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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Freedom in America: Is the Glass Half-full or Half-empty?

It is an age-old question of perception. Show a person a glass with some liquid in it and ask, “Is it half-full or half-empty?”

The importance of the answer depends on the interests of the person asking the question. If you owned a restaurant and wanted to skimp on the wine, you would rather your customers focused on what they are getting and not on what they aren’t. You won’t get many complaints if your patrons think that half a glass of wine is normal.

We are facing exactly that problem in America with respect to freedom. “Half-empty” people notice that a lot of freedom is missing. They are aware that they’re prevented by force of law from doing many things they would like to do, and compelled by force of law to do many others that they would prefer not to do. Most of those people also know that in the past there were far fewer restrictions on freedom than today; they sense that with each passing year, the glasses contain less and less wine.

Looking on the Bright Side

“Half-full” people, in contrast, rarely think about the government’s innumerable laws and taxes as deprivations of their freedom. They focus on what freedom they still have and regard it as enough. Just as restaurateurs prefer customers who see half-full glasses and are content with that, so rulers prefer citizens who are content with whatever freedom they choose to permit. For that reason, crafty rulers—and the form of government doesn’t matter—try to condition the people to think that they are enjoying the best possible state of affairs. Rulers want the people to believe that all the state’s numerous mandates, prohibitions, and confiscations are actually good; they’re done not to take away freedom but only to improve society. If you can get your citizens to look at things that way, they will be as docile as sheep.

A survey by George Mason University economics professor Daniel Klein helped me (a half-empty person) to see what’s going on. Klein had written critically about minimum-wage legislation, mentioning that such laws not only have adverse economic consequences but also abridge freedom—namely, freedom of contract. Imposing a minimum wage commands employers: Either pay each employee at least the legal minimum or else face prosecution. To Klein’s surprise a number of economists responded that they did not think that law has any important impact on freedom. Klein subsequently conducted a poll asking economists if they felt that minimum-wage laws were an attack on freedom. A majority of those who responded said that they regarded them as having little or no impact on freedom.

So here is a government mandate—do this or you’ll be punished—yet a majority of economists see no loss of freedom. An obvious explanation is that the minimum wage simply has no effect on professors. They don’t hire low-wage workers and therefore feel no sting from the law. But even when people are directly affected by government actions that restrict their freedom, they’re apt to shrug it off as “just one of those things.” They still have a lot of other freedoms, after all. Why get upset over the part of the glass that’s empty? Enjoy the part that’s full.

Most people view taxation like that. For working, successful Americans, federal, state, and local taxes take about half their income. If it weren’t for those exactions, they would be able to spend, invest, and donate to charities much more than they now can. True, the tax system is cleverly designed to hide the impact of taxes through another piece of coercion—withholding. Nevertheless, intelligent people know that a great deal of their money is confiscated by the government. Few complain. In fact, many support political candidates who have pledged to increase their taxes. How do we explain that? The “half-full” mentality does it. The glass may be down to 49 percent, but that’s enough.

Freedom of contract gives us another illustration. Government has steadily whittled away at it over the last several decades but few people seem to care. The minimum wage is just one aspect of the attack on freedom of contract; there are many others. Employers may not “discriminate” when hiring workers, meaning that they are subject to legal action by the government if they allegedly decline to hire an applicant because of his race or some other immutable characteristic (“forbidden grounds,” as legal scholar Richard Epstein puts it). Do Americans regard “affirmative action” laws as an abridgement of freedom? Mostly, no. It’s not just that most of us don’t hire any workers, but also that freedom to choose with whom to contract has been tarred with the pejorative “discrimination,” and therefore laws taking away that freedom are actually applauded. Why should people be free to do something that’s bad?

Medicine is another part of life where our freedom has been trimmed. We are not allowed, for example, to purchase any medicine that hasn’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. A concerted effort to overturn that law on constitutional grounds failed recently. This can be a matter of life and death for a few people, but the court held that the government was doing nothing wrong in making it illegal for sick people to use unapproved medicines. There was almost no protest. Apparently, Americans are so used to government agencies regulating their lives that freedom to decide which medicines to take is now in that unobserved empty part of the glass.

Too Much Freedom?

If a law or regulation seems to take away some freedom, “half-full” people think, “It’s not that we’re now less free but that we had too much freedom before. The government is giving us a better balance.”

Let’s look at a few more examples. The government punishes merchants if they increase prices “too much” following a natural disaster (“price gouging”). Hardly any Americans object that this deprives merchants (not to mention consumers) of freedom.

The government dictates that only certain kinds of light bulbs may be used in the future. Americans offer hardly a peep of protest.

The government makes it illegal to drive a car unless the driver and passengers are buckled in. Are any of the politicians who supported the law voted out of office? No.

The government forces banks to make mortgage loans to people who would not qualify for one under prudent lending standards. No complaints about that attack on freedom, although some Americans are now unhappy that it helped catalyze the mortgage crisis.

The government requires people to buy official stamps for all documents to make them legal. Do the people care? Well, this one’s a trick. It’s the Stamp Act, imposed in 1765 by the British government. The law sent a great many Americans into the streets to protest and threaten the officials charged with enforcing the law. Most Americans were not “half-full” people back then. If a similar law were passed today, people would meekly obey, saying to themselves, “Well, the government needs more money for all the good things it does.”

Skeptics may be thinking, “Okay, some peripheral bits of freedom may have been whittled away over the years, but the government would never deprive the people of any really important aspect of freedom.” Put aside the riposte that what one person thinks peripheral may be extremely important to another. I think that the “glass half-full” view most people apparently have puts all of our freedom at risk. Could we lose, say, freedom of the press the way we have lost other, “peripheral” freedoms? I think so. Here’s a hypothetical case to make my point.

Suppose that a new law were proposed, the “National Truth and Civility in Publishing Act.” It would establish a federal agency with authority to punish anyone who published a book, magazine, newspaper, blog, or anything else that was adjudged to be either false or potentially harmful to the feelings of a reader. Would Americans tolerate a law like that? It tears the heart out of the First Amendment. But I think most Americans would be assuaged if the political spin doctors said, “Look, people are still free to write what they want. The law merely tells them that they need to get their facts straight and not write in a way that could be demeaning or offensive. The government has a compelling interest in promoting truthful and respectful writing, doesn’t it? What good ever comes from lies or disrespectful writing? Freedom of the press has never been absolute and we are merely refining it a little to make life better.”

“Half-full” people would probably fall for that since they focus on the freedom that’s left, not that which has been taken away. They’d never give a thought to the consequences of putting federal officials in a position to harass those who write what the government does not want the public to read. With a law like that in place, the baseline concept of what freedom means would adjust downward again. No, the freedoms protected by the First Amendment are not secure. Nothing is if people only look at the freedom that’s left, not that which is being taken away.

Frédéric Bastiat taught that people’s thinking is usually influenced by what they see, not what they do not see. His point is at the root of the slow death of freedom in America.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.