How does one go about raising human beings who are capable of responsible self-government? One of the characteristic problems of human history has been that we are hypocritically an order of beings that refuses to be restrained or governed from outside but have been given a sacred charge to bring the earth under our dominion, a task to which we have devoted ourselves to, whether we are religious or not. We wish to teach but not to taught. We wish to speak our perspective and our view but not listen to those who disagree. We wish to rule over the world but resent any sort of government over us. From a strictly logical point of view, these are fatal contradictions, because they deny the essentially equality of humanity under God that exists. Yet we do not view ourselves as being equals, but view ourselves as being in the center of space that revolves around us, and we cannot square this subjective feeling of pulling everything into our orbit with the mundane but dispiriting external reality of the delicate dancing and negotiation between equals that is involved in successful living. How is it that we learn to overcome this innate tendency towards self-serving hypocrisy that is so widespread among contemporary humanity to a degree even higher than its generally high frequency within humanity as a whole throughout our existence?
This weekend I had the opportunity to watch nearly a dozen children and teenagers interacting with each other. Much of the time those interactions were positive, but one of the more intriguing sights I saw was an older sister who was still nevertheless somewhat small trying to drag around and carry a young sister who did not want it. In a way, all government starts with self-government, and frequently self-government involves learning how to restrain ourselves from doing evil to others. After all, to restrain ourselves we must learn that others are beings with their own preferences and their own boundaries that must be respected. In many ways, though, it is hard for children to learn the respect for the space and boundaries of others when their own space and boundaries are not respected. A great deal of hostility between siblings could be reduced to the extent that polite requests replaced appropriation, and that the space of one’s bodies was respected as well. Those who are not used to having their own boundaries respected may frequently adopt a strategy of seeking to gain power and mastery so as to ensure their own personal safety. A great many people in our present world think that it requires control of the shared space of society to make themselves feel personally safe, even if their attempt to seize control makes other people feel less safe and thus prompts further conflicts. It is easier for us to restrain ourselves when we learn and grow from how others restrain themselves with regards to us.
One of the aspects of abusive situations in general is that those who are in control of those they do not respect tend to claim to themselves and to others that they exercise tyrannical power because of the unfitness of anyone else to exercise freedom responsibly. And yet in practice in such an environment it is impossible for anyone to demonstrate fitness so as to make the system less abusive and less tyrannical. It is easy to command, and difficult to negotiate, and more egalitarian social structures require a lot of hard work in persuasion as well as listening and developing respect for people who think and operate differently from ourselves, which is by no means an easy task. Ideally, self-government can be taught from a young age in a progressive fashion as mastery of fundamental aspects of self-government and restraint lead to greater responsibilities and freedom until one reaches a level of equality between parent and child, or between ruler an ruled in general. The proper goal of any just government or authority of any kind is to make itself obsolete by reproducing the self-restraint and mastery of morality that good government operates by in those who are governed, so that they are capable of self-rule and therefore less in need of external coercion and restraint. The need for increased regulations and an increased burden of enforcing compliance is a sign of failure to educate and inculcate standards of righteous and godly and moral behavior on the part of others, and is not a sign of success in government expanding its mandate. The expansion of government and intrusiveness is a sign of failure, rather than that of success. And yet the retraction of government is difficult because it requires trust that is hard to attain in an atmosphere of sullen compliance and resentment.
All harmonious relationships depend on the existence of trust, but to talk about trust and the need for trust is to demonstrate its absence. When the quiet part has to be said out loud, consensus has broken down and what was formerly tacitly assumed between people has to be spelled out more exactly and communicated more often in an atmosphere of tension and disagreement. To talk about the desire for self-government and the need to have responsibility and to restrain oneself from exploiting and taking advantage of others is to express that trust has broken down within a system that depends on trust for its successful operation. And that is what we find all over human institutions. Ultimately, if we cannot successfully govern ourselves we will find ourselves in conflict with anyone whose responsibility it is to govern ourselves and may all find ourselves the poorer for it. In times like our own, where the breakdown of institutions is glaringly obvious, the need for self-government is immense, but the task of self-government requires that we be able to enforce our boundaries against others and restrain ourselves from doing evil to others, and both of these tasks are beyond us at present. And yet mastery of those tasks is necessary if we are to avoid the threats of anarchy and tyranny. That requires that we engage in the task of creating for ourselves and encouraging the development of others in schools of self-government.