Reflecting on lost freedoms on July 4

JULY 1, 2011


This morning the Armstrong and Getty talk-show hosts were reporting on proposed new California legislation — opposed by many of the usual law-and-order  types — that would overturn the current state of affairs, in which police can undertake an open-ended search of our cell phones if we are arrested for any reason. Cell phones these days are not just telephones, obviously, but contain nearly an endless array of personal and professional information. If I get arrested for some picayune offense — and there are so many offenses on the law books today, that we’re all vulnerable for arrest on any number of fronts — then the police can peruse all my personal data, email conversations, photographs, text messages, work files, audio records, half-finished news stories, rolodex, etc. They can go on a broad fishing expedition.

This is a small reminder of the type of society that we’ve become. So many people I know believe that “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear” from overly intrusive police, nosy regulators, federal agents, whatever. This is the mindset of a police state, or at least of those who live in an authoritarian society. Unfortunately, the July 4 holiday is getting more difficult to enjoy enthusiastically given the increasing reach of the State and the increasing power of the functionaries who work for the government.

Increasingly, the people who work for government have become arrogant and unrestrained in the pursuit of their authority. That’s because our government is continually shifting authority from the private sphere of individual choices to the government,or the force-based community, as I like to put it. Government agencies and agents know that the law protects virtually anything they do.

This Thomas Jefferson quotation should be a litmus test for any society: “When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

Which way is it in modern America? We know the answer. Our government does not fear us. We must fear the government. If we do not conform to every jot and tittle of the law, then we can face prison sentences, court battles, fines and regulatory nightmares. Our freedom these days comes mainly from the fact that government lacks the resources to enforce all the laws on the books, although it endlessly seeks out these resources, and the public is often eager to comply with the requests.

Go and try to start a business in this state, or any other state for that matter. The property you buy is regulated to the hilt. The business you start must conform to a thick stack of laws governing the amount you pay your employees to how you dispose of your garbage to the number of seats you have in your restaurant. Conditional Use Permits tell you the subjective conditions placed on your business by officials. You can only serve those items approved by the government in the quantities acceptable to regulators. You must conform to the eight-hour work day rules, regardless of what deal you have struck individually with your employees. Government regulators can stop in and shut you down at any time and for a vast array of reasons.

We can be searched and harassed and detained for virtually any reason, subject mainly to the discretion of those who search and harass. There used to be a time when police in particular had a healthy understanding of the limitations of their power, but increasingly those who exert government power view themselves as having absolute authority, rather than limited authority. If you don’t think so, try being rude to a regulator or an officer of the law. The government can take your property through regulatory taking and pay no compensation or through eminent domain, and even give that property to another private owner.

The Left and Right have both created this mess. The Left wants to uplift and improve human nature. It recognizes no natural rights. These positivists believe that virtually every area of our life (personal sexual relations mostly exempted) are their business. But the Right is so in love with law and order that it continually increases the power of government agents, who end up enforcing all the Nanny State laws conservatives rail against. The Right claims to believe in freedom, but it generally only believes in your right to do the things conservatives approve of. Witness the Right’s views on, say, gay marriage and drug legalization.

As a journalist, I operate in one of the few areas that has few regulations. But even speech is increasingly regulated, as we look at all the rules governing political speech and campaign giving. The founders believed first and foremost in political speech being free, but in America such speech is less free than other forms of speech. If you run for office, you better be able to afford the consultants and lawyers to help you navigate your way through the arcane election process.

Try doing anything these days. Don’t you dare drink a beer while floating down the American River or sip some wine or have a cigarette on a public beach, to name just a couple of small pleasures that are off-limits. At least we can retreat to our own property, but the government has more and more sway over what we do there, too. Not long ago, my daughter caught a postal inspector walking all over my land and scolding my daughter when our dog started barking at the intruder. He didn’t need a warrant and he was less-than-apologetic when he finally figured out that he was at the wrong house for his inspection (of a dog-bites-postman situation).

Let’s not forget the obvious, either. The government takes about half of our pay, even more based on some calculations. It uses that money to provide services many of us never asked for and definitely don’t want (i.e., regulating our lives, paying huge pensions to government employees, invading countries that never harmed us). This is a country where you can end up in jail for selling raw milk — something that recently brought armed agents to the facility of one family.  Many of the supposedly free businesses have indeed locked arms with government and operate in much the same way as government (utilities, big banks, credit card companies, phone companies, etc.). It’s no wonder that even the marketplace is starting to operate in a manner similar to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

This isn’t to say everything is bad. There are good trends and the government seems unable to stay up with advances in technology so that many areas of our life are not overly regulated. We remain a prosperous society despite the government’s consumption of half our economy. There are still courts that uphold many of the rights enshrined in our Constitution. America still has many more freedoms than many other countries and a lot of our fellow citizens and even a handful of our politicians still get it. But the spirit of America has changed. Increasingly, Americans turn to the government to solve their problems, forgetting that every decision made by a bureaucrat is one less decision made in a non-coercive manner in the private sector.

Most of our fellow citizens don’t seem to care about the freedoms that we are frittering away. They don’t seem too sensitive to the rights being lost or the intrusions on our lives by government. Every government rests to some degree on the support of the governed. That’s true even in totalitarian societies. So perhaps Americans are getting the government they want and deserve. But we can do better. All is not lost, even in California. Good things happen and paradigms shift. Deep down, I believe, Americans still understanding the ideas that animated our Founding Fathers. People from all nations naturally want to be free.

But let’s not go celebrating our Independence Day freedoms without shedding at least a few tears for the many freedoms that we have lost, to the many we are losing and to the erosion of a national spirit that used to think of “Don’t tread on me” as its rallying cry. Let’s use the holiday to rekindle the ideas of liberty and to look for ways to make our society more free.

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