Hey, it’s NOT a free country?
posted at 1:30 pm on April 26, 2010 by King Banaian
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.