Do You Really Want Freedom, Or Are You Just Kidding Yourself?

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June 10, 2009

'The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness. This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears he is a protector.'

~ Plato

'Wherever is found what is called a paternal government, there is found state education. It has been discovered that the best way to ensure implicit obedience is to commence tyranny in the nursery.'

~ Disraeli

A recurring theme among some of the libertarians with whom I interact is: How can we bring freedom and liberty to pass more quickly? How can we mobilize our efforts to topple the coercive state, starting now? One might also ask why these pleas always have an inherent collectivist bent. Why must 'we' do anything? I've written about this quest before, although contrary to popular belief, I am under no illusion that a fully-anarchic, i.e., stateless, society would be a utopia. That's not even the point! In fact, I don't even care one way or the other. (I am not an advocate of freedom for utilitarian reasons.)

The unspoken belief seems to be that freedom and liberty arise from strategic planning. (After pretty much every essay I get published, I receive a note from some well-meaning soul who has the next can't-miss new strategy that will topple the State by the end of the week.) While one could argue that much of the prose on Internet sites such as this one is similarly intended, I would disagree. What I attempt to do here, and what I see others doing here, is exploring the fullness of the libertarian paradigm. That paradigm is based upon individual choices made without aggression upon others. It is only when one's choices infringe directly upon others that anyone should have a genuine concern. Generally speaking then, the focus is within, not without. Education is a primary goal. Philosophy is the primary focus.

Borrowing from Stephen Covey, many people seem overly concerned with changing and/or fixing the world, despite the fact that their bedroom closet might more urgently need attention. As an aside, I won't venture into the fallacy of the commons (or even the tragedy of the commons) right now, because this essay won't be long enough. Suffice it to say that the bleeding-heart tendency to impose one's beliefs on everyone else in the name of a third party'the children, the poor, the homeless, the environment, etc.'got old for me years ago. (The subject does deserve some analysis, though. Maybe I'll attempt to address it in a subsequent essay.)

During a recent long run, I got to thinking about this issue: Getting to 'real freedom' and all that. Amidst my own pondering, something I'd heard my market anarchist friend and colleague Stefan Molyneux say over and over rang in my thoughts: Freedom begins at home, with you, with that over which you ultimately have the most control. If you are tied to positive obligations that were thrust upon you coercively, from friends, or from family, or dating back to poor childhood lessons, then worrying about the State is a huge waste of time. The vital point: The lessons one uses in direct interaction with those closest to him are reflected back by the society he inhabits, often by the authority paradigm of that society.

Stop, in the Name of the Law!

While I'm relatively certain that most people were appalled when they read, quite some time ago now, about the 8th grader who was strip-searched for Ibuprofen in California, I fear that if we were to share parenting tactics, our uneasiness with such behavior as that of the vice principal in the story would be more a matter of degree than of morality. More pointedly: Have you ever humiliated one of your children or a supposedly close friend to make a point? Do you remember ever being humiliated by your parents as they strove to establish dominance and authority over you? Have you ever seen an adult humiliated by another adult? Agents of the State act in exactly this way, almost universally. The actions of that police officer in Dallas are but the latest example in long line of repeated scenes form the same shitty movie. Visit almost any airport and you too can 'enjoy' similar treatment.

There is a reason why people like Manadel al-Jamadi are treated like sub-humans. The belief system that informs people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (and all the thugs who have replaced them) also convinces them that they can take any step, no matter how heinous, to maintain the authority they think they've been given'morals and ethics be damned. The same could be said of Officer Robert Powell, the Dallas cop noted in the story linked above. According to Business Daily's Mark Weisenmiller, quoting from Jane Mayer's 'Dark Side,' Jamidi's last few minutes on Earth were not pleasant:

Jamadi was driven first to an Army base for debriefing, where the US Navy SEALs punched, kicked, and struck him with their rifle muzzles for some 20 minutes.

Weisenmiller goes on to say:

Jamadi was later interrogated by CIA operatives at Abu Ghraib prison, where he was hung up by his wrists, and subsequently killed.

