Liberty and Willpower
By Joel F. Wade - November 18, 2011

"We're just showing the rich people that we can do what we want." – London rioter, in August

This quote, and the people who acted it out – and who are acting it out presently in the "occupy" demonstrations right now in the US – show what liberty disconnected from self-responsibility looks like.

If we want to promote and live in a free society, enough of us have to develop the skills of self-control, self-discipline and willpower to earn it.

Willpower is a term that used to be considered a mighty virtue. Among some of the colleagues that I have known in the world of psychotherapy (most of whom were liberal), willpower has been considered, to a large degree, as something of a mistake. This is, I believe, part of the fallacy of the left.

The idea was that if you had to use your willpower it was a sign that you were dealing with some unconscious forces, some psychological wounds, or some repressed emotional issues that the use of your willpower was just covering over. What was important and necessary, in their minds, was to get at the true source of those forces, wounds or issues, heal them, and then the willpower would not be necessary.

I have seen clients over the years who wanted to be in therapy to the point where any unhealthy impulses, thoughts or feelings were completely eliminated. This is a fantasy, of course. It is an ideal that does not actually exist in this world.

What we can do is choose what to do with such impulses, thoughts and feelings when they arise and use our willpower to move in the direction of our choice. Learning to deal with such things is part of our challenge as human beings. There is nothing broken here that needs to be fixed; it is a natural part of mastering ourselves so that we can function in the world as it is.

As has often been the case in theories of psychotherapy, there is some truth behind the ideal of alleviating troubling internal motivations, but then it gets expanded well beyond its bounds into a universal principle. Understanding what may be motivating some problematic behavior, thinking, or emotions may indeed help you to overcome some of what's troubling you.

For example, if you grew up in a violent home, you may have learned that violence is what regular life is about. Then you might find that as an adult you are continually surprised that you find people to get involved with who are also violent and who hurt you. Understanding your history to some degree and, more importantly, that you have maintained part of that history as a habit (which we all do to some extent), can help to weaken the pull – in this case the pull toward violent people.

But that is where some people stop in the process. And they may continue in psychotherapy for years and years without improving beyond that point; because what's missing is what you do with that understanding.

The next step is to use you conscious awareness, and direct your willpower to actively practice something different.

This is by definition not easy – using your will is work, takes energy, and goes against the flow of habits and feelings that you have developed. But without this step it is not likely that anything will really change.

The capacity to actively direct ourselves, to regulate ourselves, to control ourselves, is a virtue that has been eroded significantly over the past several decades. Not that there aren't plenty of people who still value it and practice it, but culturally it has been undermined in part by the ideal that I've outlined above and in part because of the near miraculous rise in prosperity over the past several decades.

Prosperity is fantastic but it brings with it certain problems as well. Among these problems is that we are buffered from some of the immediate cause and effect of our actions.

If you don't take good care of your car and you can easily afford to get it fixed when it breaks because of your neglect, then it's easier to neglect your car. If you don't take care of your family and you know that there are government agencies that will provide money and services to them if you don't, it can be easier for some people to neglect their family.

In my tool shed I have a large collection of old screws, washers, nuts, bolts and other little knick knacks that my dad collected over the years. He saved these because he didn't want to waste money driving to the hardware store every time he needed something. I have been more inclined to just drive to the hardware store than my dad was, and I keep that collection in part to remind myself to be more careful with money and in part because I use those items more than I would've thought.

There is a connection between the discipline of thrift and earned achievement that is vital to the creation of wealth and to overall success in life; but these are virtues that require acts of will.

The cultural disconnection between willpower and success has been a constant theme of the left. The very idea of "spreading the wealth around" denies any relation between wealth and human action. The ethical behaviors that lead to wealth should be applauded and emulated, but instead they are sidelined as insignificant background noise.

What is focused on then is not living in a fashion that creates wealth, but rather the concrete material products of those who live well.

This was the problem with the mortgage policies in the US that lead to our present financial collapse. It was observed that people who owned their own homes were more successful than those who did not. So the busybodies in government decided that more people should own their own homes, and then more people would be more successful!

Banks were then "encouraged" (forced) to make easier loans to people who could not really manage that debt so that they could own homes, too.

Divorced from this wacky idea is any appreciation that it is not the home itself that makes a person more successful but the habits and practices that create a life and a lifestyle which enables a person to accumulate enough wealth that they can afford to buy and maintain a home. The home is not the virtue; the home is a byproduct of the virtues that lead to it.

What actually leads to success is not the stuff you have, but the capacity of willpower, self-control, and self-regulation that allows you to earn that stuff. (This famous marshmallow experiment showed that young kids who were able to use their will to resist eating a marshmallow were, as adolescents, better adjusted, more dependable and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude test.)

This is something that the left does not comprehend. The whole premise of throwing money at problems, from Obama's disastrous "stimulus" bill, to Obamacare, to just about every government entitlement program in existence is based on the idea that people need stuff, and if people just have stuff, they will be better.

We can see the results of this philosophy dramatically played out in the England riots and the US "occupy" demonstrations (to name two examples). The thug quoted above expresses the problem eloquently. She's showing the rich that she and her cronies can do what they want – they have no need for self-control and can destroy people and property without consequence.

But no matter how much stuff they steal, or are given through entitlements, or borrow from others, they will never have the capacity to actually create anything. They lack not only the skills of self-control and willpower that it takes to create a good life – including material wealth – they also lack any idea that such skills are of value; which keeps them, even in their violent actions, passive, helpless and impotent in the face of life's challenges.

Liberty requires the capacity for self-regulation. It is the freedom to live as you choose, without imposition by the state. When you abandon your own willpower and self-responsibility, you are surrendering yourself to the control and custody of others.

Throwing a violent tantrum that does harm to others is not an act of free people living well. It's just a tantrum.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap