Ever since Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain came out I have been seeing the world, especially the world of politics, through a Hansonian framework. Our big evolutionary drive is to ensure that our genes are passed on to the next generation and for a social species that evolved in groups and communities, that means that we try to obtain ever greater status to ensure that we can pass more of our genes to future generations and then ensure that our progeny are successful, have supportive allies, and can further pass along their genes.
This mental framework has made me particularly sensitive to people’s attempts to improve their status in the eyes of others. I am in my late 20’s and I have a lot of friends on social media who seem concerned with telling people that they are self-sufficient. Many of my friends seem to want everyone to know that they have worked hard for the thing that they have, and have not had to rely on hand-outs from either government or from their parents. There seems to be this urge to let everyone know how capable we can be, and I suspect that what my friends are really doing is signaling their skills and abilities and attempting to increase their social status by suggesting that they have good judgment, an industrious nature, and have achieved their level of wealth through their own abilities.
Self-sufficiency in this view is all about how valuable one appears. Politically it is expedient to say that everyone should be self-sufficient, that we should all be able to provide for ourselves without relying on the assistance of others. My fear, however, is that self-sufficiency is really just acting on the central themes identified by Hanson and Simler. If we have achieved a certain level of success, we will look even better if we can tell other people that we became successful on our own, without help from others. We will look impressive if we have achieved something difficult that other people can’t seem to do without lots of help and advantages from birth. The typical idea of self-sufficiency, it appears, is really not about being self-sufficient, but about making ourselves look good to boost our social status.
Seneca offers us an alternative idea regarding self-sufficiency in Letters from a Stoic. In one of his letters he writes, “The wise man is self-sufficient. This phrase, my dear Lucilius, is incorrectly explained by many; for they withdraw the wise man from the world, and force him to dwell within his own skin. But we must mark with care what this sentence signifies and how far it applies; the wise man is sufficient unto himself for a happy existence, but not for mere existence. For he needs many helps toward mere existence; but for a happy existence he needs only a sound and upright soul, one that despises fortune.”
My social media friends, talking about their own self-sufficiency in purchasing a home, landscaping a yard, or getting through college are not thinking of self-sufficiency in terms of happiness. Nor are they recognizing just what they need from others in order to be able to do something sufficiently on their own. None of my friends are subsistence farmers, cultivating all the food that they consume. None of my friends walked out of a box into the world to discover how to act and succeed in our society – they all had good luck in the form of parents or teachers or friends or mentors to give them advice and serve as models for success. And all of my friends relied on public infrastructure, roads, water systems, telecommunications networks to build their own success. There was a certain amount of hard work, good decision making, and avoiding harmful vices or wasteful uses of resources that undoubtedly contributed to the success of my self-sufficient friends, but every one of them benefited enormously from a huge number of factors that came before them and that they had no part of.
As Seneca writes, our happiness and our responses to the world are the only things where we can expect to find true self-sufficiency. For the rest of the world, unless we want to survive by subsistence farming with no help from others, we will never be entirely self-sufficient, at least, not in the way we seem to imply on social media.