I recently heard someone regurgitate the quote that is typically (and evidently, wrongly) attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I sighed and found myself annoyed. But why?
It’s not as though it’s a bad piece of advice. It’s probably because I imagine the person saying it wearing lavender-tinted tea-shades and swaying back and for the sound of Lennon’s Imagine, all the while praising the virtues of socialist societies like Venezuela and Cuba. (Obviously, that should shed some light on my own personal biases.)
Upon reflection, though, it’s good advice, assuming the change you want to see in the world is more libertarian, less authoritarian. And if you’re reading The Liberator Online, I’d say there’s a good chance that’s the case.
The other reason why we’re likely to roll our eyes at this mantra is that so few of us actually heed it. The trick to taking this advice, I’m learning, is to understand two related but distinct concepts: locus of control, and sphere of influence. Let’s focus on locus of control for now.
Locus of control (LOC) is a psychological term developed to assess an individual’s feeling or sense that they are empowered and in control of their own life outcomes. Thus, a person with a strong internal LOC believes he mostly responsible for how good his health, wealth, status and overall well-being are. It seems likely that people who adhere to this internal view of LOC share at least some libertarian values. Conversely, those with a strong external LOC (like Germans, apparently) tend to hold more fatalistic, even nihilistic attitudes that can slowly chip away at the productive and moral capacity of a nation. I’d be willing to bet there’s at least a moderate correlation between external LOC people and socialist economic policies.
So how does an understanding of LOC help libertarians to effect change in the world? First, it reminds us that some people fundamentally do not view the world through our paradigm of freedom of choice and self-government. We should remind these folks when possible of historical examples of the potential power each person is capable of in taking a stand and making a difference for themselves and countless others.
Second, work to practice self-government (defined in this sense as self-rule or self-mastery) in the aspects of life over which you have direct control, if you’re not already doing so. For example, a while back a was frequently awakened in the middle of the night by a loud noise disturbance of private landscapers working nearby my home. My initial thought, in my frustration, was to call government code enforcement and have them shut these landscapers down. But that didn’t seem in concert with my libertarian values. Instead, I contacted the owner of the landscaping company and we came to an agreement that satisfied both of us—he still fulfilled his contractual cleaning services, and I was able to sleep peacefully. Such a resolutions weren’t guaranteed, of course, but how often do we think about settling such issues ourselves?
Through this encounter, I put the onus of responsibility on myself to see if I could achieve the desired outcome I was looking for without shifting it to a third-party agent who may ultimately have used threats of force of fines against the company. That is one small example of self-government in action, and something that I need to remind myself of in situations involving social conflict. To the degree we are able to tap into the strong internal LOC that we as libertarians tend to hold and not outsource decision rights and authority to third-party agents who hold a monopoly over the use of force, the more effective we will be in actualizing the change we want to see in the world.
Let us know about examples in which you have consciously abstained from involving third-party government agents to settle a dispute or solve a problem that you were able to accomplish yourself. We’d love to hear them.