I have a wacky theory about the history of ideas (or history proper as Mises would consider it.) When a child is born as far as s/he is concerned the parents are God. They are the authority on what is correct and what is false, they are also morally absolute. Their defining attitude towards their parents is a big “yes.” Even if the parents are cruel or abusive, it must be me at fault not them – since they are the authority. At some point between 2 and 7, then later again in the teens, the youngster begins to assert their individuality by rebelling against the parent, the more the parent tries to apply authority and demand certain behaviours, the more the child will rebel against this authority with a resounding “no!” The child feels empowered by making the parents feel out of control emotionally, s/he asserts their dominance over them because the parents want compliance, and the child has the power to mete it out or not – causing the parents an easy time or grief. If the response to this “no!” is overly authoritarian or permissive and lacks engaging with reason and appropriate boundaries bad patterns can be set for life. The child can become compliant and later susceptible to peer pressure as he gets stuck in “Yes” or overly rebellious (even to his/her own detriment) and stuck in “No.” From this point on any instructions or even mere advice from others – sometimes even from oneself – result in the involuntary impulse to rebel, stick heels in, and refuse to comply even if the request is in the child-now-adult’s interests. This can create tremendous problems including a lack of self-discipline and relationship tumults. A wise parent manages to avoids unwittingly molding this kind of character by creating opportunities for his children to say no and rebel to safe and relatively trivial things. For example s/he does might not tell them not to smoke, know that if s/he does they will smoke. Perhaps they will be told not to climb that tree or to play in the muck instead, something relatively innocuous.
A mature person is able to say “yes” or “no”. Without the ability to say “no” a “yes” is utterly meaningless because it does not come from the person’s individuality. A “no” without consideration is also a counterfeit individuality, it makes one feel like they are having a say but actually they are purely governed by involuntary impulses as sure as those of the “yes man” or people-pleaser. The new man says “yes” to life; and in that he in many ways seems similar to the primordial man, but there is a critical difference – his yes to life is out of fully integrating all previous stages of development rather than an arrested development.
It’s my assertion that maybe we have seen a similar evolution in the political sphere. Classic Liberalism arose as a response to a form of conservatism that was very much a “yes” to authority; the authority of the state, aristocracy, church, powers that be. The authorities of the time were very puritanical and their morals and social norms severely restricted the freedoms of people in terms of whom they could marry (usually whom their parents decided) what they could do for a living (what their parents did) what they could own (most of it belonged to their lord, many could not own land) what they could put in their body (moralizations about alcohol) what they should learn and read (mostly the bible) how they could pray (no pagan gods, no Judaism, etc.) and so forth. Now the arrival of liberalism was a resounding “No!” to authority. In a Hegelian fashion it formed an antithesis to the prevailing mores of the time. It continued to develop into other rebellious schools of thought that claimed to rebel against the prevailing authorities: socialism, marxism, communist, progressivism, &c. and reached its hedonistic peak in the 60s with the free love movement and all the big government and welfare programs – but it went to far too fast for a first attempt and soon there was a reaction against it which turned the tide back for a while. After the 80s it came back swinging though and has reached its second crescendo today with the social justice warrior movement. This has become the new thesis and it required an antithesis to counteract it. Clearly I believe that is libertarianism. It is the new man who integrates all previous stages of development in his evolution. In many ways it seems to harken back to certain “conservative” concepts which liberalism reacted against, but in reality the context of the acceptance of certain aspects of authority and tradition is now based on reason (“they have been shown empirically to work better than all that libertinism”) rather than authority alone. What do you think of my thesis? Are you the new wo/man?
Antony Sammeroff is a therapist, libertarian, and passionate economics writer. Antony is a member of the Scottish Libertarian Party, and co-hosts the Scottish Liberty Podcast.
View all posts by Antony Sammeroff