An inquiry into human freedom: Individualism reconsidered


Richard Moore

Over the years, as I've pondered our problems as 
a global society, and watched the dark storm 
clouds rising, I've been searching for 'what we 
can do' to save ourselves and the planet. Growing 
up in the 1960s, I assumed that our glorious 
'land of the free' had been hijacked by people 
like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and their 
corporate sponsors. Like many others, I believed 
we needed to 'restore' our democracies, to 
'return' to the vision of the Founding Fathers. 
But as I began studying history seriously, I 
learned there never has been a golden age of 
democracy, not in America and not anywhere in 
recorded history. I found out that our revered 
Founding Fathers were slave-owning aristocrats, 
who made beautiful speeches about freedom and 
democracy, but in the end gave their first 
allegiance to the preservation their own private 
fortunes. See, for example, "Toward an American 
Revolution: Exposing the Constitution and other 
Illusions", by Jerry Fresia:

The more I looked back through recorded history, 
the more I realized there has never been any 
golden age of civilization. Always there have 
been ruling cliques, a relative few in privileged 
positions, and a great many who live in varying 
degrees of subjugation, exploitation, and 
depravation. For the first few thousand years, 
civilization was based on outright slavery (See: 
Bible, ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, China,...), 
and slavery has never been fully eliminated to 
this day. Recently we've been told that we live 
in democracies (republics if you prefer), and we 
are supposed to believe we are free because once 
in a while we are permitted to choose which 
elite-sponsored leader we prefer to follow.

As long as our societies are controlled by 
privileged cliques, whether they sit on thrones 
or in boardrooms, we are but subjects and pawns, 
and our societies will be run for the benefit of 
a few. This has been the ongoing saga of 
civilization to this day. Only when we learn to 
govern ourselves will our societies be run 
sensibly for our benefit, and for the benefit of 
our families and posterity. The time has come for 
us to make a choice: either we learn to govern 
ourselves, or else the dark clouds of resource 
depletion will lead to global collapse and mass 
die-offs. Our current elite rulers have made it 
very clear that they intend to keep their 
wasteful economic-growth machine operating 
regardless of the consequences for the rest of 
us. In the third world mass die-offs have already 
begun, as some six million children die each year 
from malnutrition, starvation, and preventable 
diseases -- a Holocaust of neglect.

        "We've lived so long under the spell of hierarchy-from
         god-kings to feudal lords to party bosses-that only recently
         have we awakened to see not only that 'regular' citizens
         have the capacity for self-governance, but that without
         their engagement our huge global crises cannot be addressed.
         The changes needed for human society simply to survive, let
         alone thrive, are so profound that the only way we will move
         toward them is if we ourselves, regular citizens, feel
         meaningful ownership of solutions through direct engagement.
         Our problems are too big, interrelated, and pervasive to
         yield to directives from on high."
         -Frances Moore Lappé, Time for Progressives to Grow Up

How then can we learn to govern ourselves? I 
suggest that this is a very difficult question, 
because we have no experience in self governance, 
no models of how to go about it. In every aspect 
of our lives, we are accustomed to delegating 
governance to one form of hierarchy or another. 
Our cities are governed by city councils, our 
workplaces are run by boards of directors, our 
schools by school boards, even our 'grassroots 
organizations' -- whether they be the the Sierra 
Club or the National Rifle Association -- are 
governed by small cliques. We know how to join an 
organization, but we don't know how to govern one 
ourselves -- we always delegate to some central 

Learning to govern ourselves will require us to 
reexamine how we relate to organizations, and to 
society generally. Let us begin by examining our 
understanding of the relationship between the 
individual and the state. The basis of this 
understanding is the notion that the fundamental 
unit of society is the 'autonomous individual'. 
We submit ourselves to the laws of the state, but 
we jealously guard our individual prerogatives in 
all other matters. We equate freedom with 
individual freedom, each of us pursuing our own 
self interest, constrained only by the laws set 
down by the state. How we go about this pursuit, 
to put it bluntly, is nobody else's damn business.

