On the Virtue of Self-Rule

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.

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5 thoughts on “On the Virtue of Self-Rule

  1. We’re left with a question of what to do with those who don’t exercise self rule. If Group A does all the right things (work hard, give to charity, save for the future, etc.) and Group B is largely irresponsible, can Group A act paternalistically over B? Many in Group B are asking for it (http://cafehayek.com/2004/12/afraid_to_be_fr.html).

    Certainly doing so comes with dangers (which is why we advocate for liberty). On the other hand, there may be arguments to be made for doing so. (e.g. extending a social safety net to B may ameliorate externality problems.)

    Here, I think is the key: If some in Group A (call them Aa) do not want to pay for those programs, the right thing to do is to recognize their sovereignty and leave them alone. If Ab (those looking to move charity into the government sphere) aren’t willing to recognize Aa as a subset of A, then that brings into question whether Ab is itself a subset of A. Ab is free to contribute to government welfare. Either Ab limits contributions to those voluntarily made (or perhaps imposed on B, but that possibility opens up a whole new can of worms), or they impose them on Aa and in doing so remove themselves from group A.If they go with the former they are doing what Aa wanted anyways (pluralism and voluntarism in charity). With the latter they cede the moral high ground.

    • I don’t see a reason on principle why group A should be barred from acting paternalistically over group B, or group B barred from seeking such paternalistic treatment, assuming that both groups are voluntarily entering into a relationship of social intercourse. Practically, however, that would put a great amount of responsibility into the hands of A. They would be entrusted with the life, liberty, and livelihoods of many people, and so the temptation to abuse that power may become overwhelming. A voluntary exchange between ruler and ruled may degenerate into a tyranny of the powerful over the weak, especially since the weak had delivered themselves willingly into the hands of others.

      Assuming that such a difference exists between group A and B, there would also be no obligation on the part of A to have anything to do with B. They could insulate themselves into self-sufficient and self-reinforcing social units, something like the Silicon Valley tech fanatics imagine with the creation of artificial islands or WiFi barges off the California coast. Furthermore, assuming that A is split into Aa and Ab, then Ab (holding the beliefs that it does) could no longer be considered a part of A if it attempted to force anyone to take up responsibility for others. Such responsibility may be taken up voluntarily, and could be transferred to a governmental apparatus, again assuming this occurs with the consent of the individual members of A. Non-consenting members would have to be allowed to not contribute.

      In principle, to reiterate, I see no problem with those proposals if voluntary contribution is the overriding factor in all cases. Practically I think there is a strong presumption that such voluntary matters, once begun, will become ossified and no longer be voluntary. On practical grounds alone, there ought to be a strong opposition to any transference of powers of redistribution to government, even administered under the best of men and with the best of intentions.

  2. i really liked this post’s thoughts, and its style: No ragged edges, no jargon, no out-on-a-limb lines of reasoning, but still digging deeply into what underlies a Liberty philosophy. We have to believe certain things about men in order to believe that Liberty is a desirable condition for them, and this piece clearly lays out much of that foundational wisdom.

    “There is little in our actual power…” Little, but not nothing. This is an overlooked point, and i’m so glad you made it. People are happy to hear a politician claim omnipotence when he’s making promises to them, and they’re equally happy to hear a philosopher tell them they’re helpless in the hands of fate or history. The fact that the individual man has real power and real responsibility in a necessarily limited sphere is the truth these people seem to be fleeing, and it is the truth that underlies the practical goal of a free and equal citizenry.

    Good stuff

    • Thanks for the thoughts Walther.

      Absolute freedom, and absolute determinism, both lead to nihilism. The freedom described by Sartre, what he called “radical freedom,” saw itself as completely divorced from the past and not at all bound by it’s dictates. But then, how are we supposed to act, when in each moment we are completely free to go in whatever direction? In this way freedom leads to paralysis. On the opposite extreme, the strict determinist, believing everything is ordained whether by providence or by physics cannot see a way forward, because there isn’t one: anything he will do he would have always done, without exception. Thence determinism leads to resignation, thence to lethargy, and ultimately to nihilism.

      Only by accepting our limited nature, but within that nature freedom to act, can we reconcile ourselves with the world. There is a way forward, we are capable of finding it, and we do not have to root around endlessly in the dirt or cast our eyes fruitlessly to the sky just to find purpose. It is there, for the taking, right in front of us. Sometimes we have a limited choice, to affirm or deny the path proffered. Sometimes we may choose among many. But what we cannot do, upon realizing this fact, is ignore our possibilities. We have to act.

  3. I agree with the definition of self rule being that one must fully own their actions, along with the consequences. Freedom and liberty would be possessing the autonomy to be able to do so. I think this is where any social system runs into problems, certainly collectivism with it’s obvious limits on personal endeavor, but it also exists in a society established upon Libertarian beliefs. Subtly and steadily, morality is introduced to pronounce certain actions as good and others as bad, however, who determines which actions are more praiseworthy than others and why?
    For a person to be self-ruled, he must be truly free to rule himself. Superimposing a pseudo freedom over an intrinsically restrictive society and applauding a person if they participate properly in the sanctioned events of the state is hardly an example of self rule. For those who have been deceived into buying a service that is overpriced because of the lie that this will ensure they can compete should renege on their promise to the creditors who were in on the scam and need to live with the consequences of their actions as well. No one is a passive participant in the self rule game, creditors included. Most of all I think it is misplaced hostility to brow beat others for supposedly not working or producing as much as their neighbor. Show me one person who doesn’t lift a finger to provide for themselves that isn’t living with the consequences of their behavior. You won’t find one.
    There is more to self rule than the worker pretending he is being responsible for himself, while also, consequently contributing to society. It would mean a society based on anarchy, not a republic, socialism, marxism, communism, fascism, etc., etc.. Participation would be fluid and voluntary, not rigid and contractual. The rule of law would be dissolved and the rule of self would reign. We are not powerless, but we seldom want to be fully responsible. In your prescription, ultimately we are only able to rule our minds, but this is fear, because if we truly ruled ourselves, there is no need for government as we know it. I admit, this is a scary realization, but it is unavoidable, nonetheless.
    To self rule, one would declare, “I stand alone.” and community would follow because we realize we cannot succeed in isolation, so the declaration becomes, “I stand alone, who stands with me?” A cooperation among individuals is achieved, each being free to pursue their course unimpeded without injury to another.
    But if ever a group declares themselves the controlling entity to guarantee their rights against others it is a tyranny and if it is demanded of an individual to perform a certain way then the means to perform must be provided. Therefore, society must provide the remedy and the amelioration for the oppressed whose liberty and freedom have been infringed. Can’t have one without the other and pretend justice.

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