Sunday, February 17, 2008

How do we deal with the control freaks?

Writing for Freedom Communications newspapers, philosopher Tibor Machan says that candidates and proposals that maximize individual choice and restrict government mandates consistently lose at the polls because Americans just aren't all that interested in being free.

The very plain fact is that too many voters don't want to be free. Over and over again they reject candidates who champion free markets, civil liberties, global free trade and similar ideas and institutions.

Instead, they favor protectionism, government regulation, meddling in people's personal lives and habits and restricting freedom so as to achieve the mirage of perfect safety - be this about over-the-counter drugs, the threat of terrorism or environmental concerns.

They want to restrict other people's liberty and rip them off for various benefits. It's a mad dash to raid the treasury at others' expense and to control people's lives so as to serve various precautionary goals.

Sadly, that's now the character of the bulk of the American citizenry. They are not being mislead by the media or pundits or politicians. No. They want to get a free ride wherever they see a chance, never mind that this simply is impossible for them all to achieve.

I think that Machan is essentially correct, though I'll differ from him so far as to say that most people think they want freedom. Just about everybody has a complaint to share about laws, taxes, or regulations that rub them the wrong way. They'll tell you over a beer or in a business meeting how much they'd love to have the government off their backs on one issue or another.

But most people don't want to extend the same courtesy to others. They don't see freedom as something that you have to extend to everybody or else lose; instead, they see it as an a la carte menu from which they can select. So the guy who wants the building code inspector to stop harassing him is also eager to lock up pot smokers and raise taxes to fund Social Security. The woman who thinks gays and lesbians should be free to marry also wants private establishments forbidden to permit their patrons to smoke and wants to force taxpayers to pick up the tab for her healthcare. And the nice folks down the street who resent being told what color to paint their house also think that any organization that criticizes politicians should have to register with the government and file financial disclosure forms.

And, if it really comes down to it, they're more opposed to leaving you free to decide on your pet issues than they're dedicated to gaining breathing room on their pet issues.

So, advocates for liberty all, Americans fuel a political culture that tends toward ever-more control every year because putting the screws to the next guy is more important to them than being left alone themselves.

Machan says that he is "not a pessimist in the long run," but he really doesn't explain his grounds for a cheery outlook and I'll be damned if I can see them myself.

True, there have been large constituencies for liberty in the past. The most ideological period in this country's history was probably around the time of the revolution. Eighteenth-century Americans actually sat around debating political philosophy in bars and then went out, muskets in hand, to create a generally pro-liberty political system. They were far from consistent -- many had slaves at home and wives who were damned near chattel themselves. But that's as close as we've ever been to a national consensus that leaving people alone is better than bossing them around.

People are much less consistently ideological now, and few are willing to entertain the tradeoffs required to maintain truly free society. To be left alone to engage in the activities that matter to you, you have to be willing to leave your neighbors similar space, even if their businesses and pastimes offend you; if you don't allow for that live-and-let-live compromise, you create no precedent for a government of limited power and scope. By and large, most modern Americans are unwilling to make that concession, so the state grows larger and more intrusive every year, unbound by any consensus that there are things that it just should not do.

Maybe we'll spawn another generation of sort-of libertarians some day, but I don't see that in the offing. Increasingly centralized schooling has produced not just poorly educated Americans (a bad enough offense), but graduates who share overly much in the way of views and values. Taught about the glories of government control, and unlikely to meet many people raised with values very different from their own, there's little reason for them to say, you go your way and I'll go mine.

But I do think that there will always be a constituency for liberty, and the question is: How do we live life in a country that's likely to diverge from our political ideals a little bit more with every passing year? How do we survive as a political minority in a hostile culture?

There's probably not just one right answer.

I tend to favor a somewhat in-your-face and subversive approach. We need to keep the ideas of liberty in the public forum so that, even if widely rejected, they don't become completely unthinkable to the wider culture. A population that's consistently reminded of the case for drug legalization, for example, will produce more converts to the cause -- and occasional victories -- than one for whom such a proposal is so alien as to be unthinkable.

