Property is also a system for defining and allocating responsibility within society. The person who controls the property is responsible for the consequences of his or her actions regarding such property because they were the one exercising such control. This responsibility follows not from some a priori moral imperative, but from the purely functional consideration that one who directs the exercise of his or her will has, thereby, produced the effects attributed to such control. I am responsible for my actions not because the state so mandates, or because some religion or moral philosophy has so proclaimed, but because I am the one who makes and acts upon the choices available to me. By my exercise of control over what I own, I cause that property to produce its effects. In the same causal, nonjudgmental sense in which a tornado can be said to be responsible for destroying Smith’s barn, I am responsible for what I do in the exercise of my will.
If we are able to live without contradiction —with our stated principles and our actions providing a precise Indra’s Net reflection of one another—our causal and moral responsibilities will be in symmetry. But when our behavior exceeds the limitations prescribed by our principles—e.g., extending our decision making beyond our property boundaries—division and conflict arise. At this point, we bifurcate our sense of responsibility, and seek comfort for the adverse consequences of our conduct in explanations that absolve us of personal accountability (e.g., we lack free will, we were abused as children, “the devil made me do it,” etc.)
Freedom and responsibility are thus inseparable aspects of control. Because I, alone, control the exercise of my energies, I am free to decide how I shall act. Since there is no one else who can direct my brain cells, my muscles, or my emotions, there is no other person who can be held to account for what I do. I am responsible for my actions because I control them. The realization of this simple fact is what is meant by being “free.” At the same time, the failure to understand this inseparable nature of freedom and responsibility is what makes mob behavior and other forms of mass-mindedness so destructive. By seeming to lose control over our individual will within the will of the collective, we separate our behavior from any sense of personal responsibility for our actions. The state, whether functioning as the military, police or prison systems, or bureaucratic departments, provides the clearest example of how collective authority diffuses responsibility, allowing individuals to conceal accountability for their actions in the shadows of monoliths. Words attributed to Rose Wilder Lane express this essential duality: “freedom is self-control, no more, no less.” The owner is free to control what is his, and in confining his actions to what is his, he behaves responsibly and “properly” (i.e., consistent with the property principle). The popular phrase “with freedom comes responsibility” is a clumsy way of recognizing that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions. The clumsiness of the phrase arises from its generally being used without its connection to the property concept. When such words are employed to justify the state imposing duties upon us, the element of “freedom” is severed from our actions, turning “responsibility” (as a causal factor) into an “obligation” (i.e., something we are compelled to do).
Most of us have remarkably little understanding of the interrelated nature of our individual liberty and personal responsibility. It has become commonplace for politicians and members of the media to publicly decry the lack of “responsibility” exhibited by modern teenagers. Children are criticized for using drugs and alcohol, for their lack of initiative in school or work, for their preoccupation with the pursuit of sensual pleasures, or for their poor judgments in making decisions. But responsibility is a function of control. How can we expect children to become responsible when they have been denied control over their own lives? They are compelled, by law, to attend schools that look and function like penitentiaries where they are subjected to often mindless curricula that have no apparent meaning to their lives. Those who exhibit any independence in the classroom are labeled “hyperactive” or victims of “attention deficit disorder”—meaning they have their own agendas that differ from the teachers—and are legally drugged into more compliant behavior.
Minimum wage and child labor laws greatly restrict teenagers’ opportunities for employment, and we then wonder why so many of them turn to the sale of drugs or to prostitution as ways of earning the money they hope will give them more decision-making power in their lives. Emulating the methods of the state, which has taken away so much control over their lives, many have set up their own military structures, in the form of street-corner gangs, in an attempt to exert their authority through violence. We also cannot understand why teenagers are so preoccupied with their cars. If we thought about it, we might realize that the automobile represents, to the teenager, the one part of life that is under their direct control, which responds to their commands, and takes them where they want to go. One of the advocates of the previously mentioned practice of abandoning traffic signs in various European cities has observed: “[t]he greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”4
Someone once defined “hell” as a place where you are responsible for what happens, but have no control over matters. Is this not what we have created for ourselves by separating control from responsibility in modern society? The state continues to expand the scope of its control over our lives and property and we then wonder why people have become increasingly irresponsible in their behavior. Responsible men and women bear the costs of heir actions, confine their decision making to their own property interests, and do not impose burdens upon others. Political institutions, on the other hand, are the epitome of irresponsibility because their very nature consists in violating property boundaries. How easily does the state provide others a role model for avoiding responsibility for their actions? In the spirit of “victimhood” that now pervades our culture, men and women are able to project onto tobacco companies the responsibility for lung ailments brought on by their choices to smoke. Distillers and drug dealers—not alcoholics and addicts—are blamed for the miseries people bring onto themselves through their habits. Many of us prefer such explanations to the more troublesome task of confining our expectations of others to respecting our property boundaries, as well as accepting the sense of personal responsibility that inheres in self-ownership.
