A central issue in the “A letter to my liberal friends …” commentary by Rosemary Warschawski (March 20), and the flurry of letters that followed it, is the “free rider” problem that has preoccupied humans for tens of thousands of years. Liberal or conservative, as participants in the modern global economy, we need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the problem than the common lament about some people “not pulling their oars” and about hardworking people having to “give the fruit of their labor to strangers who haven’t worked as hard.”

In his fascinating book about traditional societies, “The World Until Yesterday,” UCLA geographer Jared Diamond explains that uncertainty about food production caused all hunter-gatherer societies to pool their food among the members of the band. They developed a variety of different strategies to deal with members who ate more than they produced.

Modern societies avoid food variation by integrating resources over entire continents. But because the 11,000 years since agriculture began to displace hunter-gathering is only a fraction of the time that behaviorally modern humans were sharing food each day, it is likely that we have evolved strong moral sentiments about free-riding from our ancestral environment. But our ingrained sentiments don’t quite fit modern facts.

Warschawksi is understandingly proud of her successful business. But she fails to mention all of the people who have helped her — the sophisticated infrastructure and economic and social systems she relies upon, not to mention the food, clothes, services and other necessities often produced by people for low wages.

We also must face the fact that the competitive economy that makes possible profits and winners like Warschawski inevitably leaves some people behind. Victims of generational poverty, chronic illnesses and structural unemployment may not able to pull their weight at any given time.

I manage three of Hennepin County’s innovative problem-solving courts for chronic, high-risk offenders — recovering drug addicts, women charged with prostitution and homeless people. They are virtually all struggling to overcome past trauma and painful imbalances in brain chemistry. For the most part, they are engaging and earnest people who lack good health — not personal responsibility — and working is usually one of their principal goals.

Who is the free-rider when someone wants to reap the benefits of the system but not help to pay for its human costs?

Warschawski repeatedly touts her commendable hard work and sacrifice. But it is time to recognize that the capacity for delayed gratification, planning and long-term perseverance is not moral virtues but a gift provided to some by a stable, nurturing environment. I know a woman whose mother started lending her to a drug dealer for sex when she was 9. What would that do to your work ethic?

The U.S., which Warschawski terms a “genius” of an experiment, presents a special question about free-riding. My three courts contain a disproportionate number of American Indians and African-Americans. There is a historical debt to be paid here.

In his award-winning book “1491,” about America before Columbus, Charles Mann reports that the earliest European visitors to the Eastern Seaboard found it thickly settled with people who were taller, healthier and better nourished than they were. Within a few years, 90 percent of them were dead from disease, and the rest were in deep trouble.

And slavery was not some unfortunate ripple in the tide of American history; it was instrumental to the whole enterprise. By 1860, the capital value of slaves exceeded that of the entire country’s railroads and factories; slave-produced cotton was by far the largest U.S. export, and Northern business flourished shipping cotton to England and producing goods for Southern plantations.

Finally, Warschawski should be careful about proclaiming her self-reliance. We are all one catastrophe away from needing help. Many addicts who come into Drug Court literally off the street started their descent with an injury, an addiction to prescription pain medication and the discovery that heroin was cheaper.

Warschawksi says the government has no money, only what it takes from people like her. Well, she might well have none, either, without all of the resources shared with her. There is plenty of room for political discourse about the methods and amounts of sharing that should go on in our post-hunter-gatherer society. But let’s start from the proposition that we are still all in this together.

 

Bruce Peterson is a Hennepin County district judge.