In a syndicated column this week I wrote that Americans are more free than they have been at any other time in our history. This seemed to me to be incandescently obvious. We are more free. Unfortunately, scores of readers and keyboard-pounders from various websites were scandalized by the suggestion. At times, the outrage seemed almost religious in its nature — like I had committed an act of apostasy by questioning some bedrock faith. Some people were very thoughtful, others were actually hysterical. So, let me try again (my apologies to those who get bored by these sorts of columns, but I think they’re important).
When I say “we” I mean Americans — all Americans. And when I say free, I do not mean simply the current state of our constitutionally protected rights. I mean freedom as we understand freedom in our daily lives. That means not just the freedom to operate outside the sphere of federal or local governmental authority, but the freedom to operate outside the control of any authority. I’m talking about being free to be me and free to be you, and all that jazz.
WHAT ABOUT THE LEVIATHAN STATE?
Freedom from government — a.k.a. liberty — is an important aspect of human freedom, obviously. But even on that score, the debate is sort of over before it begins. When I say “all Americans” I include blacks, women, Jews, gays, Irish, Catholics, poor people, etc. I hate to sound like Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky, but any serious person has to recognize that in the past, government didn’t respect the constitutional rights of all groups equally. So, if you think “we” are less free than we were 100 years ago, you’d better define “we,” kemosabe.
And even if you want to ignore slavery, Jim Crow, the lack of women’s suffrage, and anti-Jewish and anti-Irish laws, and say that, well, where it comes to white guys, businessmen, and property owners, we’re less free — your case isn’t as great as you might think. Sure, there have been some outrageous and egregious impositions on property and Second Amendment rights in the United States. And while I am as opposed as the next guy — if the next guy is very conservative — to over-regulation, over-taxation, and the general intrusions of a busybody state, still, this is a fairly narrow slice of the pie.
When I invited Corner readers to give me concrete examples of how their grandparents had been more free than we are today, they sent some good ones. They noted that grandpa used to be able to walk into a store and buy a gun without filling out a bunch of forms; that grandpa didn’t need three documents from the government to drive a car; that grandpa could take his family hiking or hunting without interference from the government; that grandpa could start a business without adhering to endless regulations and absurd rules. I am sympathetic, to one extent or another, to all of these points (especially about business formation).
But there is something to keep in mind. Many of these regulations exist because we are so free. Cars are regulated because it’s so easy — economically speaking — to own a car in this country that millions of people buy them. This creates problems for communities and so communities democratically try to deal with the problems that are created by so many cars. I may not like all of the solutions, but it’s foolish to think you would want to live in a society that was so poor or otherwise deprived that there was no need to license and register cars because there were so few of them. Grandpa didn’t need all that paperwork in part because, in his day, there weren’t enough people buying cars to make it necessary.
A similar principle applies to hunting. We have hunting licenses because biologists claim that letting hunters — even responsible ones — kill everything they want to kill, will result in a tragedy of the commons and deprive future hunters of the ability to hunt at all. One hunter on his own property will manage his resources responsibly because it’s in his interest to do so. Many hunters on public property can result in a race to the bottom (which is one reason to privatize more wilderness). So of course, the “right” to hunt at will was a lot easier to protect in grandpa’s or great-grandpa’s day, when he lived in a sparsely populated nation spanning a densely wooded continent.
Yes, absolutely, I believe that restrictions on free enterprise can be outrageous intrusions into basic constitutional rights and an unconscionable drag on the economy to boot. Capitalism between consenting adults is a basic human right. But — as with cars and hunting licenses — most of the time these regulations don’t represent a denial of your rights so much as an increase in the inconvenience you have to endure to exercise them.
