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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Threats to Freedom: From Banning Ice Cream Trucks in Brooklyn to Abandoning Democracy Around the World

New Threats to Freedom, edited and introduced by HarperCollins’s executive editor Adam Bellow, is an ambitious anthology. Its premise: The twentieth century faced unique threats to freedom, such as communism and fascism, and the 21st century equally confronts unique challenges to the preservation of freedom.

Thirty renowned authors examine 30 of those “threats,” which include the emergence of sharia law within western nations, the paradoxical uniformity that “politically correct” diversity has spawned, the abandonment of democracy promotion abroad, the State regulation of daily life, the imposition of campus speech codes, and the “threat” of cyber-anonymity.

At first glance the “new threats” seem like a grab-bag of issues that will rouse and rile a reader committed to individualism . . . and they do so in rapid secession.

The thought-provoking essay “The Isolation of Today’s Classical Liberal,” by legal scholar Richard A. Epstein, appears directly before the socially conservative essay, “Single Women as a Threat to Freedom,” in which antifeminist Jessica Gavora dismisses a plausible lifestyle choice largely because “single women are pro-statist.” “The Rise of Antireligious Orthodoxy,” by conservative Mark Helprin, directly precedes an essay by the notoriously antireligious left-radical Christopher Hitchens; the juxtaposition is not meant to provide balance, since Hitchens deals with the issues of multiculturalism and diversity.

Yet clearly this is a carefully constructed anthology. At a third or fourth glance, an integrating theme emerges. At its root New Threats is a socially conservative collection on issues that this movement assesses as threats; the anthology’s libertarian contributors indicate where these two movements intersect.

Consider the excellent essays by libertarians Max Borders and Katherine Mangu-Ward.

In “The Urge to Regulate,” Borders recounts how bureaucratic regulation crushed his dream of starting a small home-based business designed to sell products at a farmer’s market. He imagines a parallel world without “regulatory barriers,” in which hard work and reputation are allowed to succeed. Then, poignantly, Borders speculates about “the possible worlds that government interference destroys.” These are populated by working people who long to provide for their families.

In “The War on Negative Liberty,” Mangu-Ward analyzes the bizarre spectacle of Americans asking the government to strip them of lifestyle choices like smoking or consuming trans fats. Or at the very least they wish government to impose punitive taxes on such choices. She compares the Taliban’s prohibition of women eating ice cream to the Brooklyn mom who turns in an unlicensed vendor. The common denominator: “[B]oth want the same thing—a targeted ban on ice cream.”

Borders and Mangu-Ward address fundamental questions that mirror each other. Borders asks, “What makes people want to control others?” Mangu-Ward asks, “[H]ow could people who cherish freedom clamor for the state to take away their choices?”

In opposing government regulation of business and its imposition of political correctness on food choices, the two essays exemplify issues on which libertarianism and social conservatism converge. Similarly, a few nonconservative authors like Hitchens touch on the rare areas of confluence between the right and other positions. In areas of difference, however, it is the conservative voice that is heard. As such New Threats is a fascinating window into the psychology of social conservatism and the issues that will be “burning” for them in the future.

What are some of the differences on issues? Perhaps they are most pronounced in foreign policy. New Threats authors equate democracy with liberty and think that Americans should export it. In “The Abandonment of Democracy Promotion,” Tara McKelvey—a senior editor at The American Prospect—claims such exportation “belongs high on the U.S. foreign-policy agenda and should be supported by substantial resources.” Former New Republic contributing editor James Kirchick concludes in “Transnational Progressivism” that “any threat to American global predominance . . . is in and of itself a threat to freedom, not only to our own, but especially to those people living in dark places.”

An aggressive foreign policy designed to export a specific political system is a difference of opinion with libertarians, indeed.

New Threats is, in rapid turn, provocative, annoying, and enlightening. It is also puzzling in its omission of certain issues and seemingly obvious points. For example, given the 21st-century focus, little discussion of technology occurs outside of a critique of cyber-anonymity. Abstract “ingratitude” is included as a threat to freedom whereas concrete reproduction and population control in light of new technologies is not. In presenting sharia law as a threatening parallel legal system, it is not clear why sharia courts could not operate as Hasidic ones currently do.

Nevertheless New Threats is fascinating and extremely well written. Social conservatives will be delighted; libertarians will embrace fully half of it; Progressives with high blood pressure had best be selective . . . or at least consult a doctor beforehand.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.