Unchaining Liberty

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My two most recent articles — "What Is Anarchy?" and "Save the Universe!" — struck nerves with a few readers of admittedly libertarian persuasions. While some critics offered valid, intelligent questions, a number reflected a common attitude best described as a fear of unsupervised life processes. It is this fear that leads far too many self-proclaimed champions of liberty to remain what I call "umbilical cord libertarians." They enjoy playing around with ideas of liberty, but are terrified by the existential implications of living without some external supervision. While desirous of expanding the range of their own decision-making, they insist on retaining the state "just in case."

Friedrich Hayek addressed what he called the "fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces." Many of those who criticized my views on anarchy and environmentalism, reflect this fear. Some suggest that, in the absence of state regulation, there would be a total breakdown of social order, with looting, killing, and violence running rampant. One reader went so far as to point to the "widespread looting" that took place in Iraq as evidence that "anarchy and property rights cannot peacefully coexist;" a statement made all the more remarkable by the fact that such behavior followed days of heavy bombing and shelling of Baghdad by forces of the American government! For the state to systematically create widespread destruction and disorder, and to have that offered as evidence of the failure of anarchy, represents the kind of twisted reasoning we have come to expect from the White House!

Others suggested that it is the fear of punishment that causes us to obey state rules; that coercion would continue to exist even if there were no political systems (a point I had made in the first article); that an anarchistic society could not "work" because most people would not be prepared for it; and that something called "human nature" would preclude such a system. Such thinking presumes that it would be catastrophic for individuals to exercise complete control over their own lives, but quite reasonable for the state to enjoy a monopoly of such powers over the lives of us all in order to define the purposes and limits of human action. Such a view is underlain by a contradiction rarely addressed in political philosophy. It assumes that the same men and women who are not to be trusted in the management of their own affairs, will suddenly be transformed into selfless servants of an alleged "public interest" when cloaked with the mantle of state authority! Such faith can be maintained only by minds unburdened both by a study of history as well as an awareness that the self-interest that invariably drives us all is a force only to be trusted in the hands of private individuals, and never in coercive collectives.

Critics of my more humorous swipe at politically-driven environmentalists were quick to suggest that I had a calloused view of nature (as though I had no interest in maintaining conditions conducive to life on earth). One very thoughtful reader told me that "nature is to be cherished" because it "is our most direct connection to the divine spirit." Others pointed to the need to control those (particularly corporate enterprises) who dump industrial wastes into rivers or pollutants into the air, activities that constitute trespasses to property boundaries.

Those who insist upon the existence of the state in order to protect people from murderers, thieves, and rapists — a function that even the most powerful state apparatus in history has failed to adequately perform — or to protect nature from private decision-making, reflect Hayek’s concern. We are conditioned through the schools, the media, the state, and other institutions to fear our own autonomy, and to transfer control over our behavior to external agencies. Schools instruct us in what we need to learn; churches define and guide our spiritual quests; the media informs us what we need to know and what actions we should take; the state prescribes, in the smallest detail, the propriety of our conduct, and punishes us for any deviations. We have been well trained in the proposition that others will take the responsibility for our behavior, and that our only role is to conform ourselves to these mandates.

This conditioning is reinforced by periodic episodes of fear generated by institutional authorities, who inform us of dangers we face from seemingly endless sources. We have learned to not only fear others (e.g., murderers, child-abductors, terrorists, racists, polluters) but our own capacities for self-direction. The ease with which the state, after 9/11, was able to mobilize the fears of millions of Americans into a mass-minded frenzy supportive of unprovoked war and unrestrained police powers, is testimony to the symbiotic relationship between state power and individual weakness.

Fear puts us in conflict with both others and ourselves. This is how political systems prosper: by promising to regulate and reconcile the conflicts generated by divisive, political thinking! We have been conditioned to define our sense of responsibility by our willingness to participate in this conflict-ridden enterprise; to employ our energies on behalf of political solutions to political conflict. By our so doing, we become the very problem we believe we are working to overcome.

We deplore the crime in society, and call upon the state to tax and police our neighbors in order to end such violence, unaware that the forcible policies of the state produce violence. We despise bigotry, and call upon the state to punish those who judge others by their race. To bring about such ends, we create "affirmative action" programs and, in the process, become racists ourselves. In the name of respecting the sanctity of human life, we insist upon capital punishment for murderers, a practice that further degrades human life. We have a new respect for nature, and call upon the state to take action against those whose behavior violates our sense of environmental propriety. We thus put ourselves in conflict with our neighbors and, in so doing, diminish the mutual respect upon which a peaceful and orderly social environment depends.

Is it possible for us to break this cycle of social conflict in any other way than for each one of us to withdraw our energies from the process? Can we discover the creative power of change that comes only from within each of us? So consistently has our thinking been embedded in notions of collective power, that most of us are unable to imagine anything so bold as a self-directed form of living. We forget a basic truth that should be evident to any libertarian versed in economics: life functions at the margin. We are born and we die individually. All learning and creativity take place at the margin between the known and the unknown, the established and the novel. We derive our understanding of the world through marginal changes and deviations from the norm (geneticists have a saying: "cherish your mutations"). The study of economics employs marginal utility analysis, and addresses the effects of marginal changes in prices. Even the protection of our lives and property from criminal acts — a function we delude ourselves that the state can perform for us — ultimately depends on our individual defenses against the criminal. Most importantly, perhaps, is the need for each of us to remember that only the individual is the carrier of life on earth.