If we think of the 'autonomous individual' as 
being the basis of society, relating as an 
individual to the state, and we believe in 
'freedom', then we are led to ideas about 
'protecting the individual from the state', 'bill 
of rights', 'limited government', 'republics', 
etc. The problem with this perspective is that we 
are left with a state ruled by some government 
and that government always ends up having its own 
agendas. Our 'protections' are only real to the 
extent the state observes them.

In actual fact, states violate such rights and 
protections when it serves their purpose to do 
so. The Soviet Union under Stalin had a very 
impressive set of 'rights' on the books. There is 
no way for the individual to obtain their rights, 
except through mechanisms that the state itself 
provides. Constitutions are supposed to ensure 
that states must observe personal rights, but the 
interpretation and enforcement of constitutions 
is again a function of the state. Where this can 
lead is being demonstrated by Bush & the Patriot 
Acts. A reliance on 'individual rights' amounts 
to a faith in the state, that the state will be 
benevolent. How many states, now or in the past, 
have been benevolent? Of those (if there are 
any), how many have remained benevolent in the 
long run?

If we really want freedom, and protection for the 
individual, then we cannot rely on a state to 
provide that for us. We need to create a real 
self-governing society, in which people can 
ensure their own welfare and rights by the 
decisions they make themselves in the process of 
running their society. Here is where the concept 
of the 'autonomous individual', as the basic unit 
of society, leads us into trouble. How will a 
bunch of 'autonomous individuals' be able to work 
together to run a society? If everyone is 
pursuing their own individual self-interest, how 
is the society as a whole to operate, to 
organize its infrastructures, other than by 
delegating power to some state?

Consider for a moment how people in a family 
relate to one another. Within a healthy family 
the individual members have a considerable amount 
of individual freedom and autonomy, but big 
decisions must take the whole family into 
account, as a unit, as a family. If Mom wants to 
move to the seaside, because she likes the sea 
air, she understands that the whole family must 
be considered: Are there jobs there? Are there 
good schools for the kids? Is there a crime 
problem? Will the kids suffer because they won't 
get to see their friends any more? Family 
decisions take the whole family into account, if 
it's a healthy family. Within a family, a balance 
is struck between individual autonomy, and the 
well being of the family as a whole.

If we want to create a democratic society, in 
which people run their own affairs and have real 
freedom, then we need to think in terms of the 
family model. We need to find a way of relating 
to one another that enables us to make decisions 
that take everyone into account, as happens in a 
healthy family. But unlike a family, there is no 
Daddy and Mommy who are considered wiser and can 
decide many things on the family's behalf: in a 
democratic society we are all equal participants. 
The last thing we want is a Big Brother or Nanny 
state to make decisions on our behalf.

The difficulty here is that we don't have 
experience in relating to each other in such a 
way. We know how to argue and debate, but we 
don't know how to reach satisfactory agreement. 
Either we just leave things to the state, or else 
we join special interest groups or political 
parties in an effort to have some influence on 
society. It turns out that there are ways for us 
to relate effectively so as to make good 
decisions 'for the whole family', but these are 
ways we need to learn. They are not ways that we 
have experienced in our state-run, 
over-individualized, over-competitive societies.

Let's think in terms of a small community, 
perhaps a rural village or small town. And let's 
suppose that the people of the community have 
learned to relate (communicate) with one another 
in such a way that they can make community 
decisions that take everyone into account -- in 
which everyone participates, and where everyone 
is happy with the decisions that are reached. 
This is a big 'suppose', but stay with me. As I 
said before, there are known ways to make this 
'suppose' come true.

If such a community makes its decisions in this 
way, it has no need of a town council that has 
the power to take decisions on its own. The 
community might have agencies, like parks 
departments and police, which carry out the 
policies of the community, but the community as a 
whole makes the policy decisions. This would be a 
democratic community, a self-governing community. 
Individuals would not be relying on the 'state' 
(town council) to protect their interests, they 
would protect their own interests by their equal 
participation in the decision-making process.

