I wrote a bit on the virtue of self-rule in my last post, Why I Reject Marxism. I suggested that people within a collectivist society, rather than hoping for the inauguration of utopia, should instead cultivate within themselves the lineaments of that utopia. Namely, self-rule. But what is self-rule, and how ought it to be manifested? Can we define self-rule in a satisfactory way? I will attempt.
Self-rule is the capacity to fully own one’s actions, as well as their consequences. The man in prison, deprived of livelihood and liberty, is equally as liable for what he does as the man outside. The president of a nation is as equally liable for what he does as the average citizen on the street. Dodging responsibility for doing wrong (or, rarely, for doing right); blaming one’s behavior on exterior factors such as parents, friends, the state, culture, or an institutional whatever; rationalizing the negativity of one’s actions by pointing to the similar actions of others; or otherwise masking one’s responsibility in some cloak of self-righteousness, rationalization, or victim-blaming, or combination thereof are all behaviors of the man who cannot rule himself, because he does not understand that it is he, and he alone, who is responsible for what he does. This is not to say that exterior factors do not impinge on our lives; to deny that is obviously false. This is to say that how we react in response to these external actions is what defines us as men of self-rule, or as children. Self-rule truly begins when a man understands he alone bears responsibility.
Following on this, the man that knows he alone bears responsibility for what he does knows also that no one can ever be said to be responsible for him. The state is not obligated to provide him with food, money, or birth control pills. His neighbor is not obligated to build him a road so he can drive to work. His parents are not obligated to keep him in perpetual infancy. When he understands that his responsibility for his life is his alone, then he must begin to act with realization of this truth. He must produce, not just have things produced for him: he must take up an industry, converting his labor into something tangible that he can offer to the world. He must repay his debts and mind his contracts: buying a service that is overpriced, as I and other university students have done, is no excuse for reneging on our promises to our creditors after the fact. He must understand that charity comes from the willing heart, and is not pried from the taut fingers of a clenched fist. All the good that he can expect in his life, he must expect from his own industry, and not through thievery of other’s work.
The above ideas stem from the deeper realization that there is little in our actual power. Indeed, self-rule is fundamentally the understanding of what is in one’s own power, and what is not. A major avenue through which I came to libertarianism as a political philosophy was Stoic ethics. I’ve returned to Marcus Aurelius for the last decade, since I bought my first edition of his Meditations. If we are to rule ourselves, we must know what we are capable of ruling, and through a sober reflection we see that we have current ownership over our possessions, our bodies, and our minds, all in greater or lesser degree in relation to our own individual differences of chance or industry. Yet, we see that our possessions are ephemeral. They may be taken from us at any time, whether through a trick of the market or the sadistic power grab of an overreaching government. Our bodies will not only age, falter, and die, but can be taken into possession by others, whether individuals or the state. There is only one place where a man ever has unbridled freedom: the mind. When we realize that is all we truly own, then we will come to focus our efforts broadly on perfection of that mind. Through disciplining our minds, we can move outwards again: discipline of the mind leads to that of the body, and thence to that of our external affairs. A man’s property is nothing but assurance against privation in the present, and is not the foundation of his self-rule. The only thing that can defend against that is the power of the mind to overcome.
Understanding that we are essentially powerless in the world does not obviate from the need to act in it. To be is to do, after all. What this knowledge presents to us is that everything we do may be taken away. It may fail to work. It may never manifest at all. But we do it anyway, not because it will succeed, but because actions that are good – morally praiseworthy things from mundane work to heroic deeds – are worthy in and of themselves. The baker who goes every day to his baker’s shop, makes bread, and sells it to his neighbors is doing something good because he is providing a service of value, he is providing for himself, and for his community. The man who lays bricks can walk by the buildings he has constructed until the end of his days, confident in the knowledge that he has directly contributed to the wellbeing of another.
This brings me to my last point about self-rule. Human beings were not made to be individuals, their industry was not made for just themselves, but everything that is good, just, and industrious always is in reference to a community. The great divergence between the libertarian and the collectivist is that the former sees community as a group of autonomous peers, collaborating selfishly for their own benefit but, directly or indirectly, contributing to the benefit of all. The latter sees community as a being with independent existence, whose needs must be placed above those of its individual members: we must take the money of our citizens to build schools and hospitals, we must forbid them from drugs and alcohol so that they will be industrious, we must embroil them in foreign wars so they will be patriotic, because it is for the greater good. Hogwash. Remember the words of Aurelius: “We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature.” Analyzing this, the hands and the feet cooperate as part of an ordered whole, a body, and they do so because they must – not a must of coercion, but a must of willing cooperation with each other. The foot does the work that the hand cannot do, and the reverse: the feet bring us to food, and the hands craft it and bring it to our mouths. Extrapolating this to the community, each member must interact for the good of the whole, because each member is integral to that whole. Take away one member, and there is diminishment. Rather than this supporting a collectivist viewpoint, it instead supports the absolute preciousness of the members of our community.
Self-rule is to realize who and what you are, and to act accordingly. We are responsible for ourselves, and once we realize this, we come to rule ourselves. We know that we have no obligations to others, and others have no obligations to us, inherently speaking. At the same time as we consider ourselves to be individuals, we then must turn to how we act individually within communities, and we see that our community is naturally suited for cooperation. Thenceforth, when we interact with other men of self-rule within our community, our interactions become voluntary, the natural expression of our free choices. We help others, not because we are forced, but because it is the completely free expression of our desires to fulfill what we are. Heavy is the head that wears the crown alone. Light is the head that shares it.