David R. Henderson  

The Decline of Freedom

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In the January 23, 2010, Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle, one of the clues was "Sassy reply to criticism." The answer: "It's a free country." Why do I find this so striking? For two reasons. First, when I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, not many people around me considered that a sassy reply. When I used the line, it was shorthand for, "I have rights; maybe this isn't the best decision, but I have the right to make my own mistakes." Second, almost no one uses that line any more. Why? I think it's because, if only subconsciously, most people recognize that in some important ways, freedom in the United States has declined.

This is from "Forgotten Lines," my latest article in the Freeman. There was recent discussion of the issue of whether freedom has increased or decreased, spurred by a piece by David Boaz. I write further:

But many of life's daily restrictions on freedom are much more recent. If you go to a restaurant, chances are that it's one in which a state or local government has banned smoking. In my city of Pacific Grove, California, people can't buy food at a Taco Bell or a Burger King because the city council decided a few years ago not to let those chains in. The government of New York City banned certain kinds of fats in meals, thus reducing the freedom of producers and consumers who want to produce or consume those fats. If you want to travel by air, the government insists that you get permission from a TSA employee, and to get that permission you must submit to a body search and, maybe soon, an X-ray so that a government employee can see your naked body. And don't dare make fun of that government employee or you might go to jail.

My bottom line about whether freedom has increased or decreased:

But notice that most of the gain in freedom started in the late 1960s and concluded by the mid-1980s. Since then, most of the changes have been toward less freedom.

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CATEGORIES: Regulation

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Johnny writes:

Freedom vs. Liberty, is there a difference? If so, what is it? And if our voted in representatives pass legislation requiring us to do something or prohibiting something from society, should we not consider that to be our voice? I still consider myself to be free. But there certainly are limitations being introduced into society.

Boonton writes:

Indeed, one of the primary problems today is our lack of freedom to access cheap fast food that is full of fat. One need only walk around looking at all the '6 pack abs' to see that this is a country groaning under the iron boot of some type of demented health nazi.

Actually I think this is harder to measure than you think. In 1960 one had more freedom in certain directions. For example, the criminal justice system seemed to have a lighter hand. Today with databases and the innovation of endless probation and registrars a youthful mistake is more likely to land you a lifetime of trouble. Society was, IMO, much more tolerant of drinking then.

On the other hand, in 1960 you probably lacked the freedom to, say, date a black person (if you were white) without state sanctioned harassment. You had to skirt the law if you wanted to view entertainment that had nudity, sex, or even just a lot of swear words.

david writes:

David, you should take up the topic of municipal and state-level competition with your cobloggers. Mr. Kling, at least, seems to endorse the idea of city-level competition.

There's some tension between libertarians who believe that states have a right to legislate things that the federal government cannot, and libertarians who believe that no state entity should be able to do so. At least part of that has roots in the 60s, perhaps.

Steve Roth writes:

This argument is based on an implicit assumption that I call The Libertarian Fallacy:

Restrictions on freedom result only from acts, laws, rules, and threats by particular entities (primarily the gubmint).

In fact, the properties of any system -- even one with no government at all -- can greatly restrict individual freedoms, and subject individuals to profound coercive forces.

If we had no environmental laws in the U.S., we would all be forced to live in an inevitably polluted country. (Think: Seattle's lakes in the '70s -- unswimmable.) There would be no exit. (You may suggest that the invisible hand would eventually correct this [when?], but experience shows that absent government regulation, the tragedy of the commons wins this game.)

If globalization and free trade result in an industry in a particular area shutting down, individuals are coerced into moving away from their friends and family to find decent wages. (Not arguing against free trade here -- don't follow that red herring.)

Economic coercion is very real. (If the cost of a choice is extremely high, how much "freedom" is there in that choice?) And the system itself -- even if it's a "natural" system emerging from a no-rule state -- can be coercive.

Yes, this last one is ultimately backed by government force -- foreclosure, repo, and the like -- but 1. that's the proximate/ultimate-cause fallacy, and 2. I think few libertarians would argue against the enforcement of property rights.

Charlie writes:

"It's a free country" gets 1 million google hits.
"look a gift horse in the mouth" gets 900 thousand
it doesn't appear that out of style.

The very fact that it's usually said after someone voices that you're making a bad decision is why it's sassy. A non-sassy response would answer with a reasoned response.

I'm pretty sure you just grew out of the phrase. You must have been much sassier in your youth.

Charlie writes:

Just to give a few more data points:

"pot calling the kettle black" and "lead a horse to water" get 1.7 million hits respectively.

And look at a really outdated phrase, "if ifs and buts were candy and nuts" 30,000 hits on google

kev writes:

Kids say "I'ts a free country." mainly as a way of saying "Go ahead and do X. I don't care."

Charlie writes:

I thought of a sassy test also, would you ever say "it's a free country" to your wife? to your boss?

skh.pcola writes:

Steve Roth said: "If we had no environmental laws in the U.S., we would all be forced to live in an inevitably polluted country."

That may be true, but only if you also assume that there would be no private property rights. Otherwise, your point is valid for communes and socialized property.

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