By Seunghwa Madeleine Han
New Harmony: a promising utopian community founded near the Wabash River in 1825. Robert Owens, the founder of New Harmony, had a vision for a “New Moral World,” in which people would be guaranteed security, education, and peaceful, communal living–because they would provide for such needs by themselves.
When Owens returned to New Harmony a few months later, he found that it had devolved into disarray. The community struggled to become self-sufficient. After Owens failed to establish a viable form of government, small groups began to splinter away from the community. By 1827, New Harmony had wiped itself off of the map.
But why don’t ungoverned communities–utopian or otherwise–last?
The answer is both plain and complex. Simply put, people have autonomy, or free will. I can get up in the morning, determine whether I want to finish last night’s physics homework or risk it, choose between an apple and an orange for breakfast (or choose not to eat breakfast at all), and decide whether to attend–or not to attend–school on this particular day.
But autonomy isn’t just about breakfast or physics homework. Theives, rapists, axe murderers, international terrorists, and the kid who keyed your car in the parking lot are also exercising their inherent free will.
Autonomy is just one of countless reasons why people in ungoverned communities cannot sufficiently provide for community needs. People are self-interested and, therefore, exist in natural competition spurred by the lure of incentives. Natural self-interest cannot always be qualified as a “good” or “bad” thing: it manifests itself as a byproduct of free will and remains a fact of life. As long as it remains a part of human biology, and as long as humans live in proximity to one another, they must establish a way to balance their need for autonomy with other basic needs, such as protection and relationship-building (let’s face it: we’re all walking bundles of contradictions).
Human nature–a strange, sort of contradictory thing–is the reason people agree to enter societies, in which they subsequently agree to abide by common laws under government. In exchange, the government agrees to provide the people with basic needs that they would not normally provide for one another.
But here’s where it gets tricky: where is the balance between individual autonomy and need for government? In other words, at what point is a government considered oppressive? It’s a big question, and I’m not sure it’s one that can be answered in a single blog post…or ever. People will agree to disagree on where the line should be drawn between government and the individual it governs. I could go on about covering just the basic needs, or government’s role in the higher stages of Maslow’s hierarchy, or the inevitability of arbitrariness, but the line government cannot cross is a whole new topic.
For now, I’ve accepted that I’m a self-interested, walking contradiction who can afford to sacrifice a little autonomy in exchange for basic provisions. Sort of. People, myself included, are always going to complain about what government is or isn’t doing.
But hey, politicians are people too.
What characterizes an effective government? Does autonomy precede other rights? Where is the line that government cannot cross? Let us know in the comments below!