Not that it is really in my interest to say this, but many of our political debates are a waste of time.
They may well be about important issues. But they go nowhere. The two different “sides” disagree strenuously without making a real effort to understand what their foes are saying.
So here’s a little time-saver the next time you get into such a debate. Assuming you’re somewhat on my ideological wavelength, just tell your opponent, “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, and nicely describes a key element of the freedom philosophy as articulated by English philosopher John Locke in the 17th century, the American Founders of the 18th century, and free-market scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries.
I say that it describes a key element of the philosophy because it is not, by itself, the philosophy. There are other aspects and areas of substantial disagreement among those who otherwise agree on the primacy of liberty in politics. But as a starting point, “Mind your own business” suffices.
As it happens, the phrase did 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 the 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 write and conduct scientific experiments.
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. 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 own personal or financial affairs, if I don’t want to?
Up to a point, yes. But practical people – and both Bacon and Locke were immensely practical as well as philosophical thinkers – understand that it can be hard to contain the effects of irresponsible personal decisions.
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 when politicians pass laws 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.