CHAPTER 10

REPRISE: SELF-OWNERSHIP

Let's pretend we're on-stage in a Best Picture movie.

Say it's April 2005. In several cities Williamsburg, Minneapolis, Dallas, Denver American citizens debate resolutions that may become a new Bill of Rights. The media follows this debate's instigator me as if it were doing a Truman Show.

Perhaps I'm not there. I'm watching it on a hospital TV, without stereo. I desperately want to walk out under my own power, get to one of the hotels and give my speech.

Congressmen are skeptical. Perhaps 10 of them are willing to sponsor a bill to rewrite the first 10 amendments, with a long road ahead for a 2/3 majority.

For there's all kind of 1970's-style scare talk.

For the past three winters, no measurable snow has been recorded along the East Coast as far north as Princeton, N.J. In Washington, cherry blossom trees are being ruined by budding in February.

In the Owens Valley of California, along U.S. 395 near Mono Lake, scientists warn of a volcanic eruption within the next few years, with ashfall as far away as the Mississippi River. At least the ash cloud will slow down global warming.

Scientists have discovered 2 comets that could collide with Earth in the next 50 years.

Russia is sliding back towards dictatorship, with poor control over its nuclear arsenal.

To meet their recruiting goals, the armed forces now satisfy themselves with 10th-grade educations. Officially, they still don't "ask."

In northern latitudes, melanoma has risen four-fold. And cases of mad-cow disease are doubling every 18 months. Scientists have found a common rogue protein allotrope, which converts all similar proteins with "casual contact," the way chlorofluorocarbons eat ozone.

The AIDS virus is developing resistance to protease inhibitors, and new forms in some parts of the world seem easily transmitted by heterosexual activity.

More people die as HMOs refuse to cover unconventional or experimental treatment for various illnesses, whether behaviorally based or not.

Terrorists claim to be able to contaminate a subway system or airport terminal with anthrax, or, using contraband diverted from a decaying "house of cards," Russia, to spray a heavily populated city with plutonium dust. Terrorists, after all, want us all to become victims (those of us who haven't already become "oppressors"), for government to grow more autocratic so it must be overthrown, and be replaced by the (usually leftist) terrorists themselves.

Don't people need government to exercise triage and maintain order during these calamities? Don't people need to be told their limits, possibly in preparation for future hardships?

Yet, I want to argue. We should ratify our individual rights. Once and for all.

Even so, others will argue that regulatory and redistributive government policy is necessary to guarantee that everyone has a reasonable and ratifiable opportunity to pursue their own happiness. For example, businesses and even individuals must be regulated to the point that they do not discriminate on the basis of race, religion or other benign characteristics, behaviors and inclinations. Or, some redistribution of wealth is necessary not so much for "the poor" but particularly for children and recent parents, because the demands of child rearing are so exceptional when compared to most adult pursuits.

---

Remember, my "libertarianism" is based on this perfect-world notion that every person answers for his own mistakes. That's the baseline premise. In a deterministic game like chess, that works: no how much a stronger player your opponent is, only your own mistakes can beat you. It works like that on Monday night football, too. That is what pro sports teach us (even in a team context). Much moral debate derives from the practical difficulties of personal accountability. The age of adult responsibility also is debatable (I would say, old enough to serve in the military should mean old enough to drink), but up to that age, parents must remain accountable.

Of course, a harmonious real world is based on cooperation as well as individual initiative. The question is, who makes up the rules as to how these are to balance, like on the scales of Libra.

The starting presumption that every person is responsible for himself means that all individual people are equal in their rights at law. It emphatically does not mean that the state should try to make them "equal" in wealth, experience, or even opportunity. If you're born poor, you don't have the moral right to use the force of the state to confiscate from others to take care of you. If you're born ugly, you don't have a moral claim that someone fall in love with you just because you're "needy." Local institutions, most of all the family, should try to smooth out these differences in interpersonal relations; but even being from a bad family doesn't warrant the use of the state to take from others. On the other side of this, of course, people will find they have to be generous in the way they relate to others or they will remain very much alone. The "absolute individual" is indeed very much a loner, until he "changes" enough to assimilate other motivations.

There is a certain parallel between personal growth issues and politics.

Consider what has happened to me in my own community when I've dated people in the past and become attached to them. We all know the feeling of wanting someone more than that person wants you . . . the unrequited infatuation syndrome. Sometimes the love was based on the fulfillment of an ancient "fantasy." I feel "love" because the other person is "good enough" and (by paying attention to me) makes me feel good about myself. But are either of these situations likely to lead to a lifetime committed relationship, where I drop everything else for the spouse if anything happens? That commitment is indeed what "society" expects, and putatively it may sound somewhat more likely among opposite-sex couples, because women tame men. It seems that the very expectation of any such situation, besides being heavy, just leaves me eclipsed and clinging on. I feel much better if I establish my own identity in the world first through a creative expression like writing (political or fiction) or music. That attracts people and conveys the credible notion that I have something uniquely mine to offer. This Ninth-Street-Center type scenario is common in the gay world, but it has become common among heterosexual couples during the past few years as women deal with the priorities of family and career (and then so do their husbands). Life comes to be seen as a sequence of Maslow-style peak experiences, without necessarily a united chain of commitment.

Of course, making-it-on-your-own is risky too. Just look at the conflicts that can occur in my case, as I described them in the free speech chapter. Most people don't make names for themselves with solo accomplishments. Practical odds of socialization force many people into considerable deliberation in finding a "mate." They become preoccupied with keeping a particular partner because they will be adrift, exposed to psychological hypothermia without one. They will wind up growing old with no one to really "care" if something happens to them. Or they may lack the sense of practical, earthy purpose that can jump-start adult creativity. And, of course, if they have learned to identify with raising children, there seems to be a moral imperative to have lifelong mates. No wonder there should be calls for cultural restraints, not just on pornography, but on the more subtle media clues that suggest that less-than-perfect people are not exciting to the senses. People need to choose mates "realistically."