You may fear that you would not always 'get your 
own way' in such a community. But why should you? 
Does everyone always get their own way in a 
family? Should they? And are you 'getting your 
own way' by letting the state run things? 
Wouldn't you rather have an equal voice than no 
voice at all? Besides, the wonderful thing about 
these 'ways of relating' that I've talked about, 
is that they are not about compromise, not about 
'giving in' to the majority. They are about 
listening to everyone's ideas and concerns, and 
working together to find creative solutions that 
take everyone's concerns into account. You can 
read about real experiences with these kinds of 
decision-making processes on Jim Rough's website:

Another thing about families is that people 
generally want to belong to one. Indeed it is a 
basic human need to be part of a family. 
Everyone's heart feels sympathy for the poor 
orphan child, living in some cold institutional 
'home'. And what can be more heart-wrenching than 
a child (or parent for that matter) who loses 
their family in a tragic accident? It is natural, 
God-given if you will, for people to live as part 
of a family. We have an inherent need to 
'belong', particularly when we are growing up. 
The breakdown of the family unit in our modern 
societies is one of our biggest causes of stress 
and anxiety.

Let us consider this notion of 'belonging' in 
relation to our communities. In our modern 
societies, with few exceptions, we don't really 
have any sense of community. We drive our cars 
somewhere else to work, then we come home and 
spend most of our time in our houses, or we visit 
with our circle of friends, who may live miles 
away. We often don't even know our neighbors. We 
identify with sports teams or TV families more 
than we identify with our communities or 
neighbors. We are likely to feel 'involved' with 
remote wars and affairs in Washington (Ottawa, 
London...), and have little interest or concern 
with local affairs. We don't have a real sense of 
'belonging' in our communities, other than as a 
place where our individual comforts happen to be 
located. We can move to another town, get another 
job and similar house, and hardly notice the 

Now consider what sense of 'belonging' we would 
be likely to experience in a self-governing 
community. For one thing, we would would be much 
better acquainted with our neighbors and fellow 
residents generally, if we worked with one 
another to make community policy and set 
community agendas. And certainly we would feel 
more involved in what's going on in our 
community, since we would be participating 
directly in its affairs. Beyond that, we would 
think of our community as a welcoming place, 
where we are known and where our voice is 
listened to. We would feel a part of our 
community's successes in dealing with its 
problems. We would feel a sense of ownership  -- 
and of belonging. We would see it as 'our 
community' rather than just as a place where our 
house is located.

Our feelings toward other community members would 
be a bit like our feelings toward family members. 
Just as two brothers might be frequently at each 
other's throats, there might be people in the 
community we don't like and don't get along with. 
But as with the brothers, we would would come to 
our fellow's aid if they were really in trouble. 
We would see one another as 'partners in running 
our community'. There would be a sense of 
comradery in the shared project of improving our 
local quality of life. Our community would be 
like a family-writ-large, a place where we find 
support, where our needs matter, where our 
fellows care about us, where there is a 'place 
for us'.

As individuals and families we would have our own 
life paths, our unique ambitions and our 
autonomy, but we would understand that our own 
autonomy and well-being can be best served when 
we respect the autonomy and well-being of our 
fellows. We would realize that there is a 
trade-off between freedom and responsibility. By 
our participation in decision making we would be 
learning how to make such trade-offs so that we 
all benefit and all have a sense of real freedom 
-- rather than enjoying 'privileges granted by 
the state', privileges that can be taken away at 
any time, as we have been recently learning.

