When I write about freedoms lost, I don’t itemize the freedoms. I don’t feel too bad, though, because almost no one does. Itemizing sucks.
First, it’s hard work. “Losing freedom,” takes about three seconds to type and less time to read. Listing freedoms,on the other hand, takes that much time just to highlight all the freedoms and click the un-ordered list button. God forbid I find myself working in straight HTML and have to hand-type “
. . .” etc.
But there’s also the problem the founders ran into—the problem of omission. Some of the founders worried that mentioning some rights by name would let adventurous Congresses claim those were the only rights that mattered. So Madison (I think) dashed off the 9th Amendment which said that, just because the Constitution doesn’t mention a right doesn’t mean it’s not a right.
The same problem exists for freedoms. What if I fail to mention a freedom that’s under assault? Does that mean it is not under assault? Does it mean I don’t care about that particular freedom? Does it mean I’m just stupid? (When in doubt, go with the last.)
I bring this up because of an email I received today. Commenting on my Sunday blog about Rand Paul, my friend Blake (of Cheating History blog) points out the difficulty of announcing that we’re losing our freedoms. Writes Blake:
I was at a Republican meeting one time and a participant mentioned that our freedoms were being taken away from us. I asked him which freedoms he was referring to and after stumbling around for five or ten seconds he said he couldn’t actually think of any at the moment.
It’s a line I hear on a regular basis – our freedoms are being taken from us.
What are your thoughts on the subject – what freedoms do you think have been taken from us, and which do you think we are in danger of losing?
My knee-jerk response to the question “which freedoms are we losing, exactly” is: “all of them.”
I’m sure Blake and you will find “all of them” as unsatisfying as simply announcing the assault on freedom, so I’ll go a bit deeper.
Let’s begin with my favorite definition of freedom (actually, of liberty), which I first heard from William F. Buckley, though someone else likely said it first:
Liberty is freedom from the arbitrary rule of other men.
You may accept that definition or not, but if you continue reading you must accept it as my definition. You’re free to offer a better definition in the comments below.
What does arbitrary rule look like? Well, when banking regulators threaten banks who lend to gun stores and gun manufacturers, that’s arbitrary rule. When your organization can’t get 501c4 status because it has “liberty” or “tea party” in its name, that’s arbitrary rule.
In short, the arbitrary rule of other men is what happens when a society abandons the rule of law and the principle of blind justice. It’s when the only thing that matters is who you know and how connected you are and how much you donated to the people in power. It’s the way the US Chamber of Commerce does business. It’s ugly and tawdry and destructive of innovation. It’s Berlin in 1939.
Immediately, you should see the problem Blake’s Republican friend encountered. The question “which freedoms are we losing” is unanswerable because freedom is a condition, not an enumerated set of rights. (Republicans, by the way, are terrible at recognizing a question that can’t be answered, so they fumble around, as Blake says, coming up with nothing.)
The correct answer to the question, “Which freedoms are we losing?” is the one I gave above: all of them. (Okay, I lied. “All of them,” wasn’t my knee-jerk response. I’ve thought about the nature of freedom for at least 30 years.)
The Republican fumbler and I make the same mistake. We misstate the issue. It’s a bad: set-up. We are not losing our freedoms. Instead, our freedom is being compressed.
Alexis de Tocqueville described in 1838 (or so) what freedom-compression might look like if it ever arrived in the New World.
He begins by describing the social condition necessary for freedom-compression in America:
The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.
Does that sound familiar? The Economist recently pointed out that we have collectively spent 16 million hours
watching the ridiculous music video Gangnam Style. In that time, we could have built four new great pyramids in Egypt, three additional USS Gerald Ford aircraft carriers, 20 exact replicas of the Empire State Building, or watched God knows how many cat videos.
I believe our Gangnam Style viewing perfectly meets Tocqueville’s requirement of “endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives.”
And how many of your neighbors you can you name? (Facebook friends don’t count.)
Tocqueville goes on to explain what happens when we live only to fill our lives with goofy music and cat videos: the compression of freedom:
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
While some consider Social Security, AFDC, Food Stamps, Obamacare, and many, many other government entitlement programs good, to me they’re the stuff of evil. Evil because they spare human beings “all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living,” depriving people their chance at life.
I hate to break it to you, but passively watching others work as we get fat and die of sedentary diseases isn’t living. Living requires much richer blends of emotions, activities, and sufferings than you can get from HBO. Living means making something of your life. Creating, comprehending, improving the world we’re given. It involves trying and failing and trying again and again and again. To have lived a good life means you can recount some bad times of your own making. The person who never suffers never feels true joy. Or relief.
So what happens when this “immense and tutelary power” has taken over the running of our lives?
Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.
That goddamn (pardon me) television. Those rotten entitlements. Those were the grappling hooks that ripped through your eye sockets and ripped our your free agency. You’ve been robbed of all the uses of yourself. How horrible. Even a convict serving a life sentence might have some use of himself, but not the modern man or woman dissolving into a bonded leather sofa to watch the Real Housewives of Istanbul whilst eating cheese popcorn bought with an EBT card at Mobil On The Run. That’s not life anymore than sex is love.
But Tocqueville wasn’t done. He saw our future more clearly than we see our present.
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.
Equality. Enforced equality. “Spread the wealth around,” we’re told. “Some have too much.”
Why has this recovery created so few jobs? Because the web of rules—small and complicated, minute and uniform—prevents the most original minds and the most energetic characters from penetrating to start a business.
The Brookings Institution found last year that American entrepreneurism is as at an all-time low. Far more businesses exit than enter the market.
But recent research shows that dynamism is slowing down. Business churning and new firm formations have been on a persistent decline during the last few decades, and the pace of net job creation has been subdued. This decline has been documented across a broad range of sectors in the U.S. economy, even in high-tech.
The state has succeeded in breaking our will to rise above the crowd.
Looking for good news? You’ll have to check back tomorrow. Back to Tocqueville:
The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
There’s that word: “compressed.”
We are not losing enumerated freedoms. We are losing freedom from the arbitrary rule of other men. Our sphere of freedom has not been punctured, yet; it’s been compressed, like a submarine at test depth.
So we are free to do whatever the government tells us to do and prohibited from doing all else. And our sphere of freedom depends on the favor we find with the prince. That ain’t America.
It’s the opposite of freedom. It’s the absence of liberty. It’s the abandonment of the rule of law. That life is hardly worth living. And it’s a life many have died trying to escape.
Back to the original question: which freedoms are we losing?
All of them. Every goddamn one.