If we are to move beyond the misery and viciousness of our politicized world, each of us must be willing to confront our own thinking, for at the core of most of our problems is our fear of personal responsibility. To be responsible is to be held accountable for the consequences of our actions. Such fear is what Walter Kaufmann so poignantly labeled “decidophobia,”5 i.e., the “fear of autonomy.”6 What we fear the most is not the judgments of others, but our own. In the words of Epictetus: “It is impossible for that which is free by nature to be disturbed or hindered by anything but itself. It is a man’s own judgments which disturb him.”7 To avoid such self-judgments, most of us allow others to bear this responsibility that, in turn, necessitates our turning over control of our lives and property interests to those who become our authorities. But such abandonment of autonomy begins with our thinking. In exchange for giving up our liberties, we gain the comforting illusion, carried on from childhood, of being relieved of our responsibility. If things do not go well for us, we can always hold others accountable: our employer, our parents, our teachers, the politicians—those parties to whom we long ago learned to abdicate control over our lives.
The division between self-ownership and personal responsibility is also expressed in the idea that men and women are not responsible for their actions; that the causes of violent crime, for instance, lie not in the choices people freely make, but in poverty, racism, drugs, sexism, guns, alcohol, television programming, or motion pictures, to name but a few. Such mechanistic explanations for human behavior are most comforting to those who fear their own sense of responsibility, and are quite content to surrender the control of their lives to political systems in exchange for a state of dependency and release of personal responsibility. There is a childlike quality in attributing consciousness and sense of purpose to inanimate objects, while denying responsibility for one’s own acts. Having become dependent upon the decisions and actions of others, they can then posture as victims of what other people or things do to them, an attitude that keeps personal injury lawyers and politicians in business. But it is an illusion for us to pretend that we can abandon responsibility for our thoughts and actions by transferring such accountability to others. No matter how much others may threaten or try to seduce us to comply with their demands, each of us remains in control of our energies, and must choose to either resist or comply. The choice we ultimately make reduces itself to a matter of will.
To such “decidophobes” liberty, which finds expression in private ownership, is a terrifying specter. I suspect that this is a major reason why so many men and women in the 1960s and 1970s played around with notions of “self-liberation”—a concept inseparable from self-control—but then, seeing the personal responsibility implications quickly abandoned introspective efforts in favor of political and ideological proselytizing and the drafting of codes of “political correctness”: activities directed toward changing other people’s thinking and behavior. The concept of self-ownership can be very disturbing once we discover its connections to personal responsibility. Minds conditioned to a dependency upon the authority of others are not likely to be heard demanding the reclamation of control over their own lives.
We will not become “free” by attacking or overthrowing the authorities in our lives, but only by taking back what, in fact, we were never truly able to give up: the responsibility for our thinking and actions. Likewise, recommitting ourselves to political or religious systems is but to perpetuate the illusion that others are in control of our lives, and that we must content ourselves with obsequious efforts to influence their policies in our favor. To live as both free and responsible men and women is to be self-controlling, not obedient. Such a condition can arise only from a fundamental change in our thinking, and will find expression only within a system in which each of us exercises an unrestrained authority over what is ours to control. Our failure to insist upon a system of privately owned property, and to bear the personal responsibility that goes with it, has been a major contributor to what mankind has become.
The interconnectedness between “control” and a claim of self-ownership is reflected in the legal debate over whether a person should have a right to commit suicide. With the increasing sophistication in medical technology, more and more terminally ill or severely injured people face the question of whether they wish to be kept alive at all costs, or have their lives terminated. For many doctors, judges, legislators, clergymen, and moral busybodies, however, this is not a decision they want to allow the patient to make. On the surface, it might appear that the concern of such parties is simply the preservation of human life. But there is more to it than that. The same judge who, while reflecting upon his proclaimed sentiments for life, refuses a patient’s request to be taken off life-support systems, may later sentence a convicted murderer to the gas chamber. Or, members of Congress who support legislation making it more difficult for people to end their own lives—all in the guise of upholding the sanctity of life—can nevertheless be counted upon to support the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars to send soldiers and weapons into wars that kill hundreds of thousands of people.
