On Reclaiming Self-Ownership

My earlier article, "Do You Own Yourself?," evoked a response from many readers that could be generalized as follows: "if we have lost ownership of ourselves, what can we do to regain it? What specific suggestions do you have to help us in this regard?" This is a legitimate question, whose very asking provides the first step in working toward an answer.

Whether we live our lives as free individuals, or as collectivized subjects, depends on nothing so much as the state of our minds. If daily reports of suicide bombers, racial and ethnic genocide, religious groups killing one another, and governments insisting upon hundreds of billions of more tax dollars for more violent weapons of mass destruction, teach us nothing else, it should be this: human society is being destroyed by the content of our thinking. That most of us have come to regard such vicious, devastating behavior as the norm, does not diminish its utterly insane nature. In such an environment, the feverish waving of flags transforms the seemingly harmless patriotism of a July 4th parade into a celebration of collective psychopathology. To change the content of our thinking is not simply one of a number of strategies available to us if we wish to salvage society, it is the only means of doing so.

If you check an etymological dictionary, you will discover that the word "freedom" shares some common history with the words "peace," "friend," and "love." Our ancestors apparently had the sense, long since lost on us moderns, that a society in which "love" and "friendship" prevailed was a "peaceful" one in which people could enjoy "freedom." In this post-Hobbesian and post-Marxian age, we consider ourselves too sophisticated for such sentiments. Such thinkers have informed us that human society is nothing more than a continuing "war of every man against every man" (and you might have thought this originated with President Bush!); that voluntary transactions among people are based upon "exploitation;" that we are unavoidably "alienated" one from the other; that all trade is premised upon a "gain" by one party and a necessary "loss" by the other; and that the inevitable end of people living without the supervision of the state was one that was "nasty, brutish, and short."

What accounts for such diametrically opposed visions of society? Why does the early history of our language reflect a more cooperative, mutually supportive sense of social relationships than does the conflict-ridden rhetoric of our current world? Is it not evident that such differences can only be explained in terms of changes in the content of our thinking?

Our thinking is so politicized that we cannot imagine any significant change occurring in our world unless 51% of the population agrees to it. But creative advances in human culture have always been brought about by individuals or very small groups of individuals. It was Johannes Gutenberg's invention of movable type that triggered the diffusion of knowledge which, in turn, led to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and the scientific and industrial revolutions. Nor were major scientific discoveries brought about by public opinion polls, or through collective gatherings of what Mencken termed the "boobeoise." More often than not, the creative geniuses who have helped pull mankind out of the pits of ignorance, poverty, and despair, have had to incur the wrath — if not punishment — of their fellow humans.

All of this is a way of reminding ourselves that our claims to individual autonomy — or self-ownership — must, by their very nature, find their roots deep within that realm of existential loneliness that defines the human spirit. You will make your claim — or not — on the strength of the inner resources you find therein. Neither I, nor anyone else, can tell you "how" or even "whether" to assert such a claim, anymore than one can direct another to "be spontaneous."

We can, however, offer one another that which our divisive, politicized thinking has long caused us to disregard: mutual support for the protection of our sense of humanity. We have conditioned our minds to regard as transgressions either violations of our group's interests, or those directed against identifiable minority groups. We have, in other words, so thoroughly collectivized our sense of "rights" that, if an individual who has been brutalized by the state doesn't happen to be a member of some recognized collective, it scarcely attracts our attention.

We need to abandon our collective mindsets and become aware that what we have in common with one another is a need for the protection of our individuality, a protection that can be found only in the willingness of our neighbors to come to our defense. If the first step in reclaiming our self-ownership is to be found in exploring the question itself, the second step may be to come to the defense of your neighbor who is being transgressed. At the very least, we ought to develop the moral courage to say – to ourselves as well as to others — "what the state has done here is wrong!" We must learn to recognize what all too few understood during the federal government's siege of the Branch Davidian residence in Waco, namely, that such an attack was a war against all Americans.

I fully understand the frustration of people when faced with the fact that governments — all governments at all times and in all places — are in a continuing state of war with their own citizens. There are occasional truces but, ultimately, the state must exercise the scope of its authority by testing the resolve of its own people to resist it. For those who choose not to pay attention, this current "War on Terror" is nothing more than what every war is about: a state's aggrandizement of power over its own people.

How does one resist such extensions of power over one's life? How does one insist upon his or her self-ownership? Certainly not by emulating the methods of the state, such as by resorting to acts of violence. The sorry and deadly spectacle of men and women acting as suicide bombers, or hijacking airliners, or blowing up busloads of children, or throwing themselves in front of trains, are nothing more than acts of desperation and futility. What is worse — as we have seen in the Middle East — such violence only confirms in the minds of others that those whom the state has identified as "threats" to social order are, indeed, such threats, helping to rationalize even greater police powers!

Coercive power is antagonistic to life, for it seeks to substitute externalized for internalized control. A claim of self-ownership comes down to an assertion of self-control. As Robert LeFevre expressed it, "freedom is self-control," wherein one insists upon being the authority over one's life and other property interests, at the same time restricting the range of one's decision-making to what one owns.

Perhaps I can best make my point by referring to an experience I had, nearly twenty years ago, in one of my classrooms. In one of the segments of Constitutional Law that I teach, I asked my students whether the Constitution had any legitimacy. "On what basis does the United States government presume to rule you?," I rephrased the question. This question took us into a discussion of the subject of "authority." During the course of this discussion, a young man began to ask a series of questions:

"But how else are we going to live, if we don't follow others [i.e., authorities]?"

"Do you understand how allowing others to direct your thinking and your actions produces conflict within yourself?", I asked.

"Yes, I think so," the young man responded.

"Would you like to learn how to live your life in a more self-directed way, without relying on u2018authorities' to tell you how to do so?", I inquired.

"Yes," my student answered.

"How will you find out?", I asked.

"By asking you," he replied.

"Let me make certain I understand you: are you saying that you are now aware of how you have allowed others to control your thinking and actions by accepting these people as u2018authorities' over you?"

"Yes," he responded.

"And now you are asking me to tell you how to stop living this way and take control over your own life? Can I make you a self-directed person?"

There was a long silence, during which one could almost see what was going on in this man's mind. Finally he declared: "I guess this means that it's up to each one of us, doesn't it?"

"Do you need me to answer this question for you?", I asked.

"No," my student answered.

In the final analysis, I can do no more than respond with one of my favorite quotes, authored by one of the best minds in all of libertarian thinking, F.A. Harper, who said: "the man who knows what freedom means will find a way to be free."

March 7, 2002