Monday, June 09, 2008

The Liberty We Must Have

Tibor R. Machan

It is becoming more and more fashionable among political thinkers and even politicians to disparage the kind of individual liberty championed in the American political tradition. Several scholars—e. g., Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago—have argued that what really matters most is something called positive liberty. This is the notion that people have liberty only when others provide them with the resources that enable them to do what they would like to or should do. And there is a use of the idea “liberty” or “freedom” along these lines—you are free to fly to Paris only if you get funds to pay for the trip. But it used to be understood, maybe still is normally, that to get this kind of freedom or liberty one needs to earn the funds to pay instead of take it from other people by way, of say, taxation. But that is now challenged by the idea that what we lack but need or want is something we are entitled to from others and governments exist to serve us by obtaining it all from these others and they have no say in the matter.

This is the thinking of collectivists, people who believe we all belong to one large group and everyone must pull together to make everyone get what he or she needs or wants. Never mind consent! Individuals are a fiction, anyway, the story continues. Individual rights are nothing but periodic grants of the group to some members if there is public benefit from it. Even freedom of the press is defended this way by many political thinkers—people have it only because it advances the public interest! Indeed, by this view one’s rights come from the government instead of, as the American Founders held, the government serves us by securing the rights we have by virtue of our human nature.

Some thing is seriously amiss here. Notice, for example, that when people are convicted of a crime and are then incarcerated, it is not positive liberty that they lose but the (negative) liberty of not having others interfere with their lives. Why? Because such negative liberty is most important. It is only if one’s negative liberty—freedom from interference—is intact that one can embark upon survival and flourishing, including by means of free interaction with others (in, say, commerce, education, and other social affairs).

Now and then people may be in dire straits and come to rely on help from others and this is usually forthcoming from motives of generosity, compassion, kindness but not from some idea that they are entitled to support. That would place us all into involuntary servitude to the needy. And, normally, when such help of the needy is forthcoming, those who extend it are given thanks. But when others do not interfere with us, do not murder, assault or steal from us, no thinks are due! That’s because we have the right to live and be free and this freedom is not some gift from other people we need to be grateful for.

With the replacement of the American sense of individual liberty by the one imported from a very different (and, by the way, reactionary) tradition—namely, socialism and, now, communitarianism—there is, of course, more and more talk of forced public service. Politicians are advocating required community works and even the military draft is being mentioned as in need of reestablishment. That is the result of the idea that as individuals we do not exist and we are all just part of some larger entity—the state, nation, community, humanity—and must be made to pull together as such.

Of course, all this is proposed by, you guessed it, individuals, ones who take themselves to be special, not like the rest of us! Such ambitious folks would gladly take over the governance of the lives of other people and send everyone to do the job they believe must be done, never mind our puny individual agendas.

I can only hope that this ruse is in time grasped by more and more folks and the idea of the genuine freedom of the individual recovers its prominence in political thought.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Blue Laws: Unjust and Unequal

Tibor R. Machan

Sometimes I will go out of my way to visit one of those outlet malls. Not only do they have some pretty good deals but often I can find clothing that actually fits me—a bit oversized sweaters or short sleeved shirts seem to get dumped there to be available for the likes of me.

I was driving up on I 85, all the way from the Florida panhandle to Gastonia, North Carolina, midday one recent Sunday, when I spotted what looked like a promising strip mall in South Carolina, with a bunch of these outlet shops visible from the road. I got off, gassed up my rental and headed to the stores—only to find that South Carolina blue laws coerce the stores not to open before 1:30 PM. Now this is just the kind of small but not inconsequential restraint of trade I really detest—politicians forcing people to stay away from stores so they will more likely attend church (or some such noble motivation driving them to intrude on other people, just as politicians are won’t to do, be it for the sake of religion, the environment, social justice, or whatever). Not that these measures are so onerous—they are more a nuisance than anything except, of course, for the merchants (who are losing portions of their livelihood in consequence of this paternalism) and certain customers (who may want something pronto). So while perhaps no great harm to most of us, these blue laws do amount to a potentially damaging intrusion for quite a few people.

This is the kind of measure people who defend them write off as a central feature of democracy but it just won’t wash. Why does a majority of some community get away with doing something that no individual citizen would, namely, forcibly come between a merchant and customers? Who are these people anyway that when they come together and form a group that’s larger than those who don’t share their agenda they get to impose on others their will, make them into subjects? What they prohibit is, of course, all peaceful stuff, nothing violent against any innocent third party. The arrogance, nay, viciousness of it!

But there is more. Of course, some folks manage to be exempt from these so called public policies—policies that turn out to bear only on some members of the public. The food court was open and doing fine business! And so were the adjacent gas stations as well as the several motels in the surrounding area. Why? How come these people may do brisk business all day Sunday, while those trying to do the very same thing—namely, make a living from commerce—are forbidden to do so?

It is clear enough from this relatively innocuous example that the bulk of such paternalistic, nanny state measures is deployed totally unfairly, completely in opposition to the spirit, even letter, of the idea—embodied in the 14th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution—that everyone must be treated by the authorities as “equal under the law.” Not however those making money off of gasoline sales or renting rooms in their establishments, for some bizarre reason.

Now for my money the more folks in South Carolina—or anywhere else, for that matter—can beat these insane “public” blue law measures, the better. I look upon it as I did draft dodging and still view tax dodging. I defend them as ways of escaping from various degrees of tyranny!

But aside from that, it should be an embarrassment for the policy makers in these regions to realize just how they violate the principle of impartiality. For that is what they do as they so cavalierly intrude upon the lives of citizens when what they ought to be doing is securing their unalienable individual rights to, among other things, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

It all goes to show you how far America is from having fully appreciated the meaning of the revolution that created the country. This revolution was about demoting government, removing it from the position as the sole sovereign in the land and assigning to individuals that sovereignty that had for centuries been accepted as belonging to the state. In some broad respects the revolution did have its impact and made things more just across the land, even the globe! But in many respects matters haven’t changed much. The insidious governmental habit is live and kicking and producing the messes it has always produced where it has been and continues to be in evidence.

South Carolina’s blue laws are just a tiny tip of the iceberg. What’s worse, of course, is that hardly any of America’s eager-beaver politicians running for office address these intrusive measures. Of course not—they are all eager to get in on the game and impose on us their own agenda as soon as they get into office.