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Monday, July 5, 2010

Why Not More Liberty?

People Have a Desire to Impose Their Will on Others

There are two extreme views of American government and the political process. One is that policy is the result of special interests rigging the system in their favor and exploiting the ignorant or at least impotent masses. The other is that government pretty much gives the people what they want.

My own view is much closer to the second claim than the first. While I recognize the depressing frequency of pork-barrel legislation and numerous regulations that are structured to benefit special interests rather than the so-called public interest, I believe that the broad thrust of policy responds to the desires of the general public. Given this view, I believe that the road to greater freedom in America is to encourage a broader consensus for freedom that will in turn get translated into more limited government via the political process.

While reasonable people may disagree on these differing perceptions of the nature of the American political process, I think it’s undeniable that the average American is considerably more comfortable with an activist role for government rather than a more limited role. Why is this the case? Why don’t my fellow citizens prefer more limited government?

At first glance, liberty should be wildly popular. Each of us loves it and expects it for ourselves. Few of us want to be bossed around or treated like a child. There is a strong human urge to have our own way without restraint, and it starts young. As a parent, I see this desire in action constantly. Simply tell a baby “no” to any desire, be it for more food or something as simple as climbing the stairs, and you can see the desire for freedom in action. If anything, this resentment of authority grows stronger with time. I don’t have teenagers yet, but I hear they’re pretty willful. How do these creatures of desire, these babies and adolescents, mature into voters who support candidates who constantly advocate and implement restrictions on freedom — from drug laws to labor regulations to high tax rates?

There are many explanations for why activist government is not only prevalent in our times but popular. But one answer lies within each of us, working to counteract that same internal force working for liberty. There is one urge that may be equally strong as the desire to have your own way, and that’s the urge to impose your will on others. Again, parenting gives us insight into this urge, but from the other side of the highchair. We want our children to do what we tell them. Parental discipline may be weaker and punishment less corporal today than in past times, but we as parents still spend a great deal of time bossing our kids around or at least trying to.

When our children obey us, we feel good for two reasons. The first is altruistic, but the second is a little less attractive. Yes, we tell our children to stop playing in traffic for their own good. Yes, we refuse them the second ice-cream cone for reasons of health or the creation of self-discipline. But we also try to manipulate our children for our own benefit. We ask our children to quiet down because we’d like a more peaceful home. We tell them to sit rather than roughhousing with each other. We tell them to read this book or that because we want them to be more like us. We send them to bed earlier than they’d like because they need a good night’s sleep, yes, but also because we like a little private time with our spouses.

Power is an intoxicating elixir. One of the secrets of good parenting is restraining the urge to impose authority on our children simply because it is gratifying to have obedient children.

I’m not suggesting that we should indulge our children in order to let them enjoy freedom. I’m arguing that even the best of parents resents a child’s disobedience. We don’t like having our will thwarted as adults any more than we did as children. One challenge of being a parent is not to impose our will on our children just for the sake of being in control. This desire for control and the seductiveness of power can conflict with what is best for our children.

And of course, this phenomenon of imposing our will on others doesn’t stop at our children. We want our spouse to act in ways that we deem desirable, our co-workers to recognize our wisdom and act in ways that we feel is best for the organization, and so on. We even want people to vote the way we do and support the policies we think are best for the country and the world.

The Public Arena

The conflict between the desire to be free and the desire to impose our will on others plays itself out in the public arena. We want our Scotch, but think it right to make cocaine illegal. We want to go skiing, but we force others to wear their seatbelts. We want to eat our ice cream, but think it’s okay to ban smoking.

Mencken defined Puritanism as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy. A paternalistic government plays into the Puritanism most of us harbor somewhere deep inside. Not content with mere disapproval, we use force via the political process to restrain others.

Next time you’re in the grocery and you see a stressed-out mom or dad screaming at the kid who naturally wants to play with the candy at the check-out line, you’re seeing the roots of big government.

For normal human beings and decent parents, those grocery-store-type moments are few and far between. Love restrains us from indulging our urge to boss our children around for our good rather than theirs. Love for our children encourages us to let them begin to make their own choices as they grow up and head toward adulthood.

I long for a world where we show the same restraint in the political arena. One way to get to that world is to remind our fellow citizens of the virtues of adulthood. As an adult, I make my own decisions and deal with the consequences. Why do we want a political system that treats us like children?

  • Russell Roberts the host of the weekly podcast, EconTalk and co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. His latest book is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. He is also a John and Jean De Nault Research Fellow at Stanford University"s Hoover institution.