Are you striving to be independent? Do you seek to live a self-sufficient life? Well, what self-sufficiency means is different in different places. The aspiration to self-sufficiency has numerous implications related to income inequality, social relationships, and to integrated community and family lives. Thus, it seems to be fundamental to ask: what do we mean by being independent? 

Recently, Stephanie Murray wrote in the Atlantic about conflicting accounts of independence, essentially claiming that the prevailing idea of independence is a myth – Americans rely on communities and Nordic countries rely on the state. In other words, everyone relies on at least some form of external support. Yet, despite these varied forms of support, the moral ideal of independence remains strong in both places. But is it a myth?

Coming back to Canada after 15 years in collectivist Asia, I was very aware of how many other people from other countries viewed Western individualism. They viewed it with a mix of envy and curiosity. For example, young people were able to make decisions over their own lives without the weight of their familial and social contexts bearing down on them. People could easily travel, and life expectancy was longer. Certain kinds of freedom practiced in the developed West have been desirable and emulated. Individualism and individual freedom have been adopted as ideals. However, if they are a myth and are ideally held, then we are set up for a fall.

A key point of clarity in our concern with independence comes when we look at the way post-secondary education is funded for students – typically at the point where an individual emerges from familial contexts and strikes out on their own. It can help us sort out a couple of nagging problems: first, whether we can truly be self-sufficient, and second, whether or not independence is a living reality, or whether it is more of an aspiration. We may not be born independent, but should we strive for it?

Murray told the story of Lars Tragardh, who came from Sweden to the United States when he was 17 years old. He experienced, unlike in Sweden where post-secondary education was free, the steep price of American tuition. He learned that Americans expected parents to contribute to tuition, and he was concerned. Why should a system open a door to allow parents undue influence on the course of study for adult children? You could see the concern.

North America has a reputation, both at home and abroad, as a country that values independence above practically all else, especially the United States. That ideal undergirded the sweeping Clinton-era welfare-reform bill, which made it much harder for families with little to no income to qualify for lasting assistance in many states. Then-Senator Joe Biden voted in favor of it, agreeing that “the culture of dependence must be replaced with the culture of self-sufficiency.” A quarter of a century later, when President Biden proposed revamping the child tax credit—sending an increased monthly payment to certain low- and middle-income parents—Senator Marco Rubio claimed that it would undo “decades of bipartisan effort” to encourage “work instead of dependency.” The expanded credit was passed into law but expired last year. Dependency, it would seem, is profoundly un-American.

One could interpret that commitment to independence as ringing hollow. The confusion in the American version of independence is about what individualism actually requires. Americans seem to have confused individualism with anti-statism; U.S. policymakers happily throw people into positions of reliance on their families and communities in order to keep the state out. Americans definitely have a culture of dependence, and it comes with its own shortcomings.

In nordic countries, people generally have help paying for college—just not from their parents. Take Sweden, for example, most European students don’t have to pay tuition, and Swedish citizens can apply for a stipend to cover their living expenses. All young people, in university or not, with incomes below a certain threshold can qualify for a housing allowance. And if they go on to begin families of their own, they’re automatically eligible for paid parental leave and, after kids turn 1, low-cost child care.

With no guarantees for housing, parental leave, or affordable child care in the U.S., young people have to turn elsewhere. Canada and the United States are similar in this regard: they are more and more likely to live with their parents in their 20s and 30s; parents often pay the lion’s share of the housing costs. About a third of low-income adults cite the need for child care as a reason for such an arrangement. And many grown people who don’t live with their parents still rely on them financially for help with college tuition, loans, rent, mortgages, or child-care costs. This interdependency sometimes goes in the other direction, too: adult children commonly take on the role of primary caregiver for their aging parents, especially those with lower incomes who can’t afford professional help.

I am struck, now that I think about it, by the degree to which North Americans’ well-being depends on their relations. Small examples stand out, such as the fact that married couples file their taxes jointly, or that expecting parents get their child-care gear from baby showers. Others are more troubling: someone battling cancer, in the United States, can’t leave a bad relationship without losing her partner’s health insurance. Or the many mothers who, unable to afford child care, have to leave their job and rely on their husband’s income.

The familial dependencies woven through North American life are because the Nordic welfare state, especially in Sweden, is designed to eliminate precisely those dependencies. In fact, one should understand that Sweden’s guiding ideology is not so much collectivism as it is statist individualism; the goal is to make citizens as independent from each other as much as possible. Policies such as financial aid and universal health care serve a similar purpose: to support citizens so that their families don’t have to.

Eliminating personal dependencies might sound dystopian, and in my opinion, it is. To be fair though, the idea is not to inhibit our most intimate relationships—only to base them on desire rather than need. Mutual autonomy can be seen as a prerequisite for a healthy relationship with the nordic philosophy of individualism. To depend heavily on one’s family members or friends not only puts your welfare at the mercy of their whims, the thinking goes, but it also hamstrings your ability to engage with them in voluntary choice. By removing power relations, Swedish social policies liberate people to associate while making decisions for themselves, without the pressure to stay in the good graces of a benefactor.

Of course, the cost of interpersonal independence is dependence on the state, which comes with its own risks of abuse. But the point isn’t that the Nordic model is perfect. It’s that America’s culture of self-reliance is a bit of a myth—and that as a policy goal, fostering total self-reliance is unrealistic. The alternative to the nanny state is not a country full of rugged individualists bootstrapping their way to self-sufficiency; it’s one where adults are heavily dependent on the bank of Mom and Dad. So the question is: to who are so-called independent people dependent?

When citizens are left to rely on their families, their prospects are wildly unequal. The more money your relations have, the better off you’re likely to be. And in an economy in which social mobility can require physical mobility—moving away from home to pursue an education or career—reaching financial independence is especially difficult. Some people just aren’t able to sacrifice child care or the roof over their head in order to take such a leap.

Others might not want to; caring for people can, admittedly, be enriching. In fact, perhaps because I am North American, the Nordic fear of family dependence strikes me in much the same way I imagine American concerns of government overreach might strike a Swede—as a little exaggerated. My aunt cared for my maternal grandparents. My parents cared for my paternal grandfather. An elder sister and brother have cared for my widowed mother. If it were needed I would expect to do the same for my mother, and that prospect feels more like an expression of my love than a threat to it.

Then again, I know well the quarrels that arose among my siblings under such strains. In North America, we take those difficulties for granted, but it may be worth considering what life would look like without them. Perhaps without the burden of care for our parents or the financial commitment to our post-adolescent children, we might have a greater share of happiness.

Can authentic identity and financial independency be detached? Or would such detachment, with its assumed liberty, jeopardize a greater joy?

Being exposed to a middle ground both here in Canada and in the example of my Thai wife and her family might serve us well. We could mitigate at least one of the two major financial burdens associated with dependence on other adults who are family: either we put the financial responsibility for post-adolescence on the child (with the help of the state), or take on the financial responsibility for our own old age needs on our own (also with the help of the state).

But my guess is this is rooted in what we mean by being independent.

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