But there’s a considerable degree of myth-making going on when people claim that free enterprise was freer ten, 20, 50, or 100 years ago. Does anyone remember the Trusts, for Pete’s sake? David Frum was right when he said the “Greatest Generation” was also the statist generation — and not just because of that pesky intrusion into personal liberty known as mandatory conscription. Between 1950 and 1974, Frum notes in How We Got Here, the Civil Aeronautics Board received 79 applications from firms wanting to get into the airline business. The presumably more pro-business federal government approved exactly zero of them. In 1978 — nearly a quarter-century behind us on this slippery slope to economic tyranny, mind you — airlines were deregulated, and not only did entrepreneurs flock to the business but consumers became more free to fly because air travel became much cheaper. Since then America has deregulated vast swaths of the economy, admittedly while regulating other swaths. But there’s been a net gain in economic liberty and competition.
Just look at the explosion of media outlets since the Federal Communications Commission dropped the “fairness doctrine,” which had permitted the federal government to interfere with the political speech of news networks. And speaking of speech, that too is freer than it has been at any time in American history (before you start screaming about P.C. and speech codes, give me a second to stick with the law and the Constitution).
As a constitutional matter, censorship is on its deathbed. This is the most pro-free-speech Supreme Court in American history. Even our most revered conservative justice, Antonin Scalia, believes flag burning is constitutional. If you think that in your grandfather’s day he could have gone out to Main Street and burnt Old Glory, you’re nuts. If you think grandpa had an unrestrained right to publish pornography, you don’t know what you’re talking about. If you think the greatest legal minds in the country would have agonized over whether or not kiddie porn constitutes “protected speech,” you’re higher than a moonbat.
Indeed, the only speech that seems to be threatened is the political speech of non-incumbent political candidates who run afoul of America’s increasingly absurd campaign-finance rules, and — at the fringes — the speech of people who commit “hate crimes” on college campuses. On the whole, politically and legally speaking, we are freer today than ever before to say whatever we want.
Now, I could go on with the legal and constitutional stuff, but truth be told I find that to be the least interesting aspect of all this. Suffice it to say that even if you think I’m wrong and that we are less free than in yesteryear, you still have to concede it’s a mixed bag. We’re freer in some respects, less free in others, and it’s up to each of us to assign values to what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost. If you can’t see that it’s a mixed bag, if — as some of my sillier libertoid critics do — you take as an article of faith that all the arrows point down and all the trends and currents go one way, you are simply an ideologue incapable of looking at the facts on the ground. Or — as is the case with so many college kids who just want to be angry for no good reason — you’re simply ignorant.
Dozens of people wrote me to say that I don’t understand all the interesting differences and nuances of positive rights, negative rights, legal rights, and so on. I understand all of that very well, thank you. They say I must be stupid, ignorant, or a liar to say that we’re more free because we’re wealthier and healthier today (this argument seems to offend people at a very emotional level). But this would strike most people plucked at random from human history as absurd.
It’s nice to have such a high-falutin’ and theoretical understanding of what “freedom” means. But for most of human history, most people lived with terrible health, for short life spans, in total ignorance of the wider world, and without the ability to travel more than a few miles beyond where they were born. Take a typical man (or, better yet, woman) from 13th-century England and plunk him down in the Cleveland suburbs. Heal his suppurating sores, teach him to read, give him a car and a job and a house with a TV and an Internet connection, and he would be freer than the king of England himself — to see, read, write, and do what he wanted. If this sounds progressivist, so be it. Freedom of movement; freedom of choice; freedom of religion; freedom of sexuality; freedom of self-definition; freedom to eat what you want; freedom to pick the music, the art, the literature of your choice: All of these things increase with material and economic prosperity — even in nations ruled by tyrants. Technology liberates people from all sorts of prisons. Talk to someone whose blindness or terminal illness has been cured and then tell me technology does not liberate. Today people can change their sex! Talk about being liberated!
I may pick a lot of fights with the guys at Reason, but at least they understand this basic point in a way that many conservatives and so-called “paleo”-libertoids do not. Borrowing from James Buchanan, Nick Gillespie and Virginia Postrel are big believers in what Gillespie calls the “right to exit” systems that serve us poorly. What those guys believe in — speaking in gross generalities — is the right and ability of every individual to design his own personal culture, to be whoever they want to be. Again speaking in overly general terms, they are deeply skeptical of traditional authority and believe that it’s just as much a threat to personal liberty as the government is.
