At the American Enterprise Institute’s journal, The American, there’s a nifty article by Lee Harris on the phenomenon of what he calls “natural libertarians,” those folks who
knew they couldn’t stand the idea of someone else owning them, someone else telling them what to do or how to think, of someone else bossing them around. They all felt competent to manage their own lives and deeply resented any attempt by other people, including the government, to manage their lives for them. Rightly or wrongly, natural libertarians are firmly convinced that no one else can know their best interests more than they do. They insist on remaining in charge of their own destinies and bristle whenever other people seem intent on taking charge of their lives. Because natural libertarians respect their own independence, they respect the independence of others. They do not aspire to control other people’s lives, but when other people aspire to control theirs, they will resist tooth and nail.
As someone who tends to see himself in this category, Harris had my interest. His question is simple enough, but interesting nonetheless: “How do these people come about?”
His lens is that of social psychology, beginning with Julian Rotter’s theories on internal and external loci of control — those people who see themselves as captains of their own fates in the former case, and those inclined to see themselves as victims of circumstance (or for a nicely medieval image, fools flung by Fortuna’s wheel) in the latter. Rotter noted that some populations tend toward internalism and others toward externalism, if you’ll allow me the neologisms. It can be further argued that such tendencies can be culturally transmitted, either deliberately or incidentally.
Harris in turn suggests that these “internals” are the source of his natural libertarians. A society that produces such people needs:
cultural traditions that emphasize the value of independence and ethical agency. It must teach the young that they are responsible for their own actions, and to never regard themselves as victims of circumstance[…]
But wherever it may be found, at the heart of the tradition of independence lives a set of imperatives. Be self-reliant. Don’t take other people’s word for something; think for yourself. Never become anyone’s follower. Bow down before no one. Stand up for your rights. Don’t let bullies intimidate you. Don’t permit yourself to become the slave of an addiction and thereby forfeit your all-important self-control. And do whatever you can to make sure that other members of your community uphold and cherish the same tradition of independence.
Accordingly, Harris suggests that this sort of culture is suspicious of power to the point of paranoia, and:
This obsessive fear of power is key to understanding why natural libertarians will automatically rebel when some overbearing elite threatens to rob them of their cherished tradition of independence. They rebel because they instinctively understand the high cost of not rebelling.
And what is that cost? For an answer, Harris turns toward Martin Seligman’s theories on learned helplessness, the notion that, having been sufficiently battered by forces we don’t understand, passivity and depression result:
You must submit to the inevitable. You are the victim of fate, so that any resistance is pointless and frequently counterproductive. It is folly to rebel against those with power, since they will inevitably use their superior power to crush you beneath their heels. Resign yourself to what lowly lot has been assigned you. Accept your utter helplessness, for that is the way of wisdom.
Harris identifies this with an external locus of control, and argues that this, too, can be culturally transmitted (“The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.”). He says that this inculcation of learned helplessness is a road to serfdom, and a feature of the welfare state, especially in its nanny state form. It is this against which the natural libertarians rebel:
On the one side stand the natural libertarians, Rotter’s internals, furiously insistent on defending their integrity as ethical agents. On the other side stand those in power who naturally find such people troublesome nuisances, and who would prefer to rule a society made up of individuals who have been properly educated to know they were really incompetent to manage their own affairs, and to regard themselves as the victims of circumstances.
Now, I’m not a social psychologist — I’m an English professor, and one who’s been influenced by the work of Northrop Frye, so while I see where Harris is coming from, and can see myself as a non-conformist internal, I also see this as a competition between two competing myths for control of the social narrative.
Frye identified these myths (most notably in The Critical Path) as the myth of concern and its mutant offspring, the myth of freedom. The myth of concern is a myth of control, and Frye associates it with the larger body and organs of society. The myth of freedom is individualistic and challenges/questions the society’s myth of concern. Frye himself advocates that we take the titular critical path, avoiding the extremes of either myth, the sort of hybrid balancing act that Jean O’Grady says Frye saw as particularly Canadian in nature.
My sympathy tends more to the myth of freedom, as does my critical path, and I usually see government power and its accompanying learned helplessness as a means toward Ulro — Blake’s hell-desert, devoid of creativity and life. But as we live in a postlapsarian world, I recognize that some of the myth of concern remains necessary. As an educator, I think part of my job is to show what lies along the path I try to take, and to indicate the pitfalls I see along other paths. Harris suggests that natural libertarians are roadblocks on the path to Ulro. I simply want to help my students understand that there are maps to better destinations.