Publisher's note: This article appeared on John Hood's daily column in the Carolina Journal, which, because of Author / Publisher Hood, is linked to the John Locke Foundation.
This column was originally published in 2003. We'll be back with a fresh DJ tomorrow.
John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation.
RALEIGH Not that it is really in my interest to say this, but most political debates are a waste of time.
That is to say, most political debates may well be about very important issues, issues having to do with life, liberty, family, property, and morality. But the debates go nowhere. They exhibit two or more different "sides" who disagree strenuously, but rarely do the ideological combatants make a real effort to understand what their foes are saying. Specifically, they often respond viscerally to what is said to them without examining the assumptions and principles that lead their opponents to the political positions they espouse.
Thus, while sometimes these political discussions can be entertaining, in a theatrical sense, or a little edifying for those not already clued in on the issues, they don't lead anywhere. They don't facilitate resolution or action.
So here's a little time-saver the next time you get into a debate like the one I just described. Assuming you're somewhat on my ideological wavelength, just tell your antagonist, "Mind your own business."
No, I don't mean give him the brush-off. "Mind your own business" is a pretty meaningful phrase, if you think about it a little, and nicely sums up a key element of the freedom philosophy of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, most of the other American Founders, John Stuart Mill, free-market economists, and so many others. I say that it sums up a "key element" of the philosophy because it is not, by itself, the philosophy. There are other aspects, and areas of disagreement among those who otherwise agree on the primacy of liberty in the political sphere. But as a starting point, "Mind your own business" suffices.
As it happens, the phrase did apparently originate with a famous English writer and thinker of the 17th Century. No, it wasn't John Locke. It was one of his intellectual forebears and heroes, Sir Francis Bacon. A lawyer, statesman, and essayist who lived from 1561 to 1626, Bacon served in several posts in Stuart monarchy of the early 17th Century, ran afoul of many powerful politicians, got removed from office amid allegations of bribery, and then retired to Gorhambury to write and conduct scientific experiments.
Among his many achievements, Bacon was one of the most prolific originators of pithy sayings and aphorisms
. Allowing for the evolution of the English language and the vagaries of time and citation, you can still hear a lot of "Baconisms" in our discourse today. Examples include "knowledge is power," "beggars can't be choosers," "all that glitters is not gold," "it is an immense ocean that surrounds the island of Truth," "tragedies and comedies are made of one alphabet," "nothing is terrible except fear itself" (sound familiar?), and "men believe what they prefer."
I didn't know until today, however, that Bacon was likely the originator of the short admonition, "Mind your own business." It kind of sounds like something Benjamin Franklin might have advised his readers, but the first use was reportedly by Bacon. Moreover, it was only in about the 1500s that speakers of English began to use the term "business" to refer to trade or commercial activities, so earlier usages would have had a different connotation than the one usually ascribed to Bacon's phrase.
It's worth considering the original meaning
, though. The word "business" seems to have come from the obvious: "busy-ness." It referred to something that kept one "busy," that made one anxious or uneasy. Later came the notion that "business" was a particular matter needing one's attention.
Consider two different ways to understand the phrase "mind your own business" in a political context. First of all, it basically means "butt out." Don't fixate on, or try to prohibit or regulate, what someone else is doing -- unless, of course, that person's actions would impinge on your own freedom. This last point is critical, and often a source of confusion for those hostile to the freedom philosophy. They equate it with anarchy, which it is not. Your business becomes my business at roughly the point that your swinging fist approaches my nose, your drainage ditch touches my lawn, or your hip-hop or Britney Spears audio-torture reaches a level that invades my home. Applying this principle in public policy doesn't invalidate government action. It demands government action, but only to maximize the freedom of individuals to make choices and act on them.
The second meaning is more literal: pay attention to your own needs. This may sound presumptuous to say, perhaps even somewhat in tension with the first meaning. After all, who are you to demand this of me? Shouldn't I have the freedom not to mind my own business, my personal or familial or financial affairs, if I don't want to?
Up to a point, yes. But practical men -- and both Bacon and Locke were immensely practical as well as philosophical thinkers -- understand that it can be hard to limit the effects of a personal decision not to assume responsibility. Adults who don't adequately care for their children or their elders generate a problem that, perhaps contrary to good sense or libertarian principle, inevitably becomes a public one. People who don't save for a rainy day, who don't finish school and make sure they have a marketable skill, who indulge personal vices and addictions, who drive recklessly and act foolishly -- in short, people who don't mind their own business very well -- somehow end up costing the rest of us a lot of our money and often quite a lot of our freedom as politicians promise to "save them" and to help others avoid their fate.
I think that we might have a better chance of getting governmental busybodies to mind their own business if we really and truly minded our own business.