Capitalism gets a bad rap in many liberal circles, which is rather ironic since capitalism is the only economic system in existence that protects the individual rights of those operating in the economic environment. In a capitalist economy, you have the right to property and the right to make your own economic decisions. The more we water down our capitalism with government intervention, the fewer rights we have when it comes to our own property and our own economic decisions.
Capitalism and democracy go hand-in-hand in two primary ways. First, both capitalism and democracy involve protecting individual rights. Without individual rights, you don’t have the right to own property, you don’t have the right to select which products and services you buy, you don’t have the right to create new products and services, and you don’t have the right to generate the means to obtain the products and services you want. Those freedoms are diminished with any government interference. The more government intervention, the fewer rights you have. In the U.S., we do a fair job of protecting individual rights, be those rights political or economic in nature.
The second aspect of both capitalism and democracy is the need for education. In order to operate an effective democracy, voters need to be informed and their information needs to be accurate and comprehensive. In order to operate an effective capitalist economy, consumers need to be informed and their information needs to be accurate and comprehensive. Unfortunately, the U.S. tends to fail on both counts. Our voters are swayed by lies and half-truths to the extent that they make decisions that bring about consequences they don’t want. If they were better informed, they could vote more effectively. Our consumers are equally ill-informed and ill-prepared. From failing to understand budgeting or balancing a checkbook to failing to learn about the products and services they consume, consumers bring about their own economic distress.
When people exercise their freedoms in ways that produces bad results for themselves, many of them don’t accept the responsibility for their poor decision making. Instead, they persist in their choices and clamor for somebody to protect them from the abuses (i.e. consequences) they’ve suffered (from their own decisions) as if they were victims. This escapist mentality is like crying wolf—people grow insensitive to the real abuses that go on unhindered despite all the government interventions (and sometimes because of them). The elites amongst us encourage this sort of ignorance and escapism, because the more ignorant we are and the more divorced from reality we become, the more of our power they can claim by regaling us with solutions that never materialize. Neither politicians nor economic moguls want the masses to be educated enough to make wise decisions, because our ignorance feeds their power.
In this vein, government interference that ensures the accuracy and comprehension of the information available to both voters and consumers is beneficial, if not to the powerful elite, to the population beneath them. This kind of education is not given as a gift by the powerful, however; it is produced by the ingenious few who—individually or together—watchdog and report the truth. Our true freedom is to decide whether or not we’re going to take the time to listen to them or if we will take the easy way out (in the short term) and continue to rely on the comfortable lies and half-truths we’ve always known.
Unfortunately, this cycle of ignorance and education spins without recognition or sympathy for real suffering. We turn to the government for aide. If we’re educated and attentive, we’ll notice that we only receive that aide when it benefits someone in power. Since we can’t really control who else the aide we need would benefit, more often than not we are left to rely on ourselves and on each other. Solutions aren’t spun out from a state of ignorance, but out of education and the opportunities education brings. Whether formal or informal, the education of the ignorant results from people attentively grappling for power over their own lives. Those who succeed rise from their suffering satisfied with their results; those who fail continue to clamor for protection from abuse, never realizing that the people their clamoring at are part of the problem.
In Nothing About Us Without Us, James I. Charlton writes: “Self-help and self-determination are the most radical of disability rights political principles. They are the principles that the existing power structure is least able to accommodate.” Unfortunately, this statement is based on one of those half-truths. In referring to “the existing power structure,” Charlton is referring to the hegemonies that exist within contemporary societies, in which you will find the power political and economic elite. These power structures are very real and very influential, impacting a great deal of our lives. These structures are not designed to accommodate individualized power, nor are they inclined to do so. But you don’t need them to do so!
Individualized power is just that—individualized! This is the power that democracies and capitalist economies protect. This is the power that liberals and conservatives cooperatively (and uncooperatively) interfere with. This is the power that moguls and socialists interfere with too. The thing few people seem to realize, however, is that they succeed only when we let them succeed. We can reclaim the individual power we have given away. We can exercise that power in a way that empowers us to take control of our own lives. Yet “the cause” is not in vain.
The sad truth is that most people with disabilities are more disempowered than most people without disabilities in the same society. Personal experiences teach them that they have no power. The messages of social culture reinforce these experiences. But that doesn’t mean the message is true! Self-help, self-determination, self-improvement, self-empowerment, and self-advocacy are things all of us can do. It’s not easy, but we can do for ourselves more than we can expect others to do for us.
Ability isn’t really the dominant factor here. These forms of individual power are the cornerstones of quality of life for everyone. Unfortunately, Charlton goes on to cover up this truth by claiming “[Self-help and self-determination] require people with disabilities to control all aspects of their collective experience.” Self-help and self-determination are NOT collective experiences. They are individual experiences. They are NOT disability experiences. They are human experiences. Nor is self-help or even self-determination solely reliant on the self. We all need others to be enriched. We need teachers, mentors, trainers, colleagues and peers. If we exclude anyone not like ourselves when we seek out these people, we limit ourselves and we diminish each other. We reinforce the cultural belief that differences matter more than similarities, that likeness matters more than humanity. If we live our lives as “us versus them” we lose the “I” in favor of an “us” that doesn’t not have the “I’s” interests at heart. We can either have power that is individualized or we can have power that is collective; we can either have individual power that is self-directed or we can give our power to someone else to direct. If we buy into the belief that disability is a “collective experience” that requires collective empowerment, our “us” becomes our new oppressor. Ironically, that is how the dominant culture came to dominate others in the first place.
The solution to the suffering of people with disabilities living in poverty because they cannot secure a job is not to be handed a job on a government platter. The solution is to empower themselves with their own solutions. It is those who become empowered who succeed and the secret is that empowerment is as simple (and as complex) and as easy (and as difficult) as reclaiming the power that is natural to you—power that, in your ignorance, you gave away to others. Choosing to give it away to someone new who happens to be more like you in some significant way will not solve your problem. The responsibility for our decisions is and always has been our own, whether we acknowledge it or not. Nobody else can save you the way you can save yourself.