What constitutes self- government and its relationship to this illusive thing called culture?
On March 15, 2012, a conservative governor, self-described as favoring limited government, signed into law stricter measures on certain substances not previously banned within the state of Indiana, and not specifically banned in national law. This certainly is a state’s prerogative within a federal system rightly conceived, but my question now is not with federalism, but with the efficacy and long run cultural consequences of prohibitions for self-government more broadly conceived than merely political governance.
Jefferson once argued that the moral faculties of individuals require exercise to develop and strengthen, much like the limbs of the body. That sort of analogy was popular with both American and English proponents of liberty at the time. It has been called by some historians, “faculty psychology.”
Today, many of the insights of faculty psychology are being confirmed by modern positive psychology. The difference is, that modern psychologists have applied modern methods of scientific procedure to show that well being and the capacity to exercise choice over ones life go hand in hand. The older faculty psychology, however, went a bit further, contending that the capacity of self-government actually increases with the freedom to exercise it. With the exercise of choices, a culture of self-government is fostered over time. Values arise and are promulgated, not by political fiat, but by recognizing their worth through the experience of consequences. This is not to say that any culture will fully represent a particular ideal, but simply that certain values will come to predominate among individuals as they learn their worth through consequences over time. Often this means the school of hard knocks, but eventually real learning is the result, and the final product is what we call social capital.
The more we take away from the freedom to make choices, however, the less will be our capacity to exercise these faculties and learn from them. Our ability to exercise responsible choice will actually atrophy and degenerate the more we become inured to regimes of command and control . And once that capacity begins to degenerate, it becomes harder and harder to relearn the habits of personal self-government.
There is always a period of social dislocation and chaos when prohibitions, regulations, and subsidies are first removed. During the long hard winter of soviet communism, Russian civil society was deeply scarred and is only now slowly reestablishing itself—very slowly indeed. Unfortunately, patience is not abundant among political reformers, who all too quickly rush in with prohibitions and regulations of whatever ill is perceived to be afflicting us at the moment.
My question is this: do we in the United States still retain a sufficient degree of capacity for self-government, in the individual sense of “government of the self?” Every time government removes a choice, a worry or a care from our purview as individuals, does this not detract from our ability to be free?
Liberals and conservatives seem enamored with prohibitions—of different sorts of course. For example, the left wants to ban or restrict guns; the right wants to prohibit drugs. If you mention the failure of alcohol prohibition, they both scoff, even though the conditions are really not so different historically speaking. Yet bring right and left together and they will point accusingly at the other to insist that his or her particular ban is impractical!
Alas, both Right and Left have made the road back to liberty a very steep and difficult climb and are making it steeper every day.