This important topic was resurrected in a comment thread under ‘Happy Thanksgiving – 2012’. Two readers voiced strong opinions (one with cited evidence) that our freedoms have increased. One reader disputed that, and I join in that dispute. I believe evidence abounds that will support the case that we are less free today than we were fifty years ago. However, the issue has complexities that compel exploration as our governments’ scope and reach continues to grow, and doubly so given the consequences of the last two national elections that are propelling us toward autocratic collectivism (redundancy intended) at an ever faster pace.
First of all, freedom has more than one dimension, made up of more than one factor, or what is technically known as being composed of multiple attributes. For example, under one form of governance we can be totally free to have sex with chickens at public gatherings, but not free to select and place ceiling lights in our new kitchen. There are behaviors and things I may want to do to express my understanding of individual freedoms, things which may be of no interest or import to you, and vice versa. The point here is that different people, maybe based on their education, culture, life experiences, etc will measure freedom and personal liberty quite differently.
There is no absolute measure of freedom. The closest social organization that attempts to define a broadly accepted and ubiquitous environment for liberty is the US Constitution. But even before it began to be amended, the Founders admonished us with caveats as to what kind of populace the document would successfully serve. Time has proved them to have been right.
The problem, of course, arises when such people with disparate views and beliefs are forced to live cheek-by-jowl, and worse, if one cohort wants and is able to proscribe what is dear to the other.
In exurban Indianapolis boys going into the nearby woods with their 22s or 410s were a most unremarkable sight. Plinking in the back yard was an irritant to neighbors only if it went on too long, and that was settled with a neighbor-to-neighbor phone call. In Los Angeles, as long as you didn’t violate the open fire restrictions during fire season, you could walk into any of the surrounding mountains with your sleeping bags (and gun), and have a campout. The Mojave Desert and the High Sierra were open lands that really did belong to the people.
In this debate we have to be careful not to be diverted by the ‘would you either have this or that’ argument. These are simply specious. Nobody wants to go back to a past that also had parts that were clearly improvable. Breaking up Ma Bell and being able to own your own phones did not require us to give up a bushel load of freedoms; we could simply have broken up the telephone oligopolies. And deregulating trucking and airlines did not require the restricting of access to federal lands.
So the argument really comes down to what kinds of freedom were important in the lifestyles and daily round of Americans, not whether some obscure federal banking regulation was in force or not. The entrepreneurship and individual enterprise evident in the immediate decades after WW2 are unmatched anywhere in the history of economic and personal freedoms. A library of tomes has been written in recent years about how these have been circumscribed and/or lost. Some factors, in no particular order, to consider about the last 50 years.
1. The number of laws, ordnances, regulations, fees, taxes, … by any count has increased without bound, all limiting what we can do and how we may do what remains.
2. Entire departments of government have begun deporting themselves as rogue fiefdoms not answerable to either legislatures or the voters – e.g. IRS, EPA, HHS, California’s ARB, … . Read about the new “regulatory flood” on the way.
3. Even organized socialists argue we now have less freedom from their own interesting perspective.
4. Then there are conservatives like Jonah Goldberg who argue that we are now more free. The easy criticism of this stance is found here.
5. Many laws continue on the books prohibiting free trade from shoes to sugar, more on the way as ‘exporting jobs’ becomes harder for private firms.
6. Assimilaton of immigrant populations has diminished, today multiple cultures in America seeking more autonomy. Government’s response is to replace cultural norms by government pan-cultural edicts enforced by its gun.
7. Meanwhile the government grows more and more afraid of an armed American citizenry, and is doing everything possible to roll back the ownership and use of firearms. California leads the way. Public schools no longer teach that the prime purpose of gun ownership was to oppose government tyranny, not duck hunting.
8. Fed agencies and departments are arming themselves against US citizens, expecting massive civil unrest beyond the power of local constabularies to control. Why? (BTW, did everyone see the first public use of the new massive urban assault vehicles during the Sandy recovery efforts on Fox News? (RR reported here.)
9. Double jeopardy is now commonplace in our judicial system (criminal then civil suits, multiple times).
10. Criminalizing formerly normal/legal behaviors with examples: ongoing switch from civil to criminal laws to punish behaviors (here).
11. Abuse of the Patriot Act outlined here.
12. Numerous institutional indexes on economic and personal freedoms show US being downgraded over recent years. Economic freedoms decline here, and on Cato, and on Heritage, and in the UN index of personal freedoms US ranks 13th already in 1991, on the World Liberty Index 2006, and on the World Liberty Index 2012.