If you believe that you are owned by your society, that others are entitled to your person, your property, and your compliance with their beliefs, then your demand of the law is that it limits freedom in order to maximize equality.
Conversely, if you believe that you own yourself, that you alone are entitled to your person, your property, and your compliance, then your demand of the law is that it protects your rights from those who would limit your freedom.
This is why we do not get along anymore. We want different things from the law, from our leaders, from our government, and from each other. In the first case, the owned person seeks to negotiate the terms of his existence through the passage of laws which bind individuals. In the second case, the free person seeks to keep his liberty non-negotiable through the passage of laws which bind government.
We call the owned person “socialist” and the self-owned “libertarian”; both are better adjectives than nouns. One turns to government reflexively to solve all his problems, the other turns against government reflexively, the cause of all of our problems. Right or left has lost all meaning; up or down, more or less, bigger or smaller – this is the choice we must make regarding government.
We are a nation divided because the two things are mutually exclusive - liberty and government. One cannot expand unless the other necessarily contracts; we can be free or we can be governed, but we can not be both at once. Our government is approaching smothering mass; we must either constrain it or lose ourselves in it.
In Wisconsin, the socialists are attempting to recall a Governor for passing a law that binds government. In Washington D.C. an incumbent President faces an uphill re-election bid after passing a law that binds individual choice. One race is about collective bargaining, and the other collective medicine; two referendums on coercion that will set the trajectory of our liberties for decades.
In a nation of free people, liberty would defeat government by a crushing margin; coercion is toxic to the self-owned. But in our nation, polls show both races too close to call - such is the sad state of liberty in 21st century America. A century of drift away from the Liberty Principle has left the idea of true self-ownership unimaginable to most people. We have relied on the force of government so long we need to remind ourselves how to live as free people.
Free people do not engage in coercion; they interact with each other through voluntary exchange. Labor is exchanged for wage, risk is exchanged for profit, property is exchanged for property, compliance is exchanged for reciprocal obligation, and charity is exchanged for self-satisfaction. Our associations are voluntary, our purchases are voluntary, and our commitments to each other are voluntary. Our strongest bonds are those freely formed – family, faith, friends, patriotism, civic pride, shared interest, volunteerism – not those codified into law.
The social contract between free persons is based upon value, and the self-owned person values his fellow citizen too highly to take their person or property by force or fraud. He cherishes his own liberty too much to restrict the liberty of others. He loves his freedom too much to hate it in others.
The free person does not take, does not coerce, does not compel by force of law; he persuades, he offers, he cooperates, he engages in reciprocal exchange that can only take place when the transaction benefits both parties. We rely on the law to record our agreements, not to impose upon us the agreements made by others.
Mandates, prohibitions, subsidies, licenses, and preferences distort the proper workings of free markets, and free enterprise is the only kind that is sustainable. It is hard to imagine that these fundamental principles upon which our nation was founded – self-ownership, individual liberty, free markets - could now be so misunderstood, so feared and so mistrusted. But that is where we find ourselves.
Freedom is hard, and we have become soft. Living as free persons demands a measure of independence that few willingly undertake; and it demands a measure of tolerance that few of us are willing to give.
Living free means respecting the freedom of others, and the self-owned must tolerate choices we find morally reprehensible. We need not approve, endorse, accept, or subsidize reprehensible choices of others, we must simply tolerate them.
This is a small price to pay, considering the alternative. The state-owned must not only tolerate the morally reprehensible, but must pay for it and be subjugated to it by the force of law. Every mandate of government violates some citizen’s moral code. Every penny spent is a penny taken; every prohibition is the denial of choice; every ban is a violation of the right to pursue happiness – a right once viewed as so fundamental it was simply declared without need for justification.
And yet how do our politicians measure their legacy? They count the number of laws they passed, the quantity of things they banned, the amount of money they spent, the size of fines they imposed, the level of subsidy they provided, the scope of mandates they imposed. Those are not the accomplishments of statesmen; they are the meager boasts of common scoundrels.
This year’s elections are shaping up to be a nationwide referendum on the fundamental question of ownership. The names will differ, but the choice – liberty or government - will be same. The important question is not the one you might ask of each candidate but the one you ask of yourself – who owns you?
From there, the right choice is easy.