Monday, November 5, 2012

Government and The Psychological Need for Autonomy

This was an essay I wrote for the California Review, an alternative newspaper at UC San Diego, some time ago. It published under the name "No! End Government Worldwide!", which was in response to another essay. Modified it a bit for publishing on this blog.

Government and The Psychological Need for Autonomy

END GOVERNMENT WORLDWIDE! Or rather, encourage and practice self-government and personal accountability. What is really meant by such a statement? Why should government end? Doesn’t government provide for us some of our basic human needs, like safety, subsistence, and social order?  Many people today would respond with a resounding “Yes!” Governments produce roads, provide clean water, generate, adjudicate, and enforce law – if government doesn’t provide these necessary social services, who or what will? The answer to this question is at once simple and extremely complicated, far too complex to be translated into effective public policy. The people who will provide for our basic needs will be (and has always been) none other than you and me, us and them… every single being, together

            As an individualist anarchist, it may seem strange that I arrive at this conclusion of the power of collective action. Perhaps it is imagined that the typical individualist suffers from some sort of solipsism, a tyrannical ego, or some combination of the two. I contend that my fascination with individualism, as a relatively new intellectual tradition, is a reflection of my fascination with the source or foundation of life. My perceived experience of life is all that I have; the concepts which populate my mind are formed by the activity of my own brain. When it comes to the formation of personal identity and self-concept, or all concepts really, all social or endogenous exchanges are factors. This fact, however, does not negate the deeply personal experience of life. Now, what does all of this have to do with ending government and social harmony? Quite a lot!

 The basic human need which is expressed by individualists worldwide is that of personal autonomy, independence and freedom. It is important to consider the ways in which governments, defined as groups of people who participate in the centralized planning of a larger society within a geographic region, are unaware of or outright deny this basic need. Plans require means, economic or otherwise, and governments typically acquire these means in a variety of ways. One harmful method, in terms of providing for this basic need for autonomy, is the practice of taxation. Taxation is a compulsory levy imposed on a population by its government. It is argued that taxation is unavoidable, a necessary evil of any well functioning society – but if the stated goal of a government is to increase social harmony and to provide for basic human needs, it has failed from the start. When the means contradict the ends, or the ends are used to justify some means, there is dissonance. To claim that something created and imposed by human beings is unavoidable is essentially to undermine the human capacity of choice. A whole host of internal contradictions, bizarre psychological dilemmas, are the product of denying one’s own personal choices. The consequences of self-denial can be devastating (e.g. self-destructive practices like drug abuse, unrestricted consumerism, violence, self-imposed isolation or even suicide). I leave it to the reader to consider the ways in which the U.S. government and its multi-million dollar corporations have encouraged or discouraged the practice of self-affirmation and personal choice in the average American.

According to the Humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow, human beings are subject to a unique hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of this hierarchy, physiological needs like subsistence, safety, and procreation motivate action. As people gradually satisfy each tier of Maslow’s hierarchy, they approach the highest need – that of self-actualization. Self-actualization is described by Maslow in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation as “the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially” (pg. 10). His hierarchy is a good starting place; however it says nothing about the means to achieve such needs.  Should we depend on the generosity and benevolence of others to accomplish our lower-tier needs until we have reached a point where we can finally begin to create a healthy self-concept for ourselves? I argue that self, or ego, is an ever-present element of our existence and is formed by all of our actions, even those that contribute to lower-tier needs like subsistence. Therefore, it is important for people to act in their own interest and to understand their actions as contributing to, or detracting from, the health of their egos. 

            The plea of the anarchist is not to ignore basic needs but to find a non-hierarchical, fair, or voluntary means of meeting those needs, a social organization which does not depend on an unquestioned authority. Many, many minds, men and women from cultures all across the globe at different periods throughout history, have wrestled with the possibility of sustaining such a society.  It is arguable that human history, Western or otherwise, has been nothing but a cyclical process of achieving anarchy then escaping it into an unsustainable government. What compels a government, initially established to satisfy basic needs, to turn on its people, its goal, and itself by increasing its use of force, seeking to increase its own power over others? Perhaps it has something to do with autonomy and freedom of choice – the basic human need it frequently overlooks. Implicit in this desire to increase power over others is the assumption that others can be perfectly manipulated, managed, or molded. It is easy to identify this assumption in the reasoning of all governments, from nation states to tribal/family heads – the superiority of one individual or groups choices over another’s, and the subsequent justification of the use of force. But this is not reason at all, nor is it in service to the basic needs of life. With that said, it is very likely that an anarchist society will be one of plurality, reflecting the complexity of human choices and the variety of human thought. But the consequences of an action should always lie with the actor; this is the best basis for personal growth as well as the growth of a society. In the words of the American libertarian author Albert Jay Nock in his book Memoirs of a Superfluous Man: “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.” (pg 307).

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