RALEIGH — Recent events lead me to restate an argument I made several years ago in response to a belligerent correspondent: mind your own business.
No, I wasn’t giving 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, the namesake of the think tank for which I serve as chairman of the board.
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 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,” and “nothing is terrible except fear itself” (sound familiar?)
Bacon is also the likely 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.
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 blaring music reaches a level that invades my home with audio torture. 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.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.