Authoritarianism Begins at Home


The Psychology of Freedom: Liberty and Love as a Way of Life, by Peter R. Breggin, M.D., Buffalo, N. Y.: Prometheus Books, 1980, 242 pp., $15.95. (Discount distribution by Lake House Books.)

There is a peculiar notion popular in certain libertarian circles that psychology is irrelevant to libertarianism. Like Marxists, holders of this view prefer to invoke economics to explain social behavior. But this economistic approach to human behavior is as inadequate as the scientistic analysis of social issues that Hayek discusses in The Counter-Revolution of Science. Economism is utterly incapable, for example, of answering such fundamentally crucial questions as why some people want to live in a free society and some in a controlled one, or why some people submit to authority and some reject it.

Though The Psychology of Freedom is not directly intended to answer such questions, it offers important clues along the way. What is explicit is the link between psychology and politics:

The personal and the political are inextricably intertwined. If the government of the United States suddenly began to reaffirm the principles of 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,' sending Big Brother into retreat, many of our citizens would find themselves hopelessly mired in personal helplessness. Before long we would be moving again toward big paternalistic government and the erosion of our liberties. So self-oppressed are most of our citizens that they would seek a return to oppression as the only 'safe' way of life.

What is needed to end self-oppression, says Breggin, are personal ethics based on libertarian principles. And the purpose of his book is "to show the feasibility of living by [libertarian] ethics and to demonstrate that they can maximize self-fulfillment in the life of the individual.…you can live fully and happily by a set of ethics based first and foremost on individual rights and individual freedom."

The cornerstone of Breggin's theory is the principle of self-determination—"the determination of one's own course of action, freedom to think and act without restraint"—a psychological counterpart to political liberty. Closely related is personal sovereignty, "the capacity and right to be in charge of one's inner subjective world of feelings and thoughts,"—a psychological counterpart to individual rights. The third basic element is free will. Breggin sees the individual as a "sovereign moral agent," always able to make choices and exercise personal responsibility for his or her actions and thoughts.

Offering "libertarian ideals to live by," Breggin discusses the implications of these principles for personal life, interpersonal relations, children's rights, and romantic love. "In the psychology of self-determination," declares Breggin, "ethics are unconditional." This means that "libertarian values and ethics can and should be applied without compromise to daily living." One of the most important values to be applied is the non-coercion principle: any psychological assault on personal sovereignty is as unethical as physical coercion. (Ethics and law do not coincide, adds Breggin, so he is not suggesting laws against psychological assault!)

Abdication of self-determination leads to self-oppression, a "self-imposed psychological crippling in an attempt to deal with oppression." Self-oppression, Breggin declares, is the cause of personal failure and personal problems. In four chapters of great value to both clinicians and laypeople, Breggin discusses how people choose to fail, the three basic lifestyles of self-oppression (paranoia, depression, and anxiety), and the emotions of self-oppression (self-hate, guilt, shame, and anxiety). But, Breggin believes, no matter how neurotic or self-oppressed an individual is, he or she can still take responsibility and make choices. He adds substance to his theory with examples, from his own psychiatric practice, of people who did finally choose not to fail.

The primary source of self-oppression, asserts Breggin, is the family. Although children have free will and personal sovereignty, they are denied self-determination by their parents. "The average parent possesses more authority and influence over the details of the life of the typical growing child than does the most potent dictator in a totalitarian nation." The result is that "most personal problems derive from early compromises of self-interest and self-determination made by the child in the interest of surviving the totalitarian situation of childhood." The cycle is self-perpetuating. Parents oppress their children; the children react by becoming self-oppressive and then, as adults, oppress their children. And the problem extends from the personal to the political realm. Parental undermining of the child's sense of natural rights, he contends, leaves the child in doubt about the concept of human rights as an adult, and parental oppression plays a large role in inculcating obedience as adults to authoritarian institutions.

Breggin's solution to the problem of parental oppression, a radical and trail-blazing aspect of the book, is that "voluntary association or noncoercion should be the guiding principle of parent-child relationships. If anything, libertarian principles must be adhered to most scrupulously in relating to children, for they are too helpless to stand up for their own rights."

Noncoercion means that parents are never justified in using more than the "minimal necessary force" in dealing with conflicts and then only in self-defense, in defense of the person or property of others, or to keep the child from immediate injury. Nor are nonphysical punishments acceptable. Parents, asserts Breggin, have no right to manipulate the giving of love, food, and shelter in order to control children. This does not mean, Breggin is quick to point out, that children can run wild. They have no right to infringe on the rights of others. Thus, actions that threaten the peace of the family such as loud noise in the communal area or whining need not be tolerated. But conflicts should be dealt with through reasoning, not punishments. "The best way to encourage children to treat you well is to always treat them well."

Evidence from psychological research lends some support to Breggin's theory of parent-child relations. Martin Hoffman, for example, found a positive correlation between parental use of "induction" (reasoning about the consequences of the child's actions) and high levels of moral development in children. Power assertion, on the other hand, showed a negative correlation and love-withdrawal none.

You need not totally agree with Breggin or even have children to appreciate the chapters on parent-child relations. They provide an unparalleled illustration of why libertarian principles are relevant to personal life and, conversely, why personal life has significant implications for political life.

Impressed as I am with the book, I do, however, have some objections. In his discussion of love and esteem for others, Breggin asserts that "love for others is the source from which we grant rights to others." Breggin's definition of love—"the good feeling generated by placing high value upon another person's existence…and by recognizing…another's humanity" is not so far from Nathaniel Branden's concept of valuing ourselves and others simply because we exist, but do we really want to call this love? The ancient Greeks had no such semantic dilemma; they used two terms (agape, or "brotherly" love; and eros, or sexual love). We have less choice, but using one term for both concepts muddies the intellectual waters too much.

Breggin's discussion of "sexual possessiveness," however, presents more than just a semantic difficulty. Stating that he has never encountered anyone who ever romantically loved another person without wishing to "possess" that person exclusively, he then jumps to the illogical and decidedly dogmatic conclusion that "invariably, denials of possessiveness are either self-oppressive or reflect an actual lack of love." Not only do I disagree in theory, finding "possessiveness" neither necessary or even agreeable (though a possible choice), but I do know of actual cases of non-possessive romantic love. On this score, Branden is more sensible, admitting at least the possibility (admittedly rare) of nonmonogamous love relationships.

But in the total context of the book, these flaws are minor. Breggin's path-breaking integration of psychology and politics makes The Psychology of Freedom one of the most important libertarian books in years—if only we heed the message. His application of the idea that human action ought to be governed by the same principles whether in personal or political life not only can make the lives of individuals more self-determining but also shows that political libertarianism is logically consistent with nonlibertarian humanists' belief in psychological nonauthoritarianism. His insights into the roots of self-oppression and obedience to authority provide rich grounds for future research as well as for expansion of libertarian concern into new areas such as children's rights.

The personal and political are but two aspects of the whole. Economics is not enough. Politics is not enough. Even psychology is not enough. We need integration, not compartmentalization. Libertarians ignore that message at the peril of the cause we hold so dear.

Sharon Presley is currently completing her Ph.D. in personality and social psychology. Her dissertation research concerns resistance to authority.