On The Asymmetry Between Government And Self-Government

Recently I have read five books in a Jane Austen continuation series that bother me on a fundamental level.  There is something deeply broken about the worldview of the author, in that she assumes that anyone who is a principled and decent person is going to automatically be some sort of political radical, is going to abhor traditionalism, and is going to be disgusted by calls for generosity to be handled privately and consensually rather than through the coercive power of taxation and redistribution.  That this broken and defective political worldview is widespread, where compassion is viewed as a justification for state action and where the importance of private action is disregarded and disparaged, is one of the many (but one of the more important) reasons for the broken state of the world.  As the entire topic of the problem of the messianic state is something that can (and should) have many books written about by those who are equally as witty but less tubercular than Frederic Bastiat, and as I am a writer of small and fierce essays rather than (usually) the author of large books, it is worthwhile to point my artillery at something that can be brought down to size, and among those areas is the fundamental asymmetry between government and self-government.

The failure to recognize what is appropriate in how we govern ourselves and what is appropriate in how we govern others is at the root of a great deal of trouble in our world, not only in the present day but also in the melancholy course of human history.  Colson’s law offers an example of the problem of keeping order in a society in that it posits a continuum between cops and conscience as preserving a social order.  To the extent that we have a great deal of self-restraint, we are able to be free of external restraint, but to the extent that we lack self-restraint, we will be placed under coercive restraint of some kind.  While Colson refers to this restraint as cops, we need not see it merely as uniformed police.  The cops side of the continuum of order is broader than that of merely the police, but includes everything from the use of military or militarized restraint in putting down civil unrest through imprisonment and fines to the surveillance that companies subject their employees to in order to combat the theft of time or the misuse of company resources (to write this essay, for example).  Any external coercion brings with it expense.  It costs money to pay for licenses of software to monitor how company computers are being used and to pay for the people who use that software to make sure that employees are working properly.  It costs money to pay for prisons and police officers and courts and the bureaucratic machinery of the contemporary state as well as for armed forces as the rubber (or real) bullets they fire at those involved in violent protests and rebellion against authority.  Self-control costs nothing except one’s personal expenditure of attention and energy to restrain one’s behavior.  To the extent that self-control can be relied upon, a society need not have an extensive government at all, its policing can be done through moral suasion, its government can exist in frequently very informal ways through very inefficient operations that can build a lot of consensus and allow for a great degree of variety in how people live their lives.  The expense of depending on cops and coercion for the maintenance of public order is evident when one turns one’s attention to the sclerotic behavior of authoritarian regimes with their massive amounts of informers and their brutal and extensive gulag and laogai archipelagos or their local equivalents.

Having already commented briefly upon the asymmetry in cost between self-government and external government when it comes to the preservation of order, it is worthwhile also to comment upon the asymmetry that exists in the operation of self-government and external government.  Proper self-government is to a high degree monarchical or authoritarian.  We are to bring every thought and every action under submission to God’s ways, and are simultaneously to respect those in authority over us, and live in such a way that there is no just discipline or punishment for us to suffer from outside.  Doing so requires that we be very hard on ourselves, ruthless in investigating lapses of attention or attempts to justify behavior that would bring trouble upon us.  Those who lack a high degree of self-discipline tend to find themselves in all kinds of external trouble in this world, and if one has set for oneself the goal of living a quiet life where one will not suffer any sort of problems unless authorities are corrupt and wicked and ungodly, then that will require a high degree of coercion directed internally to deal with our own native bent towards some kind of moral disorder or another, and a strong desire for our nature to be transformed little by little into the nature of God, which lacks that inborn tendency towards some evil or another.

It should be noted that the proper authority that is directed internally would be immensely coercive if it came from without.  The self-discipline that is appropriate for an athlete who is seeking to win an athletic competition or for someone who desires to live a moral life would be torture if it came from outside and if it came from coercion rather than through the exercise of one’s own free will.  Those who see no distinction between self-government and external government see no problem with the exercise of all kinds of coercion, and indeed may relish in using the coercive power of the state to enforce their own human (and therefore corrupt and ungodly) worldviews on reluctant and recalcitrant human beings who are to be viewed as being either the raw materials for the messianic state to form into something glorious or as being beneath any respect or consideration whatsoever as to their own dignity or well-being or mere existence.  And yet it is simultaneously true that those who direct the most intense efforts at self-government will have the least degree of interest in ruling over others.  The knowledge of the difficulty of restraining ourselves from evil will make the prospect of restraining evil on the institutional level something to be done without a great deal of enthusiasm.  It is only those who let their own corrupt natures run wild or who lack a great deal of self-awareness about their own internal abyss that have a burning ambition to exercise despotic rule over others.  That we should see such horrible sins in the lives of those who sought to bully and bludgeon others into virtue should not surprise us in the least, for those who had despotic rule over themselves to the extent that they lived lives of decency and propriety would be fit examples to influence others without the need for tyrannical authority in the first place.