What really troubles institutional officials about the right to commit suicide is the implicit recognition of the ultimate ownership authority—i.e., of self-control—being in the hands of the individual. We once again confront the ownership issue: who can destroy the property without asking the permission of another? The judge who decides to grant a patient’s request to be allowed to die, isn’t really concerned about life or death of the patient, or of upholding the patient’s choice in the matter. He is, however, very much concerned about who is to have such decisional power: the individual or the state. Randolph Bourne’s observation that “war is the health of the state”8 reflects the state’s need to monopolize the exercise of the power to inflict death, or what one observer has referred to as the “nationalization of the right to kill.”9 The religious leader who condemns suicide as a “sin” recognizes, implicitly, that if men and women begin to insist upon the authority to control their own existence, churches will have lost all power over their souls. Those who would deny individuals the authority to commit suicide on the grounds of “respect for life,” are only expressing a mechanistic, materialistic view of life. Such thinking overlooks the fact that life is respected only when the living are permitted to remain autonomous. If you and I are understood to have such ultimate authority over our very existence—a power that goes to the essence of self-ownership—think of all the other questions we might begin to ask regarding who should have control over other aspects of our lives! As I tell my students on their first day of my class on property, the question of whether they own and control themselves has profoundly subversive implications.
The utter confusion about the central role property plays in decision making in a society of free men and women is illustrated in a further issue in the euthanasia debate: the role of the medical profession in helping a patient commit suicide. That most doctors and hospitals have not maintained any consistency regarding a patient’s claim of self-ownership is evident from a long line of cases. Patients compelled by court orders, often secured by their doctors, to submit to surgeries, blood transfusions, and even amputations; mental patients forced to undergo drug or shock treatment or lobotomies; compulsory vaccinations of children; and the medical profession’s leadership in procuring legislation making it a crime for anyone to provide alternative health care that is opposed by the medical establishment, are just a few examples of how doctors and hospitals eagerly participate in violating people’s wills regarding their own lives.
The willingness to use state power to advance one’s interests at the expense of others proves infectious. Members of the medical profession might, in the future, find themselves targets of proposed legislation requiring them to perform abortions, even though the physicians may have moral objections to doing so. Upon what basis might doctors resist such a government mandate? They may now have incentive to move beyond weak appeals to their “Hippocratic oath” and try to discover a principle that will protect both doctor and patient from unwanted, intrusive practices. Perhaps in the radical idea that a patient has the ultimate authority to determine what treatment he will or will not receive, and that the doctor has the final determination of what treatment or procedure she is willing to perform, we can find the mutual respect that we have lost in our willingness to force our wills upon one another. If individual self-ownership is to be respected, the physician is just as entitled to refuse his or her services in performing an abortion or any other medical procedure as the patient is in trying to obtain the voluntary assistance of another in his or her efforts.
Such a principle reflects both the self-limiting, yet individually sovereign, nature of property-based behavior. In restraining the over-reaching of both the doctor and the patient, such a principle fosters peaceful and orderly social practices. Without acquiring an understanding of this basic fact, we may very well find decision making about our health taken over by the modern state, which will tell us that we must submit to its mandated practices, as has been done by other tyrannical regimes. Unless we discover how our freedom is manifested in the authority we exercise over our own lives we may, like the feminists who wish to extend the state’s power of military conscription to include women, find ourselves mouthing the new catechism that state-compelled medical treatment is a “fundamental right!”
To understand how liberty, peace, order, and private property coalesce to produce social integrity, necessitates an inquiry into the nature of control. How property is controlled within a given society tells us whether the well-being of individuals or of institutions will have central importance; which will be regarded as their own reason for being. To control property is to control life itself. The remaining question is—as it was in the Dred Scott case—whether the living are to be considered their own property, or only the resources of others. Contrary to the habits formed from our materialistic and mechanistic culture, such questions will force us to begin inner conversations with the spiritual nature of our being. As social creatures, such inquiries will also require us to bring into the discussion our fellow humans, with whom we have long been in deadly and destructive conflict as a consequence of our mania to control one another’s lives. Once we learn the deeper significance of respecting the inviolability of our neighbors’ boundaries, we may discover a richer dimension to our humanity.