Let us return again to this matter of 
'belonging', and the natural human need to belong 
in a family, to have the support of a family. 
And let us bring into consideration the origins 
of our species, the conditions under which we 
evolved into social beings. In indigenous 
hunter-gatherer societies, which is how all of 
our ancestors lived for 90% of our time as humans 
(some 100,000 years), people have a very strong 
sense of 'belonging' to their tribal group. They 
also have a strong sense of individuality and 
personal life path, but their identity with their 
group is very fundamental. In such societies the 
most terrible punishment one can experience is 
banishment. In these societies, banishment from 
the tribe is just as heart-breaking as losing 
ones family. Such societies are also egalitarian, 
with everyone participating equally in tribal 

Don't all of us, in our hearts, dream of this 
kind of 'belonging'? To live in a supportive 
society where we 'have a place' and 'have a say'? 
Isn't this why shows like 'Little House on the 
Prairie' have been so popular? Don't we all yearn 
for communities where we can be closer to nature, 
more connected to place, where we have more 
direct control over our lives, where we help new 
neighbors build barns, where children respect the 
wisdom of their elders, and the elders respect 
children's need to grow up and learn for 
themselves? Isn't there a memory deep in our 
hearts of 'belonging' in a society in this way? 
Of being part to a 'larger supportive family'? 
Don't we often feel like 'lost souls' in our 
modern, isolating societies? Is this not a big 
part of the reason why there is so much 
anti-social behavior, anxiety, depression, and so 
many stress-related illnesses, psychological hang 
ups, dysfunctional families, and suicides?

My own belief, based partly on what my heart 
tells me, and partly on my investigations into 
anthropology and psychology, is that being part 
of a supportive community is a natural human 
need, on a par with the need to be part of a 
supportive family. This is not to say that people 
might not move to a different community, or spend 
time as world travellers, but as a basic 
infrastructure for society, our 'natural 
condition' is to grow up in a supportive 
community ('it takes a village to raise a 
child'), and to participate as equals in our 
society's governance as adults.

'The Wizard of Oz' can be seen as an insightful 
metaphor for our human condition. We (Dorothy) 
are now in Oz (the modern world), with glittering 
lights, fantastic castles, Great Witches and 
Wizards, and we are lost, we don't belong. We 
have only Toto (family) as a connection to home 
(belonging), and to Toto we hang on for dear 
life. We thought we wanted to run away from home 
and find 'freedom', and we learn that what we 
really want is to return home, to our heart's 
desire, to where Auntie Em still waits, to our 
native soil, our beloved Kansas, where we 
'belong'. We can see this kind of sentiment 
expressed in this down-home country-western 

           I don't believe in superstars,
           organic food and foreign cars.
           I don't believe the price of gold,
           that right is right and left is wrong,
           the certainty of growing old,
           that east is east and west is west,
           that north and south can't get along,
           and being first is always best.
               But I believe in love, I believe in babies,
           I believe in mom and dad, and I believe in you.
               -- I BELIEVE IN YOU
               DON WILLIAMS - 1980
               (Roger Cook/Sam Hogin)

We all cherish our individuality, as we should, 
and we enjoy our personal freedom, quite rightly, 
within the laws of our society. But by enshrining 
the 'autonomous individual' as an absolute good, 
not to be disturbed by any consideration other 
than society's laws, we disempower ourselves 
politically and we impoverish ourselves 
culturally.  If we pursue only our personal 
self-interest, and everyone else does the same, 
we have no way of governing ourselves, and we 
cannot develop the kind of supportive, inclusive 
society that can nurture our souls and make us 
whole again as social beings. We leave ourselves 
at the mercy of the state, and we remain stranded 
in Oz, strangers in a strange land.

If we are willing to reconsider the primacy of 
individual autonomy, and see our relationship to 
society as being more like our relationship to 
our families, then it will become possible for us 
to learn how to govern ourselves. And by 
governing ourselves, we will naturally develop 
the kind of supportive communities and societies 
that can be 'home' to us, where we can re-connect 
with our long-lost sense of 'belonging'. Even 
more important, given the dark clouds that 
threaten us, we can begin governing our societies 
with common sense for our mutual benefit. Much 
has already been lost and wasted, but the sooner 
we being using our remaining resources wisely, 
the greater the likelihood that the Earth can 
recover and a new, more enlightened civilization 
can emerge.