One of the common themes that runs through readers’ responses to my articles is the sense that, while our individual thinking must change if we are to live in peace and liberty, there is little point in focusing upon such methods as long as others remain attached to statist thinking. "I will not change if others do not," would be a succinct way of encapsulating such responses. Their inquiries usually go on to ask: "in the meantime, what can we do?"

What such readers fail to grasp is this essential point: the only way to bring about such changes is to return to the source of the violence and repression that afflicts us: our individual thinking. The query "what can we do?" usually comes down to the question "what can someone else, particularly someone in authority, do to change all of this?" The answer is very clear: there is nothing anyone else can do to end our self-destructive attachments to statism. Because such change originates, marginally, only within our minds, you and I are the only ones who can bring that about. But to do so requires us to confront and break out of the mindset to which we have been conditioned.

I am fond of quoting Carl Jung on this point, because his writing focuses upon the psychological transformations that must occur if we are to transcend the fears and the violence that are tearing apart our world. He states:

if the individual is not truly regenerated in spirit, society cannot be either, for society is the sum total of individuals in need of redemption. I can therefore see it only as a delusion when the Churches try — as apparently they do — to rope the individual into some social organization and reduce him to a condition of diminished responsibility, instead of raising him out of the torpid, mindless mass and making clear to him that he is the one important factor and that the salvation of the world consists in the salvation of the individual soul.

Jung’s message underlies my previous two articles to which this one is addressed. Our freedom is inseparably tied to the responsibility we have for both our thinking and actions, a connection that goes to the question of control over our lives. It is only in a system of privately owned property that such qualities coalesce. Individual liberty is a social condition in which each of us enjoys unrestrained decision-making over what is ours, while peace arises from the practice of individuals limiting the scope of their decision-making to the boundaries of their property interests. The anarchistic system of which I write is premised upon the self-ordering nature of private property: I do as I please with what is mine to own and control; I control my actions so as to refrain from extending my decision-making over what is yours. This is where we must begin our inquiry into such offenses as victimizing crimes and environmental pollution: they are intrusions upon the property interests of others; they are trespasses, the failure to respect the inviolability of boundaries.

It should be evident that a system of private property fosters responsibility. If I, alone, control my actions, I, alone, am responsible for what I do. This is not a moral proposition, but a causal one, in much the same way that we can say a tornado was responsible for destroying Uncle Charlie’s barn. But to be responsible is to be accountable, particularly to the harshest critic we face in life: ourselves.

Most of us fear this sense of responsibility, which is why individual liberty is such a troublesome proposition to so many people. Walter Kaufmann has written of "decidophobia," the fear of making decisions. If we delude ourselves that we have no control over our lives, then we cannot be held responsible. And if we are not responsible for what we do — even to ourselves — then we must be the victims of other people’s decision-making. Is it any wonder that men and women who, having smoked cigarettes for fifty years and developed lung cancer, now want to sue the tobacco companies for the consequences of their own actions, or that alcoholics seek damages from distillers for their cirrhosis of the liver? A recent news story told of a man who brought suit against his local cable television company for turning himself and his family into television addicts! Do you not see the connection between the continuing diminution, by the state, of respect for privately-owned property, and the rise of the "victimization" industry?

If we are to live in peace and liberty, our efforts must be focused upon the only factor within our control to change without generating conflict with others, namely, ourselves? Those who profess such values, but then declare — at least implicitly — "I will not change if others do not," express a convenient way of avoiding responsibility for their lives. After all, what will cause others to change if those who verbalize their support for liberty are not prepared to do so in their own lives?

Such changes must include a willingness on our part to examine our fears, particularly the fears of living in a world of autonomous social forces; fears of ourselves and others. We might begin with a healthy skepticism of those who seek to extend their power over our lives by a daily introduction, via the media, of new hordes of bogeymen waiting at the city gates to invade our lives, and whose intrusions can be countered only by extended regulatory authority over our lives. We might then lose our innocence about all political systems and see them for what they have always been: mechanisms by which self-anointed elites control the lives of the rest of us.

To those readers who, despite my clear expressions, continue to ask: "what can we do?" to reduce statism in our lives, let me offer one minor contribution each one of us can make to this end: whenever you see a news story or hear a politician addressing some "social issue," insist that such issue be redefined for what it is, namely, an invasion of a private property interest. Clarify in your own thinking and that of your friends that "taxation" does not involve an "allocation of society’s resources," but is an act of theft, by the state, of private property; that the "war on drugs" is a war against self-ownership; that all forms of government regulation of economic activity involve attacks upon the private property of some persons for the benefit of others.

As you begin to clarify your own thinking, you may find yourself increasingly attracted to methods of handling disputes with others in ways that (a) do not involve the use of state coercion to accomplish desired ends and, thus, foster the social peace that comes from respecting the inviolability of others’ property interests; and, (b) extend the range of your capacities to manage your own life and its inherent problems.

To the aforementioned environmentalist who spoke of the need to cherish nature, bear in mind that mankind is also an expression of nature’s wonder, and needs nothing so much right now as the removal of those restraints that compel people to become what they do not choose to be. Try respecting the "divine spirit" as it manifests itself in your neighbor by respecting the inviolability of his property boundaries. If it is your desire to save the kangaroo rat, or a wetland belonging to a farmer, show such respect by negotiating with him, voluntarily, rather than calling upon the state to coerce his obedience to your vision. In so doing, you may end up not only preserving a species or a wetland, but humanity itself.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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