All Commentary
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Too Much Freedom

What Happens When Your Only Tool Is Coercion?

Roy Cordato is vice president for research and resident scholar at the John Locke Foundation in North Carolina.

It’s been said that when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. For politicians, bureaucrats, and many activists, when the only tool they have is coercion, the cause of every problem looks like too much freedom.

Make no mistake: if you are committed to accomplishing your social goals by using government power, then by definition your only tool is the hammer of coercion. An observation often attributed to George Washington has it that “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force.” And when people choose to use government to accomplish their goals, they are choosing to use force, not reason and certainly not eloquence.

True to form, governments at all levels have affirmed Washington’s reputed observation. But I think state and local governments are the biggest culprits. Issues like eminent domain and gun control, where constitutional issues arise, tend to get widespread publicity and public scrutiny, but routine tyranny occurs with respect to day-to-day issues that are often considered legitimate local-government functions.

If a local grocery store’s produce department runs out of oranges or its deli has a shortage of roast beef, it doesn’t blame its customers for having too much freedom to purchase fruit and meat. It simply finds a way to accommodate that freedom and meet the demand. That’s not how governments respond.

The People Are Nails

Typical is Raleigh, North Carolina’s approach to solving its drought and water-shortage problems. The city for much of the past year has been running short of water, one of only a handful of goods it is charged with supplying. Its response has been to blame people for having too much freedom, including the freedoms to water their lawns, wash their cars, power-wash their homes, and most recently, to enjoy the conveniences of a garbage disposal. In the name of solving its water shortage, Raleigh has passed an ordinance banning the installation or replacement of all garbage disposals. Instead of city politicians’ asking themselves, “How can we accommodate our citizens’ free choices?,” as the grocery store would, they immediately blame the problem on those freedoms. This is their nail, and their solution is the hammer of force.

Here’s another example. For years, city and regional transportation planners have faced traffic congestion in larger cities and medium-size communities around the country. Traffic congestion is much like a water shortage—it is a shortage of road space. Governments have massively failed to adequately accommodate people’s free choices regarding their transportation needs. And as with the water shortage, politicians think the traffic problem is caused by too much freedom, specifically, too much freedom in the use of cars.

Many states, instead of better managing the supply of roads, have adopted an approach euphemistically known as transportation-demand management (TDM). As the Nevada Department of Transportation describes it, TDM “is a general term for actions that encourage a decrease in the demand for the existing transportation system.” And as noted by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, “[M]ost TDM strategies deal with the modification of travel behaviors.”

Ultimately, TDM is a collection of policies meant to force people out of their cars, either directly or through artificial incentives, and onto public transportation. But this is only feasible when people live in high-density communities. So not only does their freedom to make transportation decisions need to be “modified,” but so does their freedom to choose living arrangements. Along with transportation-demand management comes “housing demand management” and “land-use demand management.” To accommodate public-transportation systems and to discourage driving, TDM typically includes new zoning laws intended to cram people into areas with dozens of housing units per acre. Transportation planners have taken it on themselves to substitute congested living arrangements for congestion on the roads.

According to transportation planners in North Carolina the “vision [of TDM] extends far beyond public transportation. It embraces notions of how we want to live in the 21st Century and what we want our neighborhoods and communities to become.”

It is quite clear that the “we” being referred to is not individual citizens and families. It is instead the paternalistic “we” of bureaucrats and government planners.

Environmental Regulation Is the New Hammer

Probably the most pernicious example of government-as-force-not-reason is the approach now being taken by many state governments ostensibly to fight global warming. While the federal government is looking at broad-brush policies such as carbon taxes or cap-and-trade programs, state-level policies are much more aggressive in using global warming as an excuse to micromanage people’s choices. More than 25 states have hired an advocacy group, the Center for Climate Strategies (CCS), that poses as an objective consultant to help devise policies that would force people to modify their behavior in order to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. CCS can charge bargain-basement consulting fees to the states because it is subsidized by a host of statist left foundations, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Heinz Endowments, Turner Foundation, and Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. (See the critical website

While there are competing theories regarding the causes of global warming (for example, see research by Duke physicists Nicola Scafetta and Bruce West on the influence of the sun on climate change at, in hiring CCS, the states agree not to discuss these alternative theories when formulating policy. In fact, they must agree that the science is settled with regard to human-generated greenhouse gases.

This is ominous to those concerned about freedom because other theories, such as those related to natural climate variation, would not imply the need for coercive restrictions on people’s lifestyle choices. In other words, the only theory of global warming that these states are considering is the one that has freedom as the culprit. It is important to note that everything humans do, including breathing, emits carbon dioxide. The implication then is that all production and consumption activities are up for scrutiny and possible coercive control. The proposals CCS suggests to every state are generally the same. They include restrictions on the kinds of cars people can drive, fuels they can use to heat and light their homes, and auto insurance and appliances they are allowed to buy. The size of the lots they can build houses on and the size of those houses are also subject to the proposed restrictions.

The actual goals of such proposals are questionable. Indisputably, these restrictions will not reduce global temperatures, even if the whole world adopted them—and state officials and their CCS consultants know it. This implies that these proposals are not really about global warming, but are instead exercises in what could be called “lifestyle imperialism.” Like laws against homosexuality or gambling, they are in fact an attempt to legislate morality.

Given the principles behind the founding of the United States, policymakers need to view individual freedom as a moral imperative. They should realize that it is not the role of government to solve all conceivable problems but to protect liberty. To the extent that government takes on a problem-solving role, the question decision-makers should continually ask themselves is: “How can we achieve our objective without limiting people’s freedom to live as they see fit?” Unfortunately, many, if not most, bureaucrats and policymakers seem more interested in asking which freedoms they can get away with limiting.

  • Roy Cordato is Vice President for Research and resident scholar at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, NC. He is also a part time faculty member at NC State University where he teaches a primarily Austrian course called Political Economy of the Market Process and is faculty advisor for the Austrian Economics Forum made up of graduate and undergraduate students. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.