Saturday, September 22, 2007

What Free Country?

Tibor R. Machan

When I first arrived on these shores, back in 1956, the idea that America is a free country had at least some rhetorical currency, backed by frequent enough association between the country’s founding documents and the desirability and undesirability of various public policies. Just as Abraham Lincoln, so many others who addressed what kind of laws the country ought to have tended still to invoke the authority of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and ideas from the Founders and Framers.

Not that it was all hunky dory with the country then or, indeed, before. But the prevalence of ideas of basic rights—the kind that marked out one’s personal, private dominion—and liberty—of the negative sort, freedom from intrusions by others, including governments—was in plenty of evidence in public discussions, debates in Congress and so forth.

Today there seems no one—other than the lone Texas Representative Ron Paul—on the political scene who is concerned with the freedom of American citizens. Correspondingly, public policies and laws are passed and enforced, via ordinances and legislation, as well as court rulings, that pay no attention to whether they invade the rights of individuals to their lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. It’s all about entitlements, instead. The so called civil rights era is now widely understood to be one that simply granted blacks and other minorities certain privileges, maybe to make up for previous mistreatment, maybe as a way to establish the Nanny State as the norm. It isn’t seen primarily as being about setting blacks free of state intrusion in their lives.

Along with the ubiquitous expansion of the public square, one that spreads the idea that people’s behavior is to be regimented by politicians in accordance with some supposed consensus in the country (and privacy can be ignored since everything is about that vague thing called “the community”), this trend has pretty much served to return the American continent to its pre-revolutionary European roots where the issue of the rights of individuals is hardly alive. A good case in point is a report in, of all places, the October issue of Road & Track magazine. It is short and to the point, so here it is in its entirety:

“Seniors Denied: The owner of a service station in Merrill, Wisconsin, has been ordered by the state to raise its prices. The proprietor was offering senior citizens a 2-cent-per-gallon price break and youth sports boosters 3 cents per gallon. However, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection says those deals violate Wisconsin’s Unfair Sales Act, which requires stations to sell gas for about 9.2 percent more than the wholesale price. The owner received a letter from the state auditor stating he would be sued if he did not comply.” (p. 32)

So, even while the business ethics and law communities are awash with complaints about how greedy people in the market tend to be and with the theory of Corporate Social Responsibility—the one that insists that companies focus not on enriching their owners but “stakeholders”—a simple act of generosity by a merchant is rejected by public authorities in Wisconsin. Who knows that motivated the bureaucrats, apart form simply affirming their legal power to tell people how to run their business, lest someone take it seriously that in America there is a free market system of economics. No, that cannot be tolerated.

Instead, in the spirit of all the court rulings and laws that gain their impetus from Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution, the interstate commerce clause (which courts have interpreted for about a hundred years as granting public authorities carte blanche over the economic affairs of everyone in society), regimentation is the economic norm now.

Yet, while this is a growing trend, apologists of statist economic intervention, such as Princeton economist Paul Krugman, a columnist for The New York Times, keep claiming that America is fallen victim over the last few daces to an extreme laissez-faire ideology. This is not only blatantly false about the country as a whole but it is contradicted daily by the kinds of local and state economic policies we see on exhibit in Wisconsin.

A simple act of generosity, of trying to help out seniors, is struck down! What a shame, in this, supposedly, free country!

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