I’ve been thinking about this idea of self-ownership, a concept almost universally assumed to be a foundation for human rights and the civilized life. At the same, this idea is constantly threatened by political ideologies that presume it not to be true.
Here is what got me thinking.
In the final episode of season two of The Americans, Elizabeth Jennings, a Soviet spy in America during the Cold War, is given a message from her Moscow-based handlers. The KGB expects that her teenage daughter Paige — who believes that her mother is a humble travel agent — will also become a spy. This is her destiny.
The mother profoundly objects. Elizabeth explains that she chose this life based on her commitment to communist ideals. Her daughter ought also be permitted to exercise such a choice. It strikes Mom, even though she is a committed communist, that denying her daughter volition over her life destiny would be inhumane and even ghastly.
Her Moscow handler disagrees. Her message: “We don’t belong to ourselves; we belong to the world.” Of course the “world” needs an institution to mediate the meaning of such audacious belongingness. That is the Communist Party. The vanguard of the dictatorship of the proletariat is the party elite, who are chosen by the workers and peasants to lead the way in ushering in a new world without capitalism.
All of which is to say that her daughter, now only 15 years old, has no choice about it. She will be trained to be a Soviet agent in America, just like her mother. It is up to Elizabeth to facilitate the transition as the child gets older. That is to say, Paige must be convinced to make the right “choice.” Doing the convincing is a test of loyalty and ideological commitment. You must be willing to give up your own child, because there is a sense in which nothing is yours. Everything belongs to the world, which is to say the Soviets.
The Core Moral Issue
The Americans is a seemingly endless show with fully six seasons — a total of nearly 75 hours of watching! In what I’ve seen so far — the brutal assassinations, the betrayals, the struggles over loyalty, the political machinations — the drama over the fate of the daughter is the most emotionally gripping. She is being denied the essential idea of self-ownership, which is to say that she is born a slave to the communist cause and the state that embodies that cause.
It’s deeply painful. It gives rise to profound reflection on how much we take self-ownership for granted. Communism in practice has to deny it. Many other political ideologies share that view. Racial nationalism demands that your biology determines your tribal loyalties. Religious nationalism insists that the belief structure in which you are born determines your life destiny. Geographic nationalism says your first loyalties are bound up with citizenship.
At the same time, in the modern age, we’ve come to believe a different idea. The French historian Ernst Renan explained the contrary position in 1882: “No one has the right to go through the world fingering people's skulls, and taking them by the throat saying: 'You are of our blood; you belong to us!'”
So too for familial loyalty. An essential component of the liberal idea is that as a child matures, he or she gains the capacity for making choices over life destiny. The job of a parent, as the custodian and caretaker of the child, is to prepare that child to make grown-up choices when the time comes. They must be real choices: over marriage, job, living arrangements, religion, and so on. Parents can and do influence, but with maturity comes this essential human right even when it takes place in defiance of familial and community expectations.
I would say that most of us assume self-ownership to be self-evident. As a concept, however, it seems very much tied to the liberal tradition. This is for a reason. It was denied in the ancient world, where one’s birth and social standing were fixed. Only with the birth of modernity and the rise of social mobility in the late Middles Ages did we gain social consciousness of the notion that each of us should be able to choose our life path, that we are owners of our own bodies as much as our minds and hearts.
John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government makes an elaborate argument concerning private property, and you can agree or disagree with his analysis here. What matters is that this argument begins with a statement he finds self-evident. “Every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has any right to but himself.”
When does this happen? It is an embedded part of human life, and one begins to exercise it upon maturity. Children’s “parents have a sort of rule and jurisdiction over them, when they come into the world, and for some time after,” writes Locke. “But it is but a temporary one. The bonds of this subjection are like the swaddling clothes they are wrapt up in, and supported by, in the weakness of their infancy: age and reason as they grow up, loosen them, till at length they drop quite off, and leave a man at his own free disposal.”
You don’t have to rely on Locke to believe it. Marcus Aurelius presumes it when he implores man to preserve that “spirit which is within him, from all manner of contumelies and injuries” and “wholly to depend from himself and his own proper actions.” Jesus presumes it when he implores his followers to leave their parents and communities and follow him. The Declaration of Independence postulates that every person has a right to life and liberty. And so on. There is a sense in which every philosophical outlook that focuses on what a person should believe and do presumes that the juridical center of control is located with the individual.
Do We Believe It Really?
Obviously the communist overlord in The Americans disagrees with this theory, and the result is the most morally alarming part of the show. And yet, think about many features of regular life today. Think of times when it suddenly struck you that you are not really being treated as if you own yourself.
I feel it when I’m stopped by the police for some traffic violation. Even if the policeman is nice, even if there was a good reason to stop me, I’m profoundly aware of my lack of choice when he or she is standing outside the driver’s side window and demanding documentation. I must have my papers in order. I must answer with the right words. I must not make any sudden or strange movements. If I do the wrong thing, I could be arrested and caged or even shot. In the blink of an eye, I’m no longer a self-owner; the police officer owns me.
I’ve also been feeling this recently when traveling internationally. There have been big changes in how one is treated at the border. It’s been normal for at least 100 years that you can’t just walk into another country without a checkpoint; I get that. But more recently, it’s become more difficult even to leave one’s own country. I’ve three times faced an exit facial scan when leaving the U.S., with the implied threat that if I don’t pass, I would become a prisoner in my own nation-state.
I faced a strange situation when recently leaving Bermuda to return to the U.S. After you go through security, you enter into U.S. territory, controlled entirely by U.S. border police and the Transportation Security Administration. I was going through the passport check and they took my passport. You cannot object. I was put in a holding room and not allowed to leave or ask questions. After 45 minutes, they called my name, gave me back my passport, and I was waved on.
You might say that this is no big deal, but it was actually very alarming. There were mediators standing between me and my ability to get home — that is, to use a ticket for a plane for which I had paid. My right to travel hung in the balance. I never found out why they had detained me. They are under no legal obligation to say. Protesting that I own myself would only end badly, I presume. In fact, in that situation, I had no rights.
Act on What We Believe
The notion of self-ownership is bound up with modernity’s understanding of what liberty is all about. The idea of slavery, which for thousands of years was believed to be essential to social order, we now rightly find morally disgusting. No person can presume without consent to possess the right to control the body and choices of another person, thus denying him or her the volition that lies at the core of what makes us human.
And yet we are terrible practitioners of the idea of self-ownership. We have built huge states in almost every country that exist and grow based on denying it. They necessarily must. Any ideology that proposes to support and expand the state implicitly denies it too. That is true whether the ideology is communism, socialism, nationalism, or any other ism that proposes to submerge individual rights to the higher claims of the political community.
They try to inspire us to give up what is ours, in the name of living according to higher ideals, being part of something larger than ourselves, submitting to the demands of the community. Some people want to do that. It should be their choice to do so. It should also be their choice to decline.
It’s not that we as a humane culture reject the idea of self-ownership. It’s that we don’t take it very seriously in our politics. Everyone believes it; no political system practices it. We should. But if we do, prepare for dramatic structural changes in the composition of our political communities. You will have to get used to the idea of being free.