I love that phrase — “You’re not the boss of me!” — those words, that order, that emphasis. Children say it when they’re put upon, and I love it so much I write it into their mouths in fiction, too.
The sentence has that structure because the child has self-abstracted the genitive idea, the idea of “of-ness” — the relationship of dominance defined by every form of possession. “You’re not my boss!” is a learned shortening of the same idea, but “You’re not the boss of me!” is a completely self-abstracted, self-constructed sentence, which in turn expresses in the most succinct possible form a completely self-abstracted philosophy.
We spend a lot of time laughing at how silly children’s ideas are, but we never stop to marvel at everything they had to work out in order to have ideas of their own. To say that one simple sentence — “You’re not the boss of me!” — the child had to work out the idea of his own undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy.
I could spend a month defending the idea of an “undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy,” but I had to understand the raw essence of that idea as a four-year-old — and so did you!
We were all children once, and we had amazing minds — before we trained ourselves to be stupid. And we were vessels of pure truth — before we learned how to lie. Before we learned how to say anything other than “You’re not the boss of me!” Or, worse, learned how to say “I am the boss of you!”
The world is wide, and I have seen it in little more than glimpses, but it would not surprise me if the first complete sentence to emerge from the mouth of any normal child would take this form: “Mine!” It amounts to using the imperative to express the genitive: “That is my property, and I will thank you to get your grubby mitts off of it!” Compared to a child of that age, just about any dog could do better job at making the point, but the child has already done what the dog can never do:
The child has conceptually abstracted the idea of personal property as a value.
What was the first day you were alive as a human being? On which day of your life did you come to be awake as a self-aware free moral agent, motivated by nothing but your self, by nothing but your own self-abstracted idea of how you should behave? You may not be convinced, by now, that you are, in fact, a being of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy, but it was that idea that you were expressing the first time you said “Mine!” or “No!”
You had expressed those sentiments physically, in mothertongue, many times before — just as the dog had done. But when you expressed those ideas in words, in concepts, it was at that instant, if we must draw a bright line, that you stopped being an animal and became a human being.
Do you need a continuum instead? Fine. That instant marks the first positive number on the continuum of your graduation from being an animal into becoming a human being. And by the time you got around to expressing an idea so complex as “You’re not the boss of me!” — by then you were nearly done understanding the world on your own.
I call this the age of conceptual fluency, and, like every other metamorphic process, it really is more useful to think of it as a continuum. It might begin when the is child two or three, with expressions in fathertongue — “No!” or “Mine!” — even if reinforced in mothertongue. I expect it to be done — a child who lives life in fathertongue virtually all the time — by age five.
Keep this fresh in your mind: By age five, you yourself and nearly every other person you will ever know, had abstracted in its entirety a complete — and completely captivating — philosophy of individualism.
At five, you could not have defended the idea that “You’re not the boss of me!” the way I can do it today, but at that age you and they and everyone regarded that expression as a completely obvious, completely indisputable political philosophy. What you and everyone actually said was this:
“I am a being of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy. It is wrong for you to attempt to dominate me, not just because that would be morally wrong but, most importantly, because my nature as a thing forbids it.
“This is a statement of obvious fact — obvious to observation, but, most especially, obvious to self-observation, to introspection. You know that I am a being of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy because you know that you yourself are a being of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy, and you know we are alike as things.
“This fact is undeniable, which means you can deny it only by being knowingly deceitful or in grievous error.
“This fact is inescapable, since no matter what deceitful or erroneous statements you might make about the idea of human autonomy — volitional conceptuality and concept-driven volitionality — free moral agency — free will — it is nevertheless always the case that we each are never other than and never more than beings of undeniable, inescapable ontological autonomy.
“Therefore, my own autonomy — and hence yours — is an ontological fact — a property of my being as a thing — an inalienable manifestation of my identity as an entity.”
That’s a boatload of philosophy for a child so small, isn’t it? You should pat yourself on the back. You couldn’t express those ideas in those words at that age, but it remains that you understood every principle of that argument when you were three or four years old. You had to have understood those principles in order to have said “You’re not the boss of me!”
Now when you were four, having declared, “You’re not the boss of me!” very probably someone scooped you up and carried you off to whatever fate you were resisting. You screamed and writhed in outrage, correctly identifying this as a crime against your autonomy, but your parents or an older sibling proceeded to push you around anyway. You may want to claim that this was dominance, even though we just established that it is not possible for one person to dominate another. In fact, what was done to you was not dominance but simply coercion.
If you are big enough, or if you run in a gang, you can coerce my body, pushing me around like a mannequin. You can bind my limbs or lock me in a jail cell. You can beat me, torture me, even kill me. But what you cannot do is cause me to take any sort of purposive action. I can voluntarily relent to your demands out of fear of even worse pain, but, if I choose to resist you, there is nothing you can do about it. You cannot dominate me, not ever.
Want proof? If you believe you can dominate my will, raise my hand.