This is an extreme example, but it points to what I believe is a general trend. How can one protect freedom by taking it away from someone else, without regard for basic morality? Here's a video of a sheriff's deputy 'laying the wood' to a suspect in an undercover drug bust. While most freedom advocates would label such behavior as both heinous and dastardly, I would be willing to bet that there are people reading this column who feel, conversely, that punishment such as spanking, slapping, or other physical infringements are sometimes appropriate. (A relative of mine told me that Plaxico Burress deserves whatever he gets, for the heinous infraction of carrying a gun without the state-mandated paperwork.) My question: How does one decide?

Here's the thing: If you can punish a slave to your heart's content when he's 'yours,' why wouldn't he take the same approach when he gets the chance, if and when the tables are turned? It is this psychological phenomenon that made 'straw bosses' so effective during the times of chattel slavery in the U.S. Similarly, it is this psychological phenomenon that supports putting the child who is the biggest behavior problem in charge while the teacher is out of the room.

Further, and maybe more worrisome is this: At what point does the type of heinous behavior and treatment of prisoners at places like Abu Ghraib become commonplace in detention centers in the U.S. ? (Hell, for all I know, it's already happening.) At what point will the punishment for previously-minor offenses migrate up towards the death penalty, like some episode of Star Trek gone terribly off-track? We already have people in the U.S. serving prison time for the offense of lying. When an agent of the State believes that his orders justify the most basic mistreatment of his fellow man, it's only a hop, skip, and jump to enemy combatants on home soil 'and I'm not talking about only people who look like Muslims'being treated the same way. If the Milgram Experiments and the Stanford Prison Experiments taught us anything, it's that people will follow orders'naked authority'to almost any end, despite data and indications (and even signals from conscience) to the contrary. It is this seminal truth that guarantees that the State, any state, no matter how constructed, no matter who is 'elected' to run it, no matter what documents supposedly justify its creation and protect those under its control, will, in time, become a bubbling cesspool of rights infringement and totalitarian conduct.

He That Treats Others as a Child Will Himself Be Treated Like a Child?

Do lessons learned early in one's life, both in the home and at school, drastically negatively affect the ability of a society to embrace liberty and freedom? Examining childhood lessons, some would say we over-protect our children. I tend to agree. Says one pundit:

Fears regarding safety and litigation have resulted in playgrounds that are unchallenging and unappealing to young people. Parents are obsessively concerned with protecting their children and this is leading to their offspring not developing the resilience and physical skills that they need.

While one might argue about how much actual resilience is developed on the playground, and I don't care to do so, few would argue (I hope) with the negative effect of the creeping sheep-like treatment the State gives its citizenry. The State systematically over-protects its citizens, to very negative effect. The State is composed of people with beliefs. How much of this penchant toward over-protection stems from ideas developed during childhood only later to be implemented?

One could certainly blame public education for much of this problem, but that might also be a convenient scapegoat. One could also suggest that such behavior'protectionism versus freedom'is endemic in humans. No matter how one learns such lessons, one thing is undeniable: the State treats each of us as children because too many of us believe that such behavior is appropriate. More troubling, we ourselves practice this behavior. For example, focusing on one specific area, and returning again to children and family, almost everyone has heard the phrase: 'Spare the rod, spoil the child.' I've heard it more times than I care to remember. (In full disclosure, I also believed it, or so I thought, for far longer than I'd care to admit.) I don't intend to debate the morality of corporal punishment. Instead, I wish to place it in the same moral context as similar punishments meted out by agents of the State.

Ironically, while getting my periodic dose of The Blog of Tim Ferriss, of 'The 4-Hour Work Week' fame, I came across a fascinating post from a woman who 'escaped' from her Amish sect. In the comments of response to her story one can find, among several interesting musings, a discussion of this supposedly Biblically-derived phrase which is generally used to justify physical punishment of children. The fascinating tidbit was this: The Bible doesn't actually contain that phrase. The sentiment is apparently a paraphrase of Proverbs 13:24, which says:

He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.