I suggested earlier that the most natural place 
to begin this kind of political / social 
transformation would be in our communities, where 
we already share 'place', and where local quality 
of life is an inherently shared concern. We 
already have a lot in common in our communities, 
and that makes them an ideal place for us to 
begin learning how to govern ourselves 

'Learning democratic self governance' is an 
abstract concept. What it really means is this: 
"learning how to work together to solve problems, 
develop plans, and make decisions that everyone 
is happy with." It is a matter of communication, 
of dialog. We face here an obstacle: our normal 
patterns of discussion and debate are inadequate 
to the task. When there are strong differences of 
opinion -- as can be expected with many community 
issues -- we do not know how to resolve those 
difference to everyone's satisfaction.

Above, I gave links to Jim Rough's website, where 
there are descriptions of dialog trials that have 
been carried out in real communities. These are 
not selected 'success stories', these are all of 
the trials, and they have all been successful. 
Jim's particular style of dialog is called 
Dynamic Facilitation, and he employs it in a 
certain format called a Wisdom Council. Jim's 
site explains how a Wisdom Council works, and 
Rosa Zubizarreta provides us with an excellent 
description of how Dynamic Facilitation operates:

What these trials demonstrate is that any group 
of ordinary people, selected at random from a 
community, have the capacity to get past their 
differences, and go on to collaborate in 
developing creative solutions that everyone is 
happy with.  As you might expect, these one-time 
trials were not able to reach any earth-shaking 
breakthroughs, but they showed that the necessary 
kind of dialog could be achieved -- precisely the 
kind that can enable us to govern ourselves. In 
order to develop the potential of dialog in a 
community further, it would be necessary to have 
frequent dialog sessions, involving more and more 
of the local residents over time.

One of the powerful principles behind Wisdom 
Councils has to do with the notion of 'community 
microcosm'. Let's say that twelve people are 
involved in one of these Councils, and between 
them they bring in a broad cross-section of 
community interests and viewpoints. As they get 
past their differences, and begin to work toward 
solutions that make sense to all of them, there 
is every reason to expect that those solutions 
will also make sense to a broad cross-section of 
the community at large. Not everyone is 
personally participating, but everyone's basic 
point of view is likely to find voice from within 
the microcosm group.

As more people get a chance to participate 
personally, in subsequent Councils, you can see 
how there could be a rapid community-wide 
convergence around solutions to current community 
issues. The microcosm principle can act as a 
powerful accelerator of a community's 
decision-making process. It makes self-governance 
practical, as regards how much time each of us 
can spend dealing personally with community 
decisions. Ultimately, each decision might 
require the unanimous approval of all residents, 
but getting to that decision can be greatly 
expedited by the microcosm mechanism.


These are the kinds of ideas I develop in my 
book, "Escaping the Matrix: how We the People can 
change the world": 
Indeed, I fear I may have given away most of the 
plot in this relatively short inquiry. But there 
is actually a lot more -- what I've tried to do 
here is establish 'plausibility of basic ideas'. 
If we really want to inquire into how our global 
society can be self-governing, there is a lot 
more we need to think about. When we consider a 
community, we are considering only a microcosm of 
what self-governance is about. Among other things 
we need to think about how our existing 
governments are likely to respond to an emergence 
of upstart self-governance initiatives. There is 
the question of economic systems, and their 
relationship to governance. We also need to 
consider how people can effectively address 
complex global issues, while still somehow 
including everyone's voice in the decisions that 
are reached. These issues and many others are 
explored with some thoroughness in the book, 
leading to conclusions that give reason for 
considerable optimism.

One interesting aspect of this line of thinking 
is that the theory and analysis are ultimately of 
little importance. There is no need for anyone, 
not to mention everyone, to 'buy into' these 
ideas in order for them to manifest themselves in 
society. What is necessary is only that the 
process of enlightened dialog begin  -- the rest 
can be expected to follow automatically, as our 
inherent wisdom is unleashed. Jim Rough and many 
others are working diligently in this very 
direction, even though they don't necessarily 
share my own vision of where it can lead. My hope 
with the book is that perhaps some people will 
find resonance with the overall perspective, and 
that might motivate them to join in the project 
of creating a global network of self-governing, 
intelligent societies.