David R. Henderson  

The Decline in Civil Liberties

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On a flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C., in 1981, I sat beside a U.S. foreign service officer who had just finished a stint in Moscow. He told me that although he had enjoyed the job, he needed to get his family back to America because he wanted his children to grow up understanding what it was like to live in a free country. His children were only aged five and seven. "In what ways would your children have even known they were not living in a free society?" I asked. He answered: "They noticed that when we traveled, we, and those around us, had to show an ID to a government official. You couldn't travel freely."

Although he probably doesn't remember that conversation, I wonder if he remembers the thoughts that caused him to return to the United States. The reason I wonder is that Americans are no longer free to travel by commercial air without showing a government official a government-issued ID. So the freedom that he sought in the United States no longer exists. In an important way, the United States has become Sovietized.


This is the opening two paragraphs from my recently published article, "The Decline in Civil Liberties," The Freeman, September 2010.

At the end of the article, I give some good news, some from the United States and some from Britain.


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CATEGORIES: Regulation



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

An honest question - do purposes or achievement of ends matter at all in these questions?

Our instinct - ethically - is always to say "no". But you be "free" simply by boarding a plane wihtout showing an ID in some banana republic where terrorism and violence on the trip were a serious risk? Of course not - because the terrorists and gangs who threaten you in that way would also be imposing upon (or at least introducing the risk of imposing upon) your freedom.

What we have in many cases I think is a set of "countervailing tyrannies" (to use a Galbraithian turn of phrase). I wouldn't want to be an apologist for all government regulations and requirements, but I think it's fair to at least contemplate the ways in which a public intervention negates a greater violation of freedom or threat of violation of freedom. For exampe - we don't consider ourselves "less free" simply because there is a police force, if that police force is legitimately used to minimize other impositions on our liberty, like crime.

This isn't a question of "the man who would sacrifice liberty for security deserves neither" - it's a question of trading off two threats to liberty. How do free men and women react to that. Sometimes they react by evolving institutions of public protection and regulation to defend against a far greater threat to their liberty.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Obviously there's a lot of risk in that. What's the right tradeoff? I oppose the Patriot Act and indefinite detention but I'm fine with police forces. I'm not ignorant of the problems that this raises. I'm just saying it's equally problematic to:

1. Ignore the difference between these sorts of regulations for the sake of control and these regulations for the sake of protection.

2. Pretend that there aren't "countervailing tyrannies", or

3. Pretend that states aren't emergent social isntitutions just like markets, which have evolved because they can be functional in solving certain social problems

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Your somewhat counterintuitive example may cause people to say "wow - I didn't think of it like that", but it's an open question of whether they didn't think of it like that because it doesn't make sense to think of it like that, or because you've genuinely hit on something. Trust local knowledge, tacit knowledge, and emergent knowledge. If people generally don't think of showing an ID at an airport as an imposition on liberty, it may very well be because it's not an imposition on liberty.

tim writes:

Requiring an ID for traveling on an aircraft does not mitigate any risk and is unnecessary from a security perspective.

The reason airlines originally requested IDs to board an airplane was to eliminate the grey market in airline tickets. Something that the airlines managed to successfully outsource to the TSA under the guise of 'security'.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Tim - that sounds very plausible. No one should take my comments as a declarative statement made on the basis of any deep knowledge of the airline industry. David's post was more speculative, considering general principles of the trend of liberty in American society, and that's the sense in which I'm posting too. Your assertion makes sense to me.

Seth writes:

"So the freedom that he sought in the United States no longer exists."

The point seems to based on a technicality.

The purpose of showing documents in the Soviet Union was to restrict free travel of citizens, not to help ensure their safety.

But, I'd be open to private solutions for security.

David C writes:

This is, I think, the best part of a good article:

"Because when the government invades our privacy, as it systematically does when we fly, it causes some, especially those who would have traveled less than 500 miles each way, to travel by car instead. What is the unintended, but totally predictable, consequence of this loss of freedom whose stated goal was to make us safer? Less safety."

I had never thought of that.

Stephen Smith writes:

Equating showing ID while you travel by air to the Soviet Union is one of the reasons American civil libertarians drive me crazy.

No, I don't support the current TSA regime, but you're really trivializing the horrors of the USSR by trying to make a comparison.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Stephen Smith,
I didn't make the equation you claim I made. Read the article. Indeed, read the very next paragraph of the article following the two I quoted.

Walt French writes:

β€œThe reason airlines originally requested IDs to board an airplane was to eliminate the grey market in airline tickets.”

Yes, although giving the TSA the opportunity to scan manifests in advance, rather than real-time, is a handy way to effect our definition of security.

Your reason, that of stamping out grey markets, is a good example of incomplete markets that the Feds help the airlines enforce. There are indeed many others, such as gate leases, where the Feds help enforce the airlines many monopolies.

Most readers here probably favor "free markets" strongly, but also recognize ways in which sellers manipulate government regulation β€” at all levels including security, not just the libertarians' target agencies β€” to give them oligopolistic or monopolistic pricing powers.

Hyena writes:

These sorts of things really get under my skin, doubly so because most libertarians seem to be Republicans with pot and thus don't care.

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