I am free from you ontologically, as a manifestation of my identity as a thing. You can enslave my body with chains, but you cannot ever enslave my will. You are not the boss of me, not ever.
You are not the boss of anyone except yourself. I am not the boss of anyone except myself. Adults can have a caretaker responsibility for children — or for mentally-defective or ill or severely-injured relatives — while those folks are unable to manage their own autonomy. But no one ever has the power to control another person’s purposive actions from the outside. As human beings, we are each one of us free from all the others.
So suppose you take it into your head that you should be able to tell me which weapons I can purchase, how many I can own, what ammunition I can use with those weapons, in what loads and in what quantities? Suppose you resolve to dictate to me how many rounds of ammunition my firearms can deploy at one time? Guess what? You’re not the boss of me.
Do you imagine that you have the right to tell me what work I can do, how I must do it and at what rate of pay? Not likely. You’re not the boss of me.
Have you determined that it’s your business what food, drink or other substances I put into my body? Think again. You’re not the boss of me.
Can’t get your mind off sex? Are you obsessed with dictating to me whom I can make love to, how, with which organs or artifacts? You should seek help for your mental fixations, but, in the mean time: You’re not the boss of me.
Is it your plan to insist that you can rightfully take my land to do what you want with it? You had better bring a big gang, because you’re not the boss of me.
Do you claim that your poverty or your poor health are somehow my responsibility? Ask me for money and I might give you some. Demand that money at gun-point and you’ll find out why I didn’t let you take away my guns. I’m sorry your life is not all you wish it could be, but your suffering is not my fault. No matter how pitifully you portray your condition, you are not the boss of me.
Stripped of all the confusing rhetoric, the Tea Party is a slave rebellion. American taxpayers have finally had enough of being ordered around by any charlatan with the chutzpah to declare, “I am the boss of you!” Ours is a tyranny by proxy. The guns and prisons belong to the state, not to the ugly ideologues who are constantly threatening to imprison you for daring to defy them. But it is a tyranny nevertheless, and the Tea Party is the first meaningful resistance to government to be seen in America for many, many decades.
But the Tea Party is a slave rebellion enshrouded in a fog of confusing rhetoric. Cut my taxes, but don’t cut me off from the Social Security ponzi scam. Get your damn laws out of my gun safe, but you-betcha-by-golly I plan to censor pornography. Don’t you dare tell me where I can build my church, but don’t you dare let those heathen bastards build their temple of heresy in my town!
Here is the way the world really works: When you say, “You’re not the boss of me!” you are making a very powerful statement in support of human liberty. But when you say “I am the boss of you!” — then you are the enemy. The enemy of human liberty, but, ultimately, the enemy of human life on earth.
We are what we are ontologically, as objective entities. You cannot control my purposive behavior. All you can do is damage my life — and your own — in your futile attempts to dominate me by means of criminal coercion.
What should you really want from government? How about this? No crime.
We can argue elsewhere about coercive responses to thugs or rapists or thieves. In reality, almost none of us are criminals, seeking to live a life of havoc or predation. The question everyone interested in the Tea Party should ask himself is this one: Under what circumstances can I declare myself to be my neighbor’s boss?
By what right do I presume to tell my neighbor what weapons he can own?
By what right does he tell me which books I can read?
By what right do I dictate the terms by which an entrepreneur can run his business?
By what right does he tell me what goods I can and cannot buy?
By what right do I tell strangers that their love is wrong?
By what right do they tell me what to teach my children?
You knew the answers to all of these questions when you were five years old: You are not your brother’s keeper, but, much more importantly, you are not your brother’s boss.
You say you want a revolution? Here’s where it starts: You don’t want less government, you want no government, as little as you can achieve today, and still less tomorrow. You don’t want anyone pushing you around, but what that means is that you don’t want anyone — including you — pushing anyone else around.
Are you waiting with bated breath for Congress to fail to repeal socialized medicine, so it can get busy failing to defund public broadcasting? How about you do this instead? Get rid of every regulation on business or labor in your town. Repeal the zoning and planning laws. Depopulate City Hall and then sell the building. Get every government in your state out of the education business, out of the marriage and family business, out of commerce, out of the real estate business, out of the roads business — out of the busy-body business in every conceivable way. Reduce every tax you can, and then keep reducing them, any of them, all of them, all the time.
When government uses coercion against people innocent of all wrong-doing, this is crime. How much crime should you be willing to tolerate in your life? How much crime is the perfect amount? My answer is zero. Before you name any other quantity, stop to think about how the criminally coercive power you propose to unleash will be used on you and the people you love.
If you want to be free from government coercion, you have to rid your life of slave-masters, of people who insist that they somehow have the right or the power to order you around. We are lucky in this country that we can effect our revolution peacefully, at the ballot box. But it is a revolution we must undertake, unless we are to live as slaves forevermore.
And what should be the rallying cry of that revolution? I vote for this profoundly important philosophical principle:
“You’re not the boss of me!”