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essays

June 1978

Obedience vs. Self-Ownership

“A free…society would inevitably perish unless [populated] by enough autonomous individuals who value risky freedom over the apparent comforts of tyranny.”

“Why We Consent to Oppression.” Reason 10 (September 1977): 28–33.

Does the authoritarian state arise from the cradle of the authoritarian family that suppresses self-determination?

Today the question posed by the sixteenth century humanist Étienne de la Boétie in Voluntary Servitude is still crucial: “Why do people voluntarily consent to their enslavement to political tyranny?” Why do people fear their own independence and reject a “live and let live” philosophy that asserts individual freedom? America’s drift toward political totalitarianism appears to be rooted in familial totalitarianism. The family serves as the nursery that teaches voluntary servitude; it socializes children in the psychological and ethical will to surrender autonomy and individualism for dependence and selflessness. Children who, out of fear or parental authority, renounce their self-ownership are molded into citizens who consent to arbitrary political authority.

From birth children naturally express self-ownership and self-determination. Self-ownership entails that each person assumes responsibilities for the major aspects of his self: free will, reason as a guide to decision making, the demand for personal freedom, and the pursuit of self-interest. Gradually, however, most children disown their self and helplessly deny their moral autonomy. Why do children become the most oppressed class of persons? Parental authority. Parents threaten: “Don’t be selfish!” and “Obey, or suffer!” and thereby stifle the child’s wish to express his self. To survive peacefully, to secure food and acceptance, and to escape parental punishment, the child conforms and obeys.

This original compromise of his self-ownership enables the child to survive in the family. Soon he extends this denial of his own self-interest into the context of the school, church, and state. Having subverted his self-interest through choice, the passing years make it difficult for him to revoke his habit of self-oppression. Next, the child lies not only to others, but more importantly, to himself about his own desires and interests. Thus he reaches adulthood a stranger to his inner self.

Voluntary servitude becomes the child’s habit because other options seem too threatening. Reason functions not as a means to pursue personal freedom and goals, but as a veil for selflessness. The escape from the shackles of childhood dependency only means new forms of self-oppression. Now the “grown-up” conformist is impotent to rebel against school, church, or state, all of which continue the original parental autocracy and demand a similar obedience and stifling of the self.

In the psychology of self-determination, persons achieve liberation by relearning how to value their own selves. This self-liberation follows two processes: building self-esteem and recovering self-love. Self-esteem is a conditional attribute; it is the self-efficacy we have to earn by living up to our own judgmental standards. Self-love, on the other hand, is an unconditional placing of a high value on our personal selves as living beings. By extending this love to other humans we recognize the basis for granting rights. We thereby respect the sacredness of others’ lives and selves.

To achieve a good and free society, we need to leaven self-interest with this extended love for mankind and a love of human liberty. On a family scale, we can anticipate in miniature this ideal society of love and liberty. The first step is fostering our own children’s self-determination and liberating our family relationships from fear and force.

This question of self-ownership is vital for the stability of a free society. A free, antiauthoritarian society would inevitably perish unless it were peopled by enough autonomous individuals who value risky freedom over the apparent comforts of tyranny.