Freedom is for Grown-Ups

…but our leaders want to keep us children. My newest Kindle read is Daniel Hannan’s Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World. Hannan, a Member of the European Parliament who advocates for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, traces the development of the liberty that we take for granted from its roots in pre-Norman England through to the present-day anglosphere of the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Looking back at the foundations of the old English concept of liberty, Hannan points out one of the many differences between English common law and the top-down style of law in Europe:

“Common law is based on the notion that anything not expressly prohibited is legal. There is no need to get the permission of the authorities for a new initiative. Again, even now, we see this consequence of the different between British and Continental practice. British Euro-skepticism owes a great deal to a resentment of what is seen as unnecessary meddling, but, to the Eurocrat, “unregulated” is more or less synonymous with “illegal.” I see the difference almost every day. Why, I often find myself asking in the European Parliament, do we need a new EU directive on, let’s say, herbal medicine? Because, comes the answer, there isn’t one. In England, herbalists have been self-regulating since the reign of Henry VIII. In most of Europe, such a state of affairs could never have come about.”

This strikes at the very heart of what makes a people truly free. If you come across a meadow, with no fences or signs, are you allowed to cross it? If you want to do something against which there is no law, must you first ask permission? In grade school, children are taught to ask permission before doing anything. While this may be necessary for children who are learning the etiquette and mores of polite society, there comes a time when you no longer need ask to use the bathroom. Yet activists and political leaders always feel the temptation to treat their fellow citizens as children who require their guiding hand in order to do right.

Jonah Goldberg wrote the book on the way the modern American left is driven by a paternalistic fervor to rule over us for our own good. A leftist is one who looks around and, seeing people making poor choices, wants to free them from the consequences of their actions by taking away the ability to make poor choices in the first place. As usual, good intentions are all that matter. This wannabe dictator would balk at any comparison with such dictators as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, or Pol Pot, despite the fact that they all came to power promising the same things. Their evil actions make them evil, while my good intentions make me good, he might say. Sure, he will take away your rights and your liberty, but don’t you see that it is for your own good? Whether it is about protecting you from greedy unscrupulous corporations or keeping you safe from the consequences of your own actions, the wannabe dictator is there, freeing you from the tyranny of choice.

C.S. Lewis wrote about this strain of paternalistic totalitarianism decades ago in God in the Dock:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

In a truly free society, laws exist to protect our liberty and our property. Murder, theft, and rape are crimes, and the government will punish on behalf of the victims those who commit such crimes. Contracts are enforced, and fraud is illegal. Beyond that, however, people are free to live as they will. Free men and women can choose to pay someone to braid their hair, arrange their flowers, or decorate their house. Free men and women can sell or trade firearms or loose cigarettes as they please. Free men and women can operate bakeries with the right to refuse service when an event violates their conscience. In a free society, adults can interact freely as long as they are not harming or defrauding each other.

In a paternalistic society, on the other hand, everything that is not regulated is unlawful. In the European model that Dan Hannan describes, and in the society that the American left is constantly pushing for, every personal interaction is overseen by government agents. Permits are required for braiding hair, arranging flowers, and interior decorating. Excessive taxes must be collected on every transaction, even between individuals. Friends cannot trade firearms without involving the government in an expensive background check. Bakers are forced to provide service if their prospective client comes from a government-recognized victim group. Beyond protecting liberty and property, the government of a paternalistic society treats its citizens as subject children, who must be guided by their benevolent parents lest they make the wrong decision. (Former Obama Administration official Cass Sunstein called it “nudging”.)

Despite the fact that such a society is ostensibly built on doing what is best for everyone, it is no less dangerous than the dictatorships that plunged the world into war during the twentieth century. If you doubt that, try ignoring your taxes one year. Try to practice law without a license. Open a business without going through the proper governmental channels. First, you will get strongly-worded form letters. Then, officers of the state will show up at your door. Eventually, police will be involved. Continue resisting, and they will eventually shoot you. Our government may be nicer about the situation than Hitler’s gestapo, but the end result is the same: comply with the state or be destroyed.

We let this happen. Our forefathers fought a bloody war against their mother country because they wanted to rule themselves, rather than let a king and parliament on the other side of the world determine the course of their lives. In just over two centuries, we have surrendered that hard-won sovereignty to a president, a congress, and an innumerable army of petty bureaucrats on the other side of the continent. We did it because in some ways, it makes our lives easier. We have traded our eternal liberties for the temporal security of knowing that Big Brother is indeed watching, and has our best interests at heart. If we are to have any hope of reversing this situation, it has to start locally. Get involved in your city council and school board. If you live in rural areas, get involved in your county commission, lest the city-dwellers decide how you must live on your own land. The next time you think “there ought to be a law” remember all the thousands of little regulations that have slowly curtailed our liberty up to this point. The death of the American Dream has not been by a single strike but by a thousand tiny cuts.

But beware: Liberty comes at a cost. We will be accountable for our choices and must accept the consequences of our actions. In a truly free society, there are no government bailouts – not for the trillion-dollar corporation that mismanaged their capital into nothing; not for the broke college student who is a hundred thousand in debt with only a liberal arts degree to show for it. One of the many causes of our recent recession was the way our government took on the cost of failure in housing investments while leaving the investors to reap the rewards of success. If you know you cannot fail, you will act with much greater risk to your money and to your life. In a truly free country, men and women know that risk is real, and will act accordingly.

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