And they’re right. For example, I love listening to conservatives and libertarians complain about “unprecedented” invasions into our personal privacy. Well, take a look at how much privacy people had back when they lived with three generations of their family under the same roof, in a town where everybody knew everybody’s business.
In a sense, it’s bizarre that conservatives would react so violently against the suggestion that we’re more free today, let alone denounce me for not being a “real conservative.” I’ve been reading conservative books and magazines for just under two decades. I’ve learned a few lessons from this — to begin with, that normal 14-year-olds don’t read Commentary. But another thing no one could miss is that “real conservatives” worry about the decline in respect for authority. I don’t mean federal authority or judicial authority — in fact, many conservatives think there’s too much respect for these sources of social control. I mean parental authority, traditional authority, religious authority, cultural authority.
And I don’t just mean that children have lost respect for the authority of their parents or that citizens have lost respect for the authority of local traditions or that parishioners have lost respect for the commandments of their respective religions. Rather, conservatives have argued that American (or Western) society as a whole has lost respect for these sources of authority. Not only are we our own priests, but we think — meaning the media, the law, the government — we can interfere in the relationships between parent and child, school and student, church and worshipper. The majority culture can shout “Overruled!” about any parental decision we don’t like and every individual has the right (if not the obligation, if you listen to Hollywood) to shout “You’re not the boss of me!” to any institution or individual that presumes to define morality in a manner inconvenient to our own individual desires and ambitions. The reason the federal government gets involved in the affairs of individuals is that individuals are now free from the authority of just about everybody else. As with the regulation of hunting licenses, we clamor for an increase in the role of government in our daily lives because there are no other restraints on individual behavior. It’s not so much that the government is ruling us more, it’s that it is making up for the fact that so many other institutions rule us less.
The very idea that any non-governmental institution could be the final word about how someone can or should live strikes the mainstream culture as oppressive on its face. We are not our brother’s keepers, and anyone who claims to be is a prude, a zealot, an elitist, a snob, a jerk. Al Gore’s new book apparently taps into this attitude, in that it defines “families” as any “group of people who love and care about each other, regardless of blood relation or marital status.” I think that’s crap, but to say so means I’m judgmental.
Now, I could swear that conservatives had a problem with this trend. I am certain that I’ve read countless conservative arguments relating to it. From James Q. Wilson bemoaning the triumph of self-expression over self-discipline, to Bill Bennett decrying the breakdown of the family, to virtually every conservative under the sun worrying about the rise of moral relativism, secular humanism, “Slouching Toward Gomorrah,” immanentizing the eschaton, the “meaning of ‘is,’” and so on and so on.
It’s not that we don’t have intellectually rich disagreements on the Right about how to deal with this trend, or about how big the silver lining on this trend might be. Many conservatives, especially younger ones, take many of the personal liberties secured since the 1960s for granted and would never dream of relinquishing them in order to impose what they might perceive as a nostalgic social order based upon a past that never was. Robert Bork and David Frum, to pick two examples, would certainly disagree about where we should stake down the balancing point between individual liberty and social order. Andrew Sullivan and Gary Bauer would surely see sexual freedom from different perspectives. James Q. Wilson has even argued that this battle between self-expression and self-discipline is baked into the cake of the Enlightenment and so can never be finally settled.
So when I annoy self-proclaimed “real conservatives” by saying that we are freer than at any time in our history, I do not say it as a matter for pure celebration (remember, I’m the guy in favor of censorship). Freedom is good — very good. But it isn’t everything. What we do with our freedom and how we secure it are just as important. Barbarians, mobs, and criminals are free. Conservatives rightly champion freedom because without freedom it’s impossible to be either truly virtuous or truly happy (remember that whole “pursuit of happiness” thing). But freedom for its own sake is a much trickier proposition. “The effect of liberty to individuals,” wrote Edmund Burke, “is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do before we risk congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints.” That sounds like a real conservative to me.