More Free Than Ever?

We May Be Wealthier, But Our Civil Liberties Have Diminished

In a November 2002 Washington Times column titled “Americans Enjoy More Freedom Today Than Ever,” Jonah Goldberg stated, “Today, we worry desperately about our personal and political freedom even though we are more free today than at any time in our history.” Attempts to measure freedom are inherently difficult because we must weight our freedoms to come up with an overall measure. How important is it, for example, that every American has lost his freedom not to use a seat belt while riding in a car? If I would virtually always use my seat belt anyway, have I lost a great deal of freedom? I’m not sure.

But Goldberg doesn’t get into issues of weighting freedoms. Instead, he finesses the problem in four ways. First, Goldberg carves out a subgroup of people and considers whether they are freer. Second, he simply ignores the myriad of ways in which we are less free. Third, he confuses freedom with wealth. And fourth, he finds dark periods in our history in which we were less free than today and then implicitly assumes that those comprise the total of our history.

The subgroup he carves out for consideration includes women and black people, who, he points out, “are no longer the subject of legal discrimination.” But even here he gets it wrong. Blacks and women are the subject of legal discrimination. Affirmative action gives legal privileges to women and blacks, whether in college sports (women) or in hiring and promotion (women and blacks). These legal privileges don’t diminish their freedom, but they certainly do make them “the subject of legal discrimination.” And they certainly do diminish the freedom of association of those who are required by law to hire them.

Because Goldberg doesn’t detail for us the ways black people and women are freer, let me do so. Black people today are far less likely to be lynched than was true 100 years ago and cannot legally be prevented from doing jobs that government-backed white racist unions prevented them from doing from the early 1900s to the 1960s. Women, who were not free to own property for most of this country’s history, can now do so. But notice something interesting about these freedoms: women and blacks have had them for at least the last 35 years. So it’s hard to use that evidence to support Goldberg’s case, which is not just that we’re freer than we were 35 years ago but that we’re freer than we’ve ever been.

But in many other ways even women and black people, like the rest of us, are less free than they were 35 years ago. Let me count just some of the ways.

No one is free to advertise cigarettes on television or radio. We cannot get on an airplane without a government-mandated search of our bodies and our possessions, and airlines are not free to hire security with guns to protect us on flights. Since the misnamed Bank Secrecy Act of 1970, Americans have not been able to have a bank account free from government snooping.

Since the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers and employees have not been free to negotiate their own safety rules and standards. Since 1965, the federal government has taken substantial funds from almost every working American for Medicare, its socialized health plan for the elderly. Doctors who try to bill certain patients over the amount that Medicare pays can, in some cases, be fined or even sent to prison for doing so.

For virtually every drug crime, you can go to prison for a much longer term today than was true 35 years ago. This, incidentally, has caused a major decrease in freedom for hundreds of thousands of black men. Moreover, before 1914, when the Harrison Act was passed, there was almost complete freedom in the United States for people to consume drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. And before 1913, there was no income tax in the United States either.

This is the tip of the iceberg of the bad news on freedom.

Of course, there are some substantial ways in which we are more free. Here are a few, although they are a greater percentage of the iceberg: Since 1974, Americans have been free to own gold. Since 1973, young American males have not been drafted into the military. Liquor sales in some states are more liberally allowed than they were 30 years ago.

Although I bet I could find a long list of other increased freedoms, the list is still much shorter than the list of lost freedoms. How, then, does Goldberg maintain that we are freer? He does so by confusing wealth, or options, with freedom, or the absence of coercion. Here are the key items that, according to Goldberg, make us freer: birth control pills, the Internet, cell phones, laptops, and cars. It’s true that we have more of all these things than we had, say, 30 years ago, when the Internet, cell phones, and laptops didn’t even exist. It’s also true that all these things have made our lives easier in innumerable ways. Finally, it’s true that they all resulted from a free economy. In “The Joy of Capitalism,” one of the chapters of my recent book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey, I celebrate the bounties of capitalism that have allowed even Americans below the poverty line to live what was, as recently as 1970, a middle-class lifestyle.

You can even make the case, as economist David Friedman does, that the Internet will make it harder for government to regulate us and will create more freedom. But that’s not the case Goldberg makes. His basic case is that those innovations give us more opportunities, which is absolutely correct but is irrelevant for the issue of freedom.

Finally, remember that Goldberg is trying to assuage those of us who are concerned about the federal government’s new assault on our civil liberties. Many of us get nervous when we see Americans thrown in prison indefinitely without being charged with a crime, as Jose Padilla recently was. Many of us get even more nervous when we learn that the federal government now has the power to compel our Internet service providers to disclose records of our Internet activity.

How does Goldberg handle this concern? He changes the subject by pointing out, correctly, that the situation is not nearly so bad as that in World War II, when over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were placed in U.S. concentration camps. He’s right. The situation today is much better than that. But what does that have to do with his initial claim? Goldberg didn’t start by saying we are freer today than we were in our least free periods. He claimed that we’re freer than ever. But here it’s very clear: given the government’s willingness to suspend habeas corpus and its new powers to intrude in our private lives, we are far less free in this country than we were just two years ago.

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