As recently as early 2020, most of the world had a reasonable amount of liberty to travel across oceans, international borders, exchange goods and services, pursue an education, start and maintain a small business, and for the most part be responsible for their own lives. I experienced a healthy dose of this freedom in 2018 when I made my first ever trip to Europe, and again in 2019. Watching the world function in relative liberty, reciprocal friendship, and commerce was inspiring and motivating. Things had never been better. As we now know, that all changed suddenly. Why did we backslide so easily from the enlightenment to the dark ages?
All You Need is a Catalyst
Enter a foreign or alien invader. The sudden appearance of a pathogen and threat to our very existence; long-expected, warned about and storied over decades in historical accounts, news reports, and countless fictional tellings. Bolstered by the propaganda arm of a highly dubious foreign government, images flashed hourly across our screens showing scenes of death and chaos. It was enough to frighten an entire planet into hiding.
Despite our giant leaps forward in science, knowledge, ideas, and ability, we faltered and fell back into fear, despair, and altruism gone mad. But why such an overwhelming flight reaction when we have such an enormous vault of experience and knowledge to draw from? In the words of AIER’s founder, E.C. Harwood, it seems we have again entered what is “fundamentally a retreat from individual freedom, from responsibility and authority for each individual to the sheltering arms of an all-powerful state.” Perhaps we had too much freedom. I’m not entirely convinced that’s the answer, but it’s worth a closer look.
How Much Freedom is Too Much?
An entire body of work has been dedicated to studying reactions to liberal and distributed freedom to choose. Jonah complex, Imposter syndrome, self-sabotage, and many other examples of neuroses are found when individuals or groups are confronted with abundance, success, prosperity, and accolades. One would think that having it all should only bring out the best in people. Unfortunately, history shows that tendencies as old as time are solidly programmed into our psyches. Despite our technological, philosophical, social, and emotional advances, we are still tethered to survival instinct and the reactionary animal.
People, generally speaking, have an innate need to feel in control of their lives. They create to-do lists, invent hierarchies, prop up their favorite authorities, seek out and wear epaulets, and desire social order on a scale beyond their immediate circle of influence. When given too much autonomy and responsibility, humanity seems to naturally return to the tribal, collective, pack mentality, and the magical or spiritual. They look for in-group/out-group dynamics that rarely surface in a liberal and open society. Instead of acceptance and heterodoxy, the human psyche reverts to the safe spaces of borders, cultural tradition, and isolationist policy.
More confounding and seemingly contradictory is that an overabundance of caring drives this retreat back to tribalist primitivism and parochialism. Additionally, on myriad fronts, the media pushes an unending stream of fear. From the pandemic to climate change and civil unrest to political upheaval, all of this creates a vacuum for altruistic programs to proliferate. What more inspiring task could there be for a population that has become increasingly bored with the “bread and circuses” than to save the planet or flatten the curve?
There is nothing wrong with wanting to help your fellow human beings: family, friends, neighbors, nation, and world. However, this desire to help can quickly turn into censorship and surveillance when met with conflicting ideas. Soon the rule of law becomes corrupt and enforcement “to the letter of the law” becomes the status quo. Even when confronted with proof of authentic sincerity the human mind will, in many instances, look for and find doubt, uncertainty, danger, scandal, and deceit. Javert, from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, is the perfect example of this corruption:
“Probity, sincerity, candor, conviction, the sense of duty, are things which may become hideous when wrongly directed; but which, even when hideous, remain grand: their majesty, the majesty peculiar to the human conscience, clings to them in the midst of horror; they are virtues which have one vice–error…Nothing could be so poignant and so terrible as… the evil of the good.”
Look also to Melville’s Ahab in Moby Dick for another example of this archetype. It is within this obsessive search for monsters that the altruist shadows into pathology and becomes addicted to their neurosis. It is not self-reliance and individuality that are the destructive and chaotic forces. On the contrary, unlike Ahab’s wild obsession, the whale was the true embodiment of pure freedom. It was Ahab that played the part, until the bitter end, of the despotic totalitarian seeking to hook and capture a free and sovereign creature.
Where Have We Heard This Before?
Similar stories have played out over several months of repeated lockdowns, quarantines, and other authoritarian attempts to control what cannot be controlled. Sure, there are always the arguments in support of New Zealand, Australia, and others claiming boldly to have defeated a virus. However, the further we travel along this timeline, the more we realize that these places are, in fact, isolated islands that cannot open up again without going through what the rest of the world has endured.
Some would say that individualism and liberty are insensitive to and incompatible with the needs of the marginalized and underprivileged. However, individuals understand that they are ultimately and finally responsible for themselves and every decision they make. This knowledge leads the truly independent (unlike the obsessed and corrupt) to create opportunity for those less fortunate. One’s empathy should not be driven by propaganda and appeals to emotion or authority. On personal reflection, my inspiration for individualism comes from an epiphany that this concept of a “tyranny of freedom” is a foolishly consistent “hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen” (Emerson).
Shake Off What Binds You
As the world begins to reopen, we should all take careful stock of the freedoms and liberties we have retained and ones we may have lost. Most importantly, however, we should shake off the hooks, lines, and sinkers of the world’s tyrants and enforcement sycophants to begin again with a fresh perspective.
Push against the status quo and encroachments upon your personal freedoms because, as E.C. Harwood said in The Counterrevolution, “[i]f we continue adding to the functions of our federal government as we have during recent decades, the fundamental efficiency of free men functioning in free markets will be replaced by the lumbering and creaking performance of a vast bureaucracy.” The Ahabs and Javerts of the world are the true sociopathic tyrants, unable to recognize their own cognitive dissonance as they plummet headlong into oblivion, lumbering and creaking as they go. The tyranny of freedom, however, is not a tyranny at all.