While I'm certainly no Biblical scholar, it seems to me a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy to use that single verse as a justification for physical abuse. Back on Ferriss's blog, a poster simply shown as 'Betsy' offered what I believe is the most humane (and libertarian) translation of that verse:

'Spare the rod and spoil the child' is actually analogous to the rod of the shepherd. It's really a beautiful, sentimental teaching that has been totally perverted by some.

The poster went on:

A good shepherd never beats the sheep, but uses the rod to guide them with a gentle touch. That this homily should justify child abuse is the exact opposite of its intended meaning, which is 'by failing to guide your child with love and instilling discipline (not punishment) in a consistent and gentle way, you ruin the child's chances of successfully functioning in relationships and society as a whole.'

Indeed! This sentiment seems to resonate with the non-aggression axiom. How can the thugs with whom so many of us deal claim to be protecting anyone from anything? (They certainly aren't gently guiding anyone, either.)

Here's the real irony: The people who take actions such as those police officers or that vice principal, on behalf of the State, very likely learned those lessons at home or at school, as children themselves. Each time one teaches those closest to him from this playbook, he deepens the chasm between freedom and the routine acceptance of the State's naked authority. He also lengthens the time it will take to fill that chasm.

Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, is credited with saying:

If you think of yourselves as helpless and ineffectual, it is certain that you will create a despotic government to be your master. The wise despot, therefore, maintains among his subjects a popular sense that they are helpless and ineffectual.

There is an important corollary to this insight. If you think of others as helpless and ineffectual, you will erect systems'often despotic systems'designed, so you think, to help those people overcome their helplessness. As a result, you will only enslave them. In the effort, you will eventually enslave yourself as well. Please note that this is true no matter the supposedly objective evidence one uses to justify the treatment, be it age, race, gender, culture or something else.

Conclusion

One of the most interesting theories I have ever heard regarding freedom came from Molyneux during one of many discussions. He asserted that much of the damage to the fabric of voluntary interaction in society stemmed from violent, coercive behavior in the family unit. I admit that this hypothesis initially took me aback. (With apologies to Dune, I guess my imperial conditioning was strong.) Honestly though, the assertion that family violence is all too common is not worthy of much debate. If one can't see the similarity among how a TSA screener treats an airline passenger; how a teacher or principal treats a student; and how far too many parents treat their children'well, freedom and liberty are much further away than I could ever hope. (Of course, the parent who really wants to prepare his children for well-practiced performance during airport screening can obtain a Playmobil Security Check Point toy. Start them young!)

C.S. Lewis was prescient when he said:

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

While it's neither my place nor my goal to advise anyone about how to raise their children, several observations seem reasonable. These observations seem particularly germane to the statist authority paradigm and from where it seems to emanate.

Whether it's letting a child out of the house without prior written permission and accompanying signed documents, selecting the foods your son or daughter can eat, without discussion or education, or (my personal favorite) slapping your child in the mouth for being sassy, the similarities remain clear. Anyone who thinks such practices make sense probably shouldn't be too aghast if the State seeks to forcibly protect them from transfats. Neither should they be surprised when somebody gets tased for not kowtowing to some random person wearing a uniform. These examples occupy different social contexts but exemplify strikingly similar moral content.

Krishnamurti pointed out the truth when he said:

Your parents are frightened, your educators are frightened, the governments and religions are frightened of your becoming a total individual, because they all want you to remain safely within the prison of environmental and cultural influences.

I'd say it's about time we each break out of that prison. Sure, the State is a huge problem, but the State is just people. The treatment we practice, the treatment we allow, and the treatments we will receive are inexorably linked. Maybe liberty is a learned behavior and maybe we all need to change the lessons we allow and practice?

And now, if you'll excuse me, my bedroom closet needs attention.

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Wilton D. Alston's picture
Columns on STR: 14

Wilt Alston writes from Upstate, NY.  When he's not training for a marathon, or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.