemite National Park, with its sweeping vistas and monumental scenery, attracts millions of visitors each year, with visitation peaking in the summer months. Up high in Tuolumne Meadows, though, it was quiet. I was the only person at the trailhead, and few cars even drove by on their way to the Tioga Pass. For nearly a week I had been hanging around the park, just biding my time for the coveted lottery permit to climb the iconic Half Dome to fall. In the meantime, I had spent my time exploring the far reaches of Yosemite. Just a day before, though, I had found out my lottery results came back positive: I had secured a permit to climb Half Dome on Friday. Tonight was the night before the big climb.
As Yosemite’s popularity makes it nearly impossible to find camping in the park in the summertime, I had settled for a camp spot in the Stanislaus National Forest land just outside the park. There, the camping was plentiful, but had the drawback of a long commute. From my perch up in Tuolumne Meadows, it would be a two-hour drive back, along the curving Tioga road, gradually descending 7,000 feet to the valleys below.
I appreciated driving at night in Yosemite, since the park was generally free of the heavy tourist traffic that plagues the daytime. I got in my sedan and pulled out of the trailhead lot onto the main road and began my drive. Even though the road was empty of traffic, a car immediately appeared out of nowhere and followed closely behind.
“Oh joy,” I mumbled audibly to myself.
I have always hated vehicles driving right behind me, especially at night. Their presence always meant another factor to consider in safe driving. Their headlights, too, continually glare from the rear-view mirror, providing a constant reminder that—as I always tend to believe—someone thinks you’re in their way. This car joined my tail right from the start, and since the road would approach no intersections for over an hour’s drive, there was little chance that they would be changing directions anytime soon. With it nearly impossible to find a safe turn-out in the dark to allow the other driver to pass, we were going to be together for a long while.
However, the car behind me patiently followed along. Though they made no indications of dissatisfaction with their slower counterpart, I couldn’t help but to project my own feelings of annoyance whenever I get stuck behind a leisurely driver. Most likely, I told myself, they wanted to pass me. They were probably very familiar with the road and just looking to get home as quickly as they could. I too had driven this road a few times already. Its curves had begun to feel familiar. The long, slow drive could easily become monotonous.
With a boosted confidence by my previous experience of the road, I increased my speed to 50 mph. Though the speed limit was 45 mph and a fairly generous speed for the road during the day, at night that rate of travel seemed, in my better judgment, just a bit too much. Nonetheless, I thought optimistically, that if I could just increase my speed a little, then my follower would slowly get left behind in my wake. No such luck. The car behind me matched my speed perfectly. I gained absolutely no distance.
Now convinced that the driver behind me must be annoyed at my slow speed, I began to feel the frustration that I imagined they must have. “If they can match my speed, then they must know the roads pretty well,” I conjectured. “Or, maybe they are in a hurry to be someone else?” My speculations ran rampant. Without much else besides driving to occupy my attention, my mind came up with all kinds of ideas of what this other person must be thinking about me. “What if they think I’m a lame driver?” “What if they think I’m not skilled at handling these mountain roads?”
My mind was pre-occupied with all these assumptions this other driver was making about my personal character.
And then it happened:
I lost control.
Traveling around a corner I had rounded multiple times before, I hit a rough patch of pavement. My car skidded and began to careen further down along the road at 50 mph. I corrected left and began to fish-tail out of control. My fate was no longer in my hands.
What transpired next seemed to take an eternity. The situation became unreal; my windshield turning into a virtual reality screen. I careened down the road for what seemed an impossibly long time, my car shuddering and bouncing up and down like a sickly realistic rollercoaster ride. Suddenly, a huge abrupt jerk and I was off the road. The windshield cinema played out a thicket of Manzanita shrubs flowing past. I was rolling right down a ravine.
And then it was over.
The Manzanita bushes in my windshield became still. My car had stopped moving. I sat soberly in the driver’s seat, unable to react. Just viscerally processing what had just transpired.
