L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 252, December 21, 2003
Special to TLE
Tom Cruise's latest movie effort was released on December 5. In The Last Samurai, he plays a Civil War hero whose military career later came to involve incidents that sicken him. Largely in desperation, he accepts a job with the Japanese government to train its army in the use of western weapons. After being captured by the enemya group of samurai warriorsCruise's character learns something about a willingness to live and to die with honor, and that lesson changes everything for him. In "bushido"the "way of the warrior"he finds his own way.
In much the same manner as Japan passed from the influence of the samurai warrior and into the western world near the turn of the century, honor is also no longer a way of life in America. There was a time not so very long ago when two men could seal a deal with a handshake. Now the same agreement requires lawyers and contracts. In the relatively recent past, if someone gave their word on something, you could take that word to the bank. Now we demand witnesses and signatures because a word can be broken for little more than an "I changed my mind" or a matter of convenience. Doubtless there are many who can still remember when a problem with a neighbor involved nothing more than a visit and a polite discussion. Now the same matter will probably involve a lawsuit.
If you think about it for a moment, you'll realize that many of our laws have come into existenceor at least are being used a whole lot morebecause honor has slipped out of existence. Contracts, for example, have the strength of the law behind them because too many people are all too willing to renege on a deal if there aren't serious repercussions involved. Homeowners Associations spell out minutiae for home upkeep in certain areas. Cities have made and will enforce nuisance laws because some people won't take care of their property without the threat, nor will they keep their pets from becoming dangerous (or in danger) without leash laws. Drug tests have become nearly universal pre-employment qualifiers. Even marriages have become less an honorable commitment than a business deal sealed with prenuptual agreements and his-and-hers checking accounts rather than a kiss.
I personally am not fond of these kinds of laws. I understand that they exist to protect me from people without honor, but I don't think you can legislate honor any more than you can legislate intelligence or morality. Instead, appropriate consequences for those who dishonor their wordor who infringe upon the rights of othersseems both more appropriate and less invasive of the liberties of others (not to mention having fewer laws written to already bursting-at-the-seams listings of statutes). The man who fails to live up to his end of a business agreement should be punished to the extent of the losses of his partner(s), and his failings publicized so that others won't partner with him again. People who harm animals by failing to care for them properly should be shunned by decent people everywhere not to mention refused service at every place in town they might obtain another pet. The man or woman who has a few drinks on a Friday night or who uses a drug recreationally on Saturday shouldn't be penalized, but woe betide the employee who shows up to work under the influence!
Honor also involves a willingness to accept the blame when you're the one who made the mistake. If you burn your lap with hot coffee because you're stupid enough to drive off with a paper cup between your legs, then you need to 'fess up to a little temporary insanity to go along with your reddened skin. If you're tempted to lie about something, consider for a moment the reason for the temptation and admit to yourselfand othersthat maybe, just this one time, you're not perfect and you'll try harder next time. If you don't think you can keep your word on something, then don't give it. If you do give it, then keep it.
Most of the men and women in the so-called freedom movement are men and women of honor. They accept responsibility for themselves and, by so doing, can be relied upon in both word and deed. They don't count on the government to take care of them. They count on themselves, and for that reason, they're also able to count on each other. Those involved in the freedom movement say they want to repeal a number of laws, and they'll doubtless try to do just that. And when they do, there will be little difference in day-to-day life because they didn't need those laws in the first place to treat each other with respect and to honor their commitments.
In today's Japan, more than 100 years since the last samurai, there are a number of problems including a rapidly rising murder and violent crime rate. Some have blamed the influence of western culture for these downward trends. But the changes in society there aren't really due to movies or music or the style of clothes. Instead, there's been a steady erosion of respect for responsibility, and a devaluation of honor. In fact, much the same thing is happening there as has been happening here. And while I'm not clear on all of the causes in either country, I'm perfectly aware of the solution to the problem.
Honor and personal responsibility must become the non-negotiable expectation in homes, schools, and businesses everywhere. Those who lie or fail to keep their word must not be protected or excused, but must experience real and negative consequences for their actions. That means that the three year-old who lies about breaking the vase should not be allowed to play with his favorite toy for half an hour and will have to apologize to Mommy. It means that the teen-ager who comes in an hour after curfew will have her driving privileges suspendedwithout exceptions for work or special eventsfor a couple of weeks. It means that the child who is failing English will get an F whether it hurts his feelings or not. It means that the employee who shows up drunk to work in the morning will be fired before lunch.
Making excuses for the inexcusable has not only discouraged those without honor from getting any, but has dishonored us as well for our failure to value honor appropriately. In a way, the lack of honor exhibited by some is a kind of reflection on the rest of us who are apparently willing to accept that kind of behavior as long as we can throw a law at it if we really need to. In old Japan, the shame of inaction could be as great as the shame of action. One way to redeem ourselves is to stop considering others less capableor culpablethan we are. And the best way to get others to be capable and culpable is to expect it of them.
As George Bernard Shaw said, "Freedom requires responsibility. That is why most men dread it." Before we can win real freedom, we must make honor and responsibility real virtues again. We must aspire to them ourselves, and we must demand them of others. Bushido is a thousand years old, and it comes from a philosophy that's foreign to most of us on many levels. But the "way of the warrior" offers valuable insight for freedom fighters, and the most dishonorable thing I can imagine under any code of ethics is letting it fade unremarked into the past as the Japanese, to their great loss, have begun to do.