Green Room

Hey, it’s NOT a free country?

posted at 1:30 pm on April 26, 2010 by

Is it a free country? More or less, writes David Henderson. In areas like civil rights or in rolling back government monopolies or such (think Ma Bell or the Civil Aeronautics Board) there have been gains, but somewhere in the mid-1980s we started to go backwards:

Think of the increasing bureaucratization of life, most of which is due to government. If I want to cut off a tree branch that is more than four inches in diameter–even in my own yard–I must get the city government’s permission and pay for that permission. In the city of Monterey, California, someone who wants to install a new dishwasher must get government permission to do so. I’m sure that few people bother because the requirement is so hard to enforce, but it’s a requirement. Under a law passed in 2008 the Consumer Product Safety Commission warned that children’s books published before 1985 are not safe and cannot be sold unless the seller does expensive testing to make sure they don’t contain lead. This is so even though, as Walter Olson has written, “no one seems to have been able to produce a single instance in which an American child has been made ill by the lead in old book illustrations.”

Credentialism is also reducing our freedom, and one interesting recent illustration was in President Obama’s speech to U.S. schools at the start of the 2009-10 school year. What received the publicity at the time was the controversy about whether it was proper for a U.S. president to address the students and for the U.S. Department of Education to put together exercises for the teachers to conduct after the speech on how the students could help Obama achieve his goals. What went unnoted was Obama’s statement that students should finish high school because otherwise they will not be able to pursue the careers of their choice. Obama gave seven examples of such careers: lawyer, doctor, nurse, teacher, architect, police officer, and military. Why is that remarkable? The reason people need a high school diploma to enter the first five of those seven occupations is that governments require them to. And the reason people need a diploma to be police officers or to advance in the military is not only that the employer requires it but that in both cases, the employer is the government. You don’t need a high-school diploma to write software because the government hasn’t gotten around to regulating that occupation–yet.

J.E. Dyer makes the good point that arguments against Obama and Congress increasing the scope of government by Republicans are temporary ones: not now, not when we are in a deep recession. But

…that theoretical distinction is like saying it’s better for an adult human to weigh 500 pounds than to weigh 600 pounds. Sure, 500 pounds is better than 600 pounds – but neither is desirable or advisable. Both are problems that will lead inevitably to diminished quality of life and an early demise.

In an interview with Reason in December 1974 Milton Friedman made the point, however, that the natural order of things isn’t liberty. (I’ve used some of this interview in a broader context here.) “There was an essentially free society in 5th-century Greece. Was it able to survive? It disappeared. Every other time when there’s been a free society, it has tended to disappear.” I haven’t found the full article for you online yet, but there’s a set of quotes from it here. This one seems to fit:

The two chief enemies of the free society or free enterprise are intellectuals on the one hand and businessmen on the other, for opposite reasons. Every intellectual believes in freedom for himself, but he’s opposed to freedom for others.…He thinks…there ought to be a central planning board that will establish social priorities.…The businessmen are just the opposite—every businessman is in favor of freedom for everybody else, but when it comes to himself that’s a different question. He’s always the special case. He ought to get special privileges from the government, a tariff, this, that, and the other thing…

I think the odds are that a free society is on the way out but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight for it, or that sulking in our tents explaining to one another how nice it would be if we could only wipe the slate clean and get our way is an effective means of fighting for a free society.

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Every intellectual believes in freedom for himself, but he’s opposed to freedom for others.…He thinks…there ought to be a central planning board that will establish social priorities

Exactly why David Brooks loves Dear Liar.

rbj on April 26, 2010 at 2:02 PM

That’s the central point….freedom for ME, but not for THEE. All are equal, but some are MORE equal than others. That is why government cannot be trusted.

search4truth on April 26, 2010 at 2:09 PM

King Banaian — a great post raising a great point. Liberty of the kind American conservatives prize hasn’t been the natural order. Humans thinking they need to control, direct, and exploit what everyone else does is as natural to us as breathing; it takes a whole heap of philosophizing and constitution-writing to try and rein in that perennial human tendency.

This is why I’ve made the point on a number of occasions, in other threads and at my blog, that the big-government posture of the modern left is much more aligned with the most pervasive political tendencies of mankind than is the limited-government posture of the American right. All the modern left has done is slap a new label on prying moral interventionism.

Well, and incorporate the wonders of new technology too. Back when sluggards and adulterers used to be put in the stocks in the town square, and left out in the rain, they eventually had to be left to their own devices again. They couldn’t be literally kept under the surveillance of the authorities 24/7.

But today it’s not just a bright, impossible dream to punish one’s neighbors 365 days a year — keep ’em cold all winter and warm all summer — for the human sin of leveraging internal combustion to regulate indoor temperatures. Today, technology makes it possible. No putting abusers of air conditioning in the stocks for today’s supervisers of our morals and manners. Now we can just remotely control the use of home heating and cooling systems.

The religious authorities of ages past could only WISH to have the moral-enforcement power the left can envision making use of today. Salvation must be right around the corner.

J.E. Dyer on April 26, 2010 at 8:28 PM

Now let me try to remember, who was the “founding father” that made a statement to the effect that, the tree of liberty had to be watered with the blood of patriots from time to time?

My buddy Don, has been up at Arlington for over 40 years. If he were able, Don could affirm that “freedom” isn’t free.

oldleprechaun on April 27, 2010 at 7:44 PM

“I think the odds are that a free society is on the way out but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight for it, or that sulking in our tents explaining to one another how nice it would be if we could only wipe the slate clean and get our way is an effective means of fighting for a free society.”

Fight for it??!!?

Why are you posting this??

Why are you inciting VIOLENCE!!!???

Non-violence is the way. After all, it ALWAYS works. Especially when it’s used against morally bankrupt abject tyrannies whose government and populace have no problem abusing, enslaving or murdering their perceived enemies. It works even BETTER then.

Eyas on April 27, 2010 at 10:04 PM

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