We can also carve out small victories through jury nullification, naming and shaming abusive officials and making the enforcement of intrusive laws difficult, expensive and dangerous. I guess that's a policy of political guerrilla warfare -- less about winning than about keeping the enemy from total victory.

Other people may prefer a more academic approach -- researching problems with authoritarian policies and making intellectual arguments that keep the ideas of liberty alive and respectable. That's a long-term approach that looks to small changes in policy now and bigger effects in a friendlier future.

And some people will prefer to drop out or build parallel systems and cultures. They'll ignore bad laws, bypass the authorities and work with like-minded people, the better to enjoy just a little more freedom in the here-and now.

I don't think any of these approaches are mutually exclusive, so which approach(es) you take depend on your preferences and temperament.

But I think we're all going to have to choose one approach or another. Freedom in this country looks like it's in for a long and bumpy ride.

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Anonymous Tim said...

Another wise post, thank you. You are indeed helping spread the ideas and message of the importance of liberties and doing so in a great manner.
Sadly, it is not just the USA that is going down this dark road :/ Almost everyday in the last couple of years have i had to debate just how long i can put up with the slide away from liberty.

I have pondered "escaping", but, unless one can escape to a like minded society.. it amounts to self alienation.
Perhaps in the US this sort of lifestyle is possible - it is a HUGE country and some States laws are more libertarian than others.
The issue with getting out is that is harder to be a "force for good" , but then i wonder also if people actually care or care enough.. my answer is no, sadly. So perhaps the "selfish" option of looking out for oneself and setting up life elsewhere is the only option that may lead to a form of contentment?

Good post cheers

February 17, 2008 4:08 PM  
Anonymous Duff OMelia said...

Is there any land on the earth which doesn't have a government presence with coercive laws? Wouldn't it be more straightforward to find such a place if it exists and create a truly free society?

How about Antarctica? Is that impossible? How about a man-made island? It seems to me that liberty-minded folks have spent much time trying to gradually change the society around them rather than thinking way outside the box to figure out a way to create a new society where people know what they're getting into when they move there.

One thing the Ron Paul movement has shown us is that there are at least a few hundred thousand people who care enough about liberty to give their own money toward its realizatioin. Even a few thousand like minded people working together can accomplish some amazing things.

If there was such a man-made island which really was a sovereign nation with no government yet and you had complete control to establish the system (since you own the island), what would you want the government responsible for? I'm thinking that the government is responsible for protecting the life, liberty, and property of the people and that is it. No other responsibilities. No coercion. No taxes. Complete freedom.

Is such a system possible? From what I've read of Rothbard, it seems to me that it's certainly feasible.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

February 18, 2008 5:25 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

Unfortunately, I can't think of a jurisdiction on the planet that's good across the board -- civil liberties, economic liberty, tolerance, property rights ... If you're looking to relocate, you pretty much have to pick what's important to you: if it's dope and sex, you head for Amsterdam; if minimal regulation and low taxes, try Hong Kong. For all my grumbling, Americans actually have it pretty lucky, considering that we can choose among places like Nevada, San Francisco and New Hampshire.

But again, there's no perfect option -- you still have to pick your poison.

As for starting a new nation ... Finding an inhabitable and unclaimed piece of turf is the challenge. That hasn't stopped people from trying, but so far the hurdles have proven to difficult for even the most ambitious political entrepreneurs.

February 18, 2008 8:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm thinking that it is just the state of the human mental/societal evolution at present. It doesn't seem to me that there is all that much difference globally except in minor details. Belief in "authority" seems high. I'm thinking this is due to "The God Part of the Brain" as that excellent book has described. We seem to have evolved (socially) away from much of "our" need to believe in gods, but our structural need for an alpha dog, or an authority figure of some sort, remains, and manifests itself in the idea of the "need" for government.

Perhaps we can "evolve" beyond this stage similarly to how we've evolved, mostly, beyond the acceptance of slavery as a natural state of affairs. My gut feeling is that this is not something that intellectually can be brought to bear, it will have to evolve throughout society such as language does, by changes in the symbols we use to map our world.

At least that's the way I see it at present.

- NonE

February 19, 2008 12:58 PM  

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