On The Dilemmas Of Self-Government

Can people be relied upon to conduct basic actions that help with self-preservation, like washing hands and conducting basic social distancing in times of panic such as the present time?  It would appear that for many people, the answer is no.  Tens of thousands of people recently assembled, for example, to watch the divinely uninspired Scottish performer Lewis Capaldi perform some of his songs.  And even such a person as I am regularly leaves home and engages in some social contact with coworkers and brave local drive-thru employees since all of the dine-in restaurants have been closed for the next four weeks or so.  The classic conundrum of life as it relates to self-government is that those who cannot govern themselves will be governed by others through force or fraud, but will simultaneously be the most resentful of and hostile to that government.  To the extent that someone is restrained and self-governed, they need little coercion from others and are relatively easy to govern.  The less restrained one is, though, the less one appreciates external restraint.  This is a tendency one can see in bratty children and becomes no less troublesome when people get larger and stronger and smarter but not necessarily better at self-regulation.

Self-government has two faces.  One of the faces is an attractive one, and that is the face of the freedom of the individual from external constraint from others that allows one to do what one wants when one wants however one wants.  Yet the other side of the coin of personal freedom is personal responsibility, in that we are held accountable by others for what we do and its repercussions on others.  We do not always appreciate these externalities, these consequences, and these burdensome responsibilities.  Indeed, our age tends to view adulting in general as an unpleasant matter.  Yet it is only tyrants and bullies who are free without accepting responsibility, and we have at least a formal hostility to these beings.  And even bullies and tyrants will be held responsible by God if they are not held responsible by others in this present evil world.  To be responsible without being free is to be reduced to some sort of slavery [1].  Being a free and honorable human being requires one’s freedom and responsibility to be in balance, and even in our imperfect human institutions we tend to give greater freedom to those who we can trust to behave responsibly, simply because the pleasures of ruling over irresponsible people are seldom as great as the pleasures of granting freedom to the responsible and trustworthy and in enjoying the company of other responsible and self-governed people.

This is true individually as well as collectively.  The United States famously developed experience in local self-government over the course of many decades of what is politely termed salutary neglect in our textbooks from the imperial government of the United Kingdom.  While England sought to unify with Scotland and there were quarrels between king and Parliament and between supporters of different dynasties of cousins within the core part of the English empire, colonists who considered themselves to have all the rights of Englishmen no matter their colonial background were gaining expertise in village, town, township, and colonial boards and legislatures.  By the time that King and Parliament sought to reverse this independence in the period after the French & Indian War, it was far too late and the results were as predictable as they were lamentable.  It should be noted, though, that there were ironies and hypocrisies that were evident even at the time in the wide gulf between the expertise of white colonists in self-government and their distinct unwillingness at being treated as anything less than freeborn Englishmen (or, eventually, freeborn Americans) and the lack of expertise in self-government held by, say, black slaves or even women, and the distinct lack of interest in those same prickly people in granting experience or opportunities for self-government to those people.  If such things were known and commented upon in the 18th century on both sides of the Atlantic, as they were by people like Abigail Adams and Samuel Johnson, they dominate the thinking of many contemporaries about our founding fathers today.

This is not only a problem of the hypocrisies of the 18th century, though.  If we look at many of the nations of the world, there is a distinct lack of fondness on the part of would-be elites and rulers for the free exercise of the will of the people.  Frequently the people choose the wrong sorts of leaders to rule them.  This is true, it should be noted, no matter what one’s opinions of the right sort of leaders are.  For example, in just about any popular election in the Arab world, it is nearly certain that some sort of Islamist government would be elected in any popular election.  The fact that this would be disastrous to the well-being of religious minorities or the security interests of Europe and one’s neighbors is irrelevant.  The will of the people, such as it exists in the Middle East and North Africa, is favorable to political Islam, even if this is disastrous for the well-being of the world at large.  It is for this reason that even a nation like our own that praises self-government is generally more than willing to look the other way and allow the continued power of various dictators who thwart the popular will in ways that are beneficial to us and to the world at large.  To a less drastic extent, the popularity of populist leaders and political parties in the United States and Thailand has been a phenomenon I have witnessed personally, with all of the tension and conflict that results from the clear desire of ordinary people to seek government that responds to their own interests and looks out for their well-being and the tension this causes with those who fancy themselves to know better about the well-being of ordinary people than the people themselves.

Whatever sphere we look at, it is obvious that there is a great deal of fear of freedom and a desire on the part of would-be authorities to restrict and constrain the freedom of the people.  There are likewise fears on the part of people that governments and other authorities have a high desire to restrict their freedom and reduce them to what is viewed as a state of bondage and degradation.  Both the fears that authorities desire tyrannical power over the people and the fears on the part of authorities that their populations are unfit for a great deal of the freedoms that they possess are reasonable.  The fact that many of the would-be tyrants are themselves grifters and corrupt and often lack moral decency and good conduct only makes the situation more galling.  So long as human beings are governed by either themselves or other human beings mistakes will be made and there will be imperfect people in power who are capable of bringing harm to others.  How this harm is to be minimized is a difficult matter, as it requires moral conduct on the part of people involved.  And to the extent that we were moral, we would both need less external constraint and would simultaneously resent it less because it would be less burdensome than the demands of our own self-government.

[1] As a digression, earlier today as I write this I had a conversation with some coworkers from another division of the company whose cubicles are near my own and they were assigned a book to read by their director which led some of the more prickly among them to think of the ideal customer service attitude as being something akin to the fawning treatment that courtiers give to overly pampered monarchs.  Indeed, in the contemporary world, the expectation of clueless internal or external customers is to be catered to and flattered and finessed by support staff who are viewed as some sort of unfree servants whose dignity is irrelevant.  It is, of course, far easier to treat others with respect and honor when one is respected and honored for oneself, and it is lamentably true that those who are the most prickly about being treated with honor and respect are the least likely to be generous about treating others in the fashion in which they demand to be treated.  This is as true of me as it is of anyone else, I suppose.  If we are hypocrites in this matter, I suppose most of us are hypocrites together.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On The Dilemmas Of Self-Government

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    I took an American Government class in the tenth grade, and we had an essay test in which we were to discuss the tension between the freedom and security which underpins our democratic republic. Never has that situation more at in evidence than during this current administration. Most are willing to curtail activities and go without only when doing otherwise will directly–and VERY negatively (to the point of possible death)–impact them. Even then, some remain in a state of denial and are forced by external means to cease and desist. Young beach goers here in Central Florida, on the whole, played down the whole situation and refused to honor the distance and size restrictions. As a result, all beaches are now closed for business. They refused to self-govern; therefore, government had to lay down its heavy hammer.

    • Yes, the inability of people to restrain themselves has led to rather predictable if lamentable consequences. I too have seen the videos of young beachgoers and it has definitely been an embarrassing sight.

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