Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“A society that gets rid of all its troublemakers goes downhill.”     Robert A. Heinlein

November 25, 2005

The Sovereign Individual

by Eric

When you combine this post with my earlier post on TANSTAAFL, you find the core principles that make up my political philosophy. Getting to know and understand me means understanding these things about me. Some of you will have seen this before on Eric’s Grumbles. I’m moving a few posts of this type over here, slowly, so that those who read here, but not there, can see these as well.

Around the Life, Liberty & Property Community, and some related blogs that aren’t part of the community, there’s been a burst of writing this week on individual rights. And it’s really good stuff. Brad Warbiany writes about a Right to Privacy and Abortion, one of the best posts on the topic I have ever seen. Stephen Littau tackled the War on Drugs in his entry More Mandatory Minimums Madness. Or, there is Coyote’s Immigration, Individual Rights and the New Deal, where Coyote lays out the foundation for individual rights as clearly and succinctly as anything I’ve seen in modern writing. There’s a lot more out there, and I’m fairly sure we are going to see much of it in the Carnival of Liberty this week. In fact, since Left Brain Female is hosting it, I would guess we’ll see her entry, Libertarianism=Personal Responsibility again. Since it was this entry that prompted me to write of the Sovereign Individual, I think I ought to show you why.

We talk much of individual rights, states rights, freedom of speech, second amendment rights, etc. but in all this talk of rights, we also must begin to stress that along with rights comes a great commission – and that is that of personal responsibility.

As usual, I appear to find myself in the smallest minority, the one that understands that rights and responsibility are inherent. They aren’t things that one can, or cannot, “take”. They are part of the state of being. And they are not affected by what sort of community one lives within, or government that one is subject to. Indeed, the core understanding of my principles is that the individual is sovereign. Ayn Rand once said “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.” This is one of the foundational ideas of Objectivism, which is a philosophy for individuals, societies and governments espoused by Rand. The key thing that Objectivism misses, though, is the idea of moral responsibility. It is not enough to hold individual rights or to make the best decisions based just on self. Because, always, TANSTAAFL is an immutable rule of the universe. And that is where Rational Anarchy comes in. Robert Heinlein, who first described Rational Anarchy, said “A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame . . . as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else.” To that end, we need to realize where sovereignty, itself, is housed. Which brings us, finally, to the title of this post, and the reason for it. Sovereign, as an adjective, means self-governing, or independent. We understand that a sovereign nation is completely responsible for its actions as a nation, the conduct of its leaders, the laws and police powers it applies to its citizens. And, just as importantly, we understand that there is no law that is superior to that of a sovereign nation, unless that nation chooses to agree to such law. Using this understanding of sovereign, and observing the behavior of individuals, both in and out of a social group, we can understand that ultimately sovereignty is housed within the individual. Which is what a Rational Anarchist believes.

This sovereignty does not exist because of the inherent rights of the individual, but rather because of the inherent responsibility and power of the individual. Every action is, ultimately, the result of the decision of an individual. This applies even to the ultimate expression of national sovereignty, making war. When the left wing anti-war pacifist declares that war will happen until individual citizens reject such behavior, they are implicitly acknowledging what I’m writing here, even though I’m certain that the vast majority of such folks are collectivists who will reject the entire basis of the sovereign individual. The fact is, though, that whether the combat of war involves pulling the trigger of a rifle or pushing the button to launch a nuclear missile, it is always a sovereign individual, completely and totally responsible for their actions, that must make the decision to commit the act. With our current understanding of government and societies, we recognize that they are established to protect certain inherent rights, including life, liberty and property. What is important, though, is to understand that those inherent rights are the result of behavior by the individual, behavior that establishes sovereignty. The individual creates rights by taking, holding and improving property, by defending their life, by the acts of free association and free movement. And in the very act of making the decision to take such actions, the individual establishes that they are sovereign.

Ultimately, there is no law supreme to the individual, except such laws as they acknowledge and agree to. The prohibition on murdering a fellow human would be of no value if the vast majority of us did not agree to abide by the prohibition. A government could pass a law prohibiting murder and empower police to take action against those who do, but if the mass of individuals subjected to such a law refused to obey it, there would be nothing that the government could do. In fact, we see such a truth in the War on Drugs, and other vices (such as prostitution), or the speed limits on the freeways. What would happen if all of us, within our own sovereign responsibility decided that we not only would not obey the speed limits but we would not stop and allow ourselves to receive a ticket from police officers? Suddenly the speed limits would be without value and it would be completely impossible for a limited number of law enforcement officials to actually enforce this law. Or, from a practical, historical perspective, we only need to look to the revolutions that brought about the downfall of authoritarian, communist governments in Eastern Europe and Russia. So long as the mass of citizens in those countries acknowledged the authority of their government, their government was valid and had power. When those citizens decided that the government no longer would be granted power by those citizens, the government ceased to be. The individuals constituting the government could have chosen, of course, to try and exert power to re-establish their authority, but this would not have undone the sovereignty of those individuals at all.

What’s the point of this discussion? Simply this. It is, of course, true that libertarianism equals personal responsibility. For responsibility for your actions and your moral decisions is inherent to you, the individual. Whether you want to accept it, or not. Your individual responsibility comes before your individual rights. It is what establishes your individual rights. And it cannot be taken from you, nor abdicated by you. No matter what anyone who believes in collectivism, of any political variety, may try to say, this fact, that you are sovereign and responsible for each and every action and decision is an unalterable, immutable fact of intelligence and consciousness. This fact, by itself, makes collectivism of any stripe morally wrong, but that isn’t really the point of this essay. The point is much simpler. Whether you choose to acknowledge it, or not, you are responsible for everything that you do, or don’t do. Trying to shift that blame is self-delusion. This is the difference between a child and an adult. An adult is capable, emotionally and mentally, of accepting responsibility for self, a child is not. You, ultimately, are sovereign, subject only to your own morals and ethics, responsible for yourself.

Originally posted at Eric’s Grumbles.


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