Social Independence


Two weeks ago I wrote about the value of independence. The article was a bit longer than my normal writing, but I felt the topic deserved the extra length. A number of readers here must have agreed with me, because it was one of the most commented on articles in the last few months.

In the article, I argued that independence was necessary for both a happy life and a moral one. I claimed that financial independence was important, but it was only one step. Social and intellectual independence had even bigger ramifications, even though they were harder to recognize. The issue of social independence raised a lot of questions in the comments, so I’d like to address that idea today.

What is Social Independence?

Independence means that the amount of value you take from other people is equal to or less than the amount of value you put back. It doesn’t mean you don’t need other people. And it doesn’t mean you avoid other people’s help. Although those are associations to the word independence, I’m not referring to those aspects. Being a lone wolf or hermit isn’t the goal of independence.

Think of someone who is financially independent. Unless they grow their own crops, sew their own clothes and build their own computers from silicon in the ground, they still need other people. I doubt Bill Gates would survive with a homemade spear on a desert island. So financial independence doesn’t mean you don’t need other people.

What Bill Gates does have is (at least in theory) is an equal balance of trade. The amount of money he earns is greater than or equal to the money he spends. He doesn’t need the government, family or friends to write him a check. In fact, he gives away some of his wealth to philanthropic organizations, making his case the opposite of financial dependence.

Social independence is exactly the same idea, except there isn’t any money involved. Money is a medium for exchanging material wealth. Relationships don’t have a physical currency, but value is still exchanged between people. Being part of groups can give love, security, friendship and support. In many ways, social currency has a much higher value than dollars and cents.

Social Independence Doesn’t Mean Solitude

Socially independent people still need friends. However, someone who is socially independent contributes at least as much social value as they take in from other people. More importantly, they recognize their contribution and don’t allow other people to swindle them on social transactions.

A financially independent person would immediately exit any relationship where one person was cheating her. If she were being swindled on her grocery bill, she would shop at a different store. She wouldn’t be compelled to stay in a relationship that robs her in one way by making her dependent in another.

Similarly a socially independent person wouldn’t stay in a relationship where friendship and trust were violated. He would recognize his value and leave any destructive relationships, confident that he could make healthier ones. He wouldn’t be dependent on the opinions of other people to make decisions important to him. If he wanted to start a business, he wouldn’t allow peer pressure to push him into a job he didn’t like.

Levels of Independence

Independence isn’t an all-or-nothing quality. You can have different levels of social, financial or intellectual independence. You may be in complete and hopeless debt to someone, or you may simply have a small deficit.

This is, once again, easier to see with financial independence. In a scale from complete dependency to complete independence, you would probably these people along the spectrum:

  • The Beggar. This person is completely dependent on other people to survive. If he didn’t receive regular income from other people, he would probably die.
  • The Mooch. This person contributes some value back to society, but takes a lot more. He accepts debts he won’t pay back and relies on friends and governments to maintain his lifestyle.
  • The Replaceable Employee. This person may have some debts, but otherwise contributes as much as she earns. However, her boss could replace her at any time, and she doesn’t have many other means to support herself.
  • The Independent Entrepreneur. This person contributes at least as much value as she takes. She also has many different income sources so no one person holds power over her. Also at this level of the spectrum would be freelancers with different clients or employees with skills that allow them to easily find work.
  • The Philanthropist. This person doesn’t just use his abundance to cover his debts. He uses it to encourage the independence of other people. He wouldn’t support initiatives that chain people to him, but actively seeks ways to encourage other people to become more independent.

Similarly, social independence has a spectrum from complete dependence to total independence.

  • The Loner. This person is completely reliant on the few friends he does have for social support. If they left, he would be completely alone, which is unthinkable to him. As a result, he would do almost anything to keep their favor.
  • The Wimp. This person contributes value back to her group, but she makes too many concessions to support her relationships. She makes radical changes to her life to accommodate the whims and opinions of friends and family, when they would not do the same for her.
  • The Generic Friend. This person contributes value back to his group, but is dependent on one group for all social support. He also lacks the skills or confidence to make new friends, should this group leave him.
  • The Independent Socializer. This person has many friends and is confident of her ability to navigate her social life. Any relationships that drain her are abandoned for equal transactions. She has close friends and relationships, but is confident that she could form new ones if these people were disloyal to her.
  • The Social Enabler. This person takes social independence to the final level. Not only does he have complete social independence, but he uses that independence to break other people of their dependencies.

Financial independence, as it is easier to measure, is a lot more common than social independence. I would argue that most people are not socially independent and many are far into the range of moderate and complete dependency. I have met a few people who could be described as socially independent, and almost none who fully complete the spectrum.

Why is Social Independence So Difficult?

It’s easy to know if someone is swindling you. You can check the prices. Money is regulated. There are many laws preventing people from cheating you out of money. Our societal structure encourages economic independence. Independence is necessary for economic health, so society usually pushes people to become more independent.

Social independence doesn’t run on the same fuel. As a result, there is less pressure to move people up the ladder of social independence. So most of the people who do have a degree of independence, developed it unconsciously. In many cases, being popular and staying loyal to untrustworthy friends is actually promoted.

Social independence is also more difficult because social currency is more valuable than money. Beyond a minimum poverty threshold, money just buys luxuries. But, many people are currently in a social poverty, where they don’t feel that the basic needs of friendship, love and security are being met. As a result, many people are willing to chain themselves to social dependence just to meet those basic needs. If you were starving to death, you probably wouldn’t have as many scruples about stealing enough bread to survive.

Valuing the Independence You Don’t Possess

I’m not at the level of complete independence in any category. I consider independence to be extremely important, but I recognize my own shortcomings and dependencies. But just because I haven’t reached the highest pinnacles of this value, doesn’t mean I can’t climb towards it.

Once you recognize the importance of something, you have the power to work towards it. If you don’t consider your health to be important, chances are you’re going to end up weak and overweight. By seeing your shortcomings towards something that is important, you can put effort into changing it. I’ve made a lot of progress towards independence in all areas, once I recognized how important it was to me.

Independence Is Power Over Yourself

Independence is a form of power. Except, instead of power over other people, it means power over yourself. Power over other people is opposite to total independence, since it is pushing others towards dependency. Without independence, you’re enslaved to whatever provides for you. With independence, you’re free.