My sedan was still running. I turned the ignition off. At the steep angle my car was tilted, I couldn’t open the door to get out, so I rolled down the window to make my egress. I scrambled hands and knees up the embankment.
A man was running towards me, exclaiming “we thought you was dead!”
Dead I was not. Very much alert and alive, fortunately. My Good Samaritan rescuer, Mike, had been driving with his son in the oncoming lane when he saw from a distance my headlights swerve and disappear down into the ravine. Fearing the worst in the situation, Mike’s retired firefighter instincts kicked in as he rushed to assistance. As Mike’s son called for help, Mike assessed me for injuries. Physically, I emerged unscathed. Psychologically, though, it was a shock.
The aftermath ended up making a long night for all of us. Mike stayed with me until the much-delayed rangers came, then the rangers stayed with me until the tow-truck finally arrived. I was questioned in detail about what had caused the accident, and to my surprise, the rangers were very sympathetic to my situation. They knew exactly where the rough patch that caused the accident was. They even gave me a Gatorade to boost my stamina. The tow truck driver managed to pull my battered sedan out of the ravine back onto the road. Aside from one large dent to the passenger-side bumper, it was little worse for wear. To turn tragedy into jubilation even more, my car started easily and the tow truck driver had forgotten his payment binder and thus couldn’t charge me for the service.
Eventually all issues from the incident were resolved. The rangers, the tow truck driver, and I parted ways. I drove myself back to my campsite. It was a fitful night for me, trying to chase elusive rest as I dozed in the driver’s seat. My mind kept racing around all of the horrible things that could have happened, but didn’t. What good stroke of fortune did I hit in order to avoid tragedy?
The next morning, I traveled back to the very spot where my accident had occurred. It was true that I needed to retrieve some pieces of undercarriage flashing which had been torn out from my wheel-wells by the brush, but more importantly I needed to piece together in my mind what exactly had happened the night before. Looking back at the scene in daylight, I tried to recount where everything had transpired. The very exact spot where my car had left the road, there was a short shoulder made of soft red dirt. My feet sunk easily in when I stepped in it. This was not really a shoulder, per se. Could it have just been a patch of dirt left over from nearby road construction? Whatever reason for its existence, it must have slowed down my car significantly before I veered down the ravine. And of all the spots, that was the exact one where I had gone off the road. Just up the road in the westbound lane, there was a long roadcut of exposed Yosemite granite. I just as easily could have smashed into that. Along the eastbound lane, there was a sharp drop-off into the forest. I could have easily gone off into that direction as well. And then, there was the spot where my car landed as well. It was all Manzanita. The trees were around, for sure, but incredibly not where I had landed. There were several large trees straight ahead if my car had continued to travel forward, and one tree had been inches away from the passenger side. But miraculously I had avoided everything.
And then I thought back to the reason I had lost control in the first place. To think that I was driving too fast for the conditions just because I was so pre-occupied with what a complete stranger thought about my driving speed. Ridiculous! What could have easily turned into a lethal accident was based primarily on imagined conceptions!
My near-catastrophe was a product of me being overly concerned about what another person thought of me. Though this was an extreme example, there are so many ways our own decisions in life are made based on the judgments and expectations of others. We tend to go through our lives so disproportionately concerned about what others think of us, even people who are complete strangers. I, as you could probably surmise, am quite prone to doing this! What trivial things do we do just to keep up appearances for others! What interests do we either pursue or not pursue based on what other people would think appropriate for our personal archetypes? What do I say and how do I act, in order to fulfill some social role that I think others expect me to act? Oh how we let ourselves be so inhibited from true expression of our inmost being! What words do I say or not say? What books do I read or not read? What food choices do I make in the grocery store just based on what the check-out clerk might think of me? How can so many of our simple, everyday choices be so influenced not by ourselves, but by the perceptions of those around us?
The day after my accident, fatigued and emotionally drained from the night before, I made a successful summit of my prized Half Dome.
And what about the car that was following me the whole time down that mountain road?
They never even stopped.