Therefore, the independence-approach to relationships seems very healthful for the individual if appropriately executed, but not so good for the community as a whole because most people can't do this. (Or can they?) There is tension between fidelity to ideals and liking people "where they are."

So it is with politics. The independent person, having been burned or threatened by the consequences of some of these public issues (as they tie in with his own conduct), develops a subtle, deep understanding of all the twists in such issues as torts, tax policy, family values, affirmative action, equal rights for gays. He learns to set up his life so he is not greatly affected by what politicians or other forces beyond his control do. He may be in a position to teach others what is really going on.

But in traditional political scenarios, people have gotten used to the notion that their "individual rights" are really privileges that come down to them through their membership in some sort of cultural, racial, or ethnic group. Human nature necessarily exploits to keep itself on top; therefore the only way to be fed and have your needs met is to remain loyal to political or labor leaders who will speak for you, and arrange coalitions between your group and others in similar circumstances. You can't make it on your own, unless you're privileged or unusually talented. Carried to great extremes, you see this left-wing guerilla Robin-Hood mentality as well acted in the Brazilian film, 4 Days in September, where hesitating before shooting a member of the oppressor-enemy (still another individual human being) is seen as "bourgeois." It is this sort of process that keeps fundamental moral choices in the hands of politicians and demagogues, under the pretense of "representative democracy." One of the most amazing examples of collective rights is the movement towards separatism (and the establishment of French "culture," to the extent of sign ordinances) in Quebec, as if learning a second language was too great a burden for most people.

But it has become my own "philosophy of history" that a combination of technology and relative political stability (no doubt possible because of the personal sacrifices of past generations) has made us turn the corner on how we view the momentum of political and social progress. Now, it is very much a tension between individuals and not just nations, races and groups. Forget Hegel!

From a psychological perspective, a goal of "libertarianism" should be to get government (however "democratic") out of people's personal psychological choices. Government should not favor (even indirectly with tax policy) or interfere with one adult's choice of another as a "significant other." Government should not interfere with personal expression. Government should not hinder the personal mobility people need to execute their own plans. And so on. But it can be difficult to draw the line when there seem to exist so many genuine social threats and so much structural inequity that transcends meritocracy. One has faith in this libertarian approach only when one can believe that, over time, individuals will become more responsible for themselves if they have to, and that they will see the benefits of self-empowerment.

None of this means that people must become hardened to the needs of the disadvantaged or become unmerciful or unforgiving (sometimes to the point of adopting a "blame the victim" ethic). But government cannot force people to grow kind and considerate; it merely must allow them to be so. Indeed, this tension between freedom and responsibility, between individualism and group loyalty and service, is something that the culture might explore better with less government except that even a free-market culture mustn't do this too heavy-handedly; it has to let people change at their own rates. In a free society, volunteerism becomes an important part of personal growth. But it is a volunteerism of the heart that selects individuals based on one's own gifts rather than follows the choices made by other established leaders. Our greatest moral issue may be to reconcile what makes us tick, turns us on and even defines us as individual people, with the ukase to meet the real needs of other people and really like doing it - while accepting the circumscription of limitations that these commitments imply.

It is, after all, the choice of significant others monogamous marriage partners or the closest of friends that generates the whole paradigm of psychological and political liberation, of choosing one's purposes and executing them. How many people will admit that their greatest passions come from finding others who demonstrate and express the qualities that they have chosen to be important in others? Now, so many people punt, referring to religion, or more basely to "nature", the grabbings of nurses when coming out of anesthesia, the instincts from hormones but even these at least represent the half-conscious choice to find goodness in the opposite (or same) sex, or at least to create a progeny.

People feel uncomfortable facing the possibility of choices, at least those that would effectively project personal values. It is often easier (and comforting) to find a simple "moral" basis for "right" choices, such as what religion offers. Average people may find comfort in the old-fashioned restrictions of intimate choices and sensory distractions if these restrictions enable them to find continual satisfaction with themselves and this includes sexual fulfillment and excludes erotic comparison to others in stable marriage and family. A successful outcome from the execution of a free individual choice depends on a combination of a few factors: the person's natural talents, the person's effort and diligence, and most of all the person's willingness to give to others without expecting immediate gratification and especially in such a way that the real needs of others are fed. It is the meeting of personal values and the needs of others that becomes critical. The outcomes can never be equal among individuals because we are so differently abled, qualitatively and quantitatively. Equality among people is at best dynamic, like the neutral equilibrium of a cone sitting on its side rather than standing on its butt. This is a disquieting message for some who fall back to that "Everything Is Beautiful" song, but it is the only way to excellence. Likewise, a baseline assumption that everyone will be held accountable for himself is the only safe way to a freer world.

Understandably, then, a modern focus on individual rights tends to emphasize the exercise of personal surplus rather than the adaptive fending off of government.

People may often feel more secure with customary government regulation, even if they admit that it is impossible to disentangle civil from economic liberties and even persons from organizations. If people are to enjoy the greater freedom and self-direction that would go with less government and especially with a more porous safety net then they will still have to learn now to set priorities, recognize personal limits and make reliable commitments to others.

With this kind of balance, individual freedom works! Many people never look beyond peer approval and the mythical need to hunt down enemies. Many people still have no self-concept not wholly contained by the approval of others. A less active government is equivalent to a population of individuals capable of grasping a healthful self-image. There are not many options.