And there are still yet other sources of asymmetry between self-government, and external government, namely the asymmetry that exists in the knowledge and awareness we have about ourselves as opposed to the awareness that we hve of what is going on inside of others.  To the extent that we wish to dominate and oppress others and rule over them harshly, it will be in their best interests to reject and refuse that authority by any means possible.  If they have the force to resist us, we can expect that they will use it and force us to compromise our wishes to rule over them harshly, perhaps by requiring us to co-opt them.  If they do not have the force to resist us, we can expect that they will use the weapons of the weak and attempt to deceive us, shirk the requirements that we place on them and do as little as possible for us, disguise their true feelings behind a mask of levity and playfulness, and construct private and interior secret worlds where they can be free from control, and ruthlessly (if privately) mock our follies and errors while outwardly pretending to view us with respect and even obsequious regard.  And while we may suspect that their service to us is false and their loyalty to us entirely absent, our lack of understanding of what is going on inside of them will give them the space to be free in their imaginations, regardless of how unfree they may be in their circumstances.

We may therefore understand that the asymmetry of self-government and external government is not a problem that can be properly solved with technology.  It is a problem that is inherent to beings that have an internal life that is separated in any way from their external lives and the external control that others have over them.  Our freedom to think and imagine, to plan and design, prevents external restraint from going all the way in.  We can, if we choose, obey externally in order to avoid causing trouble for ourselves and remain rebellious and hostile to others in our hearts, and there is nothing that anyone else can do about it so long as we wish to remain so.  We can be polite and proper in our dealings with others while being creatures of implacable spite and infinite and everlasting resentment and bitterness.  So long as we have a private and inner world, the result of consciousness, we will be beings whose self-control and self-government is of vast importance because of the inefficiency and expense of external restraint and the utter inability of external government from controlling us on the inside should we wish to remain free of that authority.  And so long as others retain a sense of consciousness and a cultivation of their own secret and private worlds, they will retain some sense of freedom from us, try as we might to control them through laws and institutions.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to On The Asymmetry Between Government And Self-Government

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    My fear, in this era of advanced technology, is the existence of a generation which has allowed robotics and artificial intelligence to do its thinking for it–all in the name of progress. Ethics have become negotiable. Humanity (moral self-government) faces a losing battle against the costly but inevitable wave of innovation.

    Self-government generates no dollars-and-cents cost to the external government that exerts control over its citizens. It does generate great personal cost to the people exercising it through their ongoing internal battle of choosing to do what is right over what feels right, good or popular.
    Rulers who self-govern will guide and serve those they govern. They will see to their welfare without bringing their kingdom into a welfare state. This will actually preserve the wealth of the country, for each citizen will actualize his or her potential by following the ruler’s example–which citizens generally do. People normally respond favorably to a leader who looks out for them.

    People of the former Soviet Union and other countries with controlled media access (before the internet) only knew what they were told and automatically thought the way their rulers did. Only a very few were of a mind to question, and they were quickly silenced. The masses were unaware of them. When the iron curtain was lifted and the lifestyle of the masses revealed, the mindset of the general public was as astonishing to the rest of the world as the realization of having a mind to discern choices was to them. They had no idea that they were allowed to think for themselves. These forms of government are guilty of brainwashing their citizens. Only those who’ve had a taste of freedom can remember to reserve a corner of their minds for themselves in an oppressive state that demands complete subservience.

    • Yes, the outsourcing of one’s thinking is something that I definitely find of serious concern and I’m sure I have a post on that subject for you to read if I haven’t sent it to you already. In about a month from now I have reviews for the three volumes of the Gulag Archipelago, and so prisons and the Soviet gulags in particular and the problematic relationship between government and freedom is definitely on my mind.

  2. Catharine Martin says:

    I really look forward to reading those blogs. We are falling head-long into an Orwellian society that is frightening, and most people seem to be oblivious.

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