Permission or Right?

 Posted by on 24 November 2002 at 10:52 pm  Uncategorized
Nov 242002

Do you think that we are free and living well here in America? Sure, we’re better off than most others around the globe, but Arthur Silber of Light of Reason offers some darn good reasons to think the state has grown to such power that we are all now merely “living by permission.” He argues:

My point here is a very simple one: there already exists the complete machinery for your government to make your life a living hell — once one government official somewhere, someone whom you may never know, someone who may know next to nothing about you — except that “someone” with “pull” and “influence” has it in for you for some unknown reason — decides to go after you. It is in this sense, and for this reason, that I titled my earlier post “Living by Permission” — and my point is precisely that: we are all living by permission now. You are probably in violation of countless laws and regulations at this very moment, depending on some government bureaucrat’s interpretation of what you ought to have done in any given instance.

I also have to repeat once more that all these countless laws and regulations apply to almost every single area of our lives; no area of our lives now is exempt from this kind of control, in terms of the rules that are in place today. Now, think about all of that — and think about the vastly increased powers the government will undoubtedly have under the new Homeland Security bill — and tell me again how we are freer than we’ve ever been before.

(For the sake of the whole story, Arthur is addressing the arguments in Alex Knapp’s well-argued blog entry, as well as Jonah Goldberg’s less compelling Townhall column and follow up NRO column.)

Arthur offers a number of good examples in support of his argument, so be sure to look at his post firsthand if you are interested in the issue. Speaking personally, the most striking evidence for our loss of freedom is the widespread acceptance of income taxes that enslave most Americans to the state for almost half the year — compared to the minor taxes that offended the colonists enough to wage the Revolutionary War. The fact that politicians face no significant pressure to slash and burn taxes worries me even more, as it bodes ill for the future. The colonists saw the tyranny coming; most Americans today can’t even see that it has arrived.

Let me now add some epistemological cautions to Arthur’s analysis.

I worry that arguments that we are more free now than at any other time are subject to the epistemological bugaboo of confirmation bias. Those of us who strongly value freedom have a natural tendency to invest our time and energy into areas of life where we are free from the authority of government bureaucrats. Disgusted by the lunacy of government regulation, we tend to pursue activities that are less regulated. Thus we are unlikely to become teachers in government schools or doctors primarily caring for the poor (thanks to Medicaid). We might never even entertain the idea of opening a small business in a city, given how most are so heavily taxed and regulated. We wouldn’t even consider attempting to start a first class letter delivery business in light of the Post Office’s monopoly on such mail. Given that we are so adept at living with and yet avoiding these controls and regulations, their existence might not fully occur to us in considering the extent of the usurpation of power by the government.

As a result of our natural avoidance of government controls, we are in danger of being like the clad foot that thinks the whole world as made of leather, to use Boston T. Party’s metaphor. We are in danger of not seeing the full extent of government tyranny because we have grown up with its permeating influence — and thus have accustomed ourselves to avoiding and accommodating it.

This confirmation bias is not the only potential problem with arguments about present versus past freedoms. Since not all government controls are irrational, we may not recognize the extent to which they determine our actions in suboptimal ways. Cosmetology school seems like a reasonable way to become a hair stylist, but what other options might arise without the government mandate? What changes in the curriculum would freedom bring? Additionally, given that we are only ever in contact with a small fraction of government controls, we might not realize their vast reach. In particular, from an outside perspective, we might not be able to differentiate between requirements imposed by private individuals and firms from those imposed by law and regulation. A janitor might not know, for example, that toilet seat covers in the restrooms are mandated by his company only because they are mandated by local law. Not all government regulations are clearly marked as such.

So in order to objectively analyze whether or not we are more or less free now than we used to be, we would have to be extremely careful to take factors like confirmation bias and hidden evidence into consideration. I’m not sure that ordinary political commentators are up to the task, myself included.

That being said, I have worries about any attempt to compare the aggregated freedoms of two societies (or one society at two different times). Is my presently-recognized freedom to wear a bikini at the beach worth an extra $200 or $500 or $5000 dollars of taxes every year? Is the black (and white) southerner’s freedom from Jim Crow laws balanced out by the imposition of FCC censorship on everyone? My point here is that we cannot simply add up all the freedoms of the people in a society in some sort of magical utilitarian way so as to easily compare whether one society is more or less free than another. Sure, we have some easy cases, like that the United States is more free than North Korea. But those easy judgments are only possible because one country is more free across the board than the other, because one country recognizes individual rights to some extent, while the other country does not recognize individual rights at all.

In semi-free societies in which significant freedoms and oppressions have been unevenly distributed amongst various segments of the population, society-wide comparison seems impossible. After all, my inability to hire and fire whom I please in my business is not compensated for by my freedom to travel without the permission of my husband. And my freedom to use my pastures for grazing my horses does not balance with a farmer’s inability to use his land thanks to the Endangered Species Act. Freedoms and oppressions cannot be added up in this way; they cannot be given cardinal values in a utilitarian social calculation.

In sum, the conditions under which we can compare the sum total of particular freedoms seem pretty limited. However, I do think we can compare societies based upon the fundamental principles underlying political action. Most fundamentally, we can ask, as Arthur does: Are we living by right — or by permission?

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