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Do Americans Really Want Freedom?


Aye, free. Free as a tethered ass!
W.S. Gilbert, Princess Ida

AMERICANS CHERISH FREEDOM. So they say. They praise it every Fourth of July. They solemnly put hands to hearts and pledge allegiance to the United States of America …, with freedom and justice for all. They open every ball game by singing, Oer the land of the free. Indeed, they support a war on terrorism in freedoms name.

Americans certainly value freedom in theory. But do they really want freedom? You be the judge.

Freedom and responsibility are two facets of a single gem. There can be no responsibility without freedom. If everyone is free, then each is free to refuse to bear the direct consequences (that is, physical damages) of other peoples actions, leaving those consequences to fall on those actually responsible for them. Where someone is able to forcibly impose direct consequences on others, those others cannot be said to be free. The reason for a legal system (whether monopolistic or competitive) is to enable those on whom direct consequences have been imposed to rectify the injustice.

Likewise, there can be no freedom without responsibility. If people are held not to be responsible for their actions, the reason must be that they are held not to be free with respect to those actions. Consequently, their political freedom is a quaint illusion (a vestige of the pre-scientific age), and so is its abolition. The temptation of being relieved of responsibility carries a high price: slavery.

Thus freedom and responsibility go together, like marriage and the loss of bachelorhood. This suggests that people who pay only lip service to liberty may be telling us that they dont want the responsibility that goes along with it. (Recall Orwells Freedom is slavery.)

One would expect people who constantly talk about the importance of freedom to be attentive to what their government does, given that the gravest threats to liberty have historically come from peoples own governments.

Historian R.J. Rummel estimates that from 1900 to 1987 the governments of the world killed 169,202,000 of their own people. He does not list the U.S. government. (See www.freedomsnest.com/rummel_totals.html.) That does not count the war dead. It would be impossible to quantify the lesser violations of liberty that occur at the hands of governments.

Yet the American people are curiously uninterested in the many ways that the U.S. government violates their freedom. Since the Septemer 11 attacks, most Americans have been eager to accept a host of violations of their rights by the very government charged with protecting them. But let that pass for now.

Lets look at other areas where government conduct betrays a less-than-meticulous concern with individual freedom. The mounting property violations in the name of environmentalism are hardly noticed. Mandated attendance by children at indoctrination centers euphemistically called schools is unresisted. Forced participation in the swindles dubbed Social Security and Medicare goes unremarked by a majority of their hapless victims.

So inured are most Americans to the daily impositions that they have no idea that they are free as a tethered ass, as W.S. Gilberts King Gama describes himself in the opera Princess Ida.

This is indeed the velvet oppression foreseen by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1848):

[Democratic government] covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules that are both minute and uniform, through which even men of the greatest originality and the most vigorous temperament cannot force their heads above the crowd. It does not break mens will, but softens, bends, and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits, action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hard-working animals with the government as its shepherd.

Two of the most egregious examples of crushed freedom are in medically related areas, namely, drugs and so-called mental health. This is unsurprising, as psychiatrist Thomas Szasz has long noted. In our secular age, science and bodily health have replaced theology and spiritual well-being as dominant influences. Americans would never stand for religious-legal authorities dictating what they may and may not do. Yet they readily accept edicts from medical-legal authorities. This shows that the rejection of theocracy was not the result of any libertarian intuition or principle, but only the result of the passing of ecclesiastical influence. Deputized doctors have simply picked up where deputized priests left off.

Thus, we may update Randolph Bournes famous adage: Health is the health of the state.

The war on drugs

The war on drug users, producers, and traders has two aspects: the prohibition of bad drugs and the requirement that we get permission from doctors in order to use good drugs. Stripped of its self-serving mantle, this war is nothing but the imposition of government decrees concerning what peaceful individuals may grow, produce, trade, and ingest. Where did government acquire that power? It clearly violates our rights, as Thomas Jefferson recognized. Theres no such authority delegated by the Constitution. (Alcohol prohibition required an amendment.)

The standard defenses fall of their own weight. If people involved with drugs employ violence, that crime not drug activity can be prosecuted and punished. Most drug users commit no violent crimes. If they are dangers to themselves, well, that comes with a free society. Other potentially dangerous things from skydiving to drinking alcohol are not forbidden. Why forbid the use of the arbitrary category of substances called dangerous drugs?

The government shamelessly tries to associate drugs with terrorism. But anyone who looks at the matter with an open mind will realize that it is the black market born of prohibition that links drugs to terrorism. Bin Laden couldnt finance his operations from the sale of Scotch whiskey or cigarettes. If heroin finances al-Qaeda, its only because the state has made heroin illegal. The connection between booze and the Mafia was broken not by teetotaling but by ending Prohibition.

Freedom and psychiatry

The other health area in which Americans show no interest in freedom is psychiatry. While the drug laws prohibit self-medication by outlawing some drugs and requiring prescriptions for others, the mental-health laws impose medication, not to mention confinement, on people who have violated no ones rights.

Has it occurred to more than a few people that the mental-health laws are unlike any others in the land? Only under those laws can a peaceful person be locked up, drugged, and subjected to other violations of his will. As Szasz has pointed out for nearly half a century, these statutes cannot be squared with the rule of law, no matter how hard the self-serving mental-health professionals try.

But arent the alleged mentally ill dangerous to themselves and others? We have criminal laws for those who are truly dangerous to others. If a person

has committed no overtly threatening act, his confinement is preventive detention. And in a free society, being a danger to oneself should not summon the power of the state, even if it comes dressed in the physicians white coat. A diabetic who refuses to take his insulin is dangerous to himself but the law recognizes his right to be so. Why are the mentally ill handled differently? This gives the lie to those who demand parity for m ental patients and who claim that mental illness is like any other illness.

But, say the advocates for the mentally ill, psychiatric patients dont know whats good for them. Here is where psychiatry runs squarely into the rule of law. It is an insult to a free society for doctors to be empowered to declare conscious persons incapable of knowing their own interests and therefore unfit for freedom, and to detain or drug them against their will. That happened in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany it shouldnt happen here.

As Szasz points out, mental illness is a metaphor for misbehavior or criminal behavior. Sick mind is no more to be taken literally than dirty mind. Sensing this difficulty, the psychiatric establishment speaks increasingly of brain disorders and chemical imbalances (though this is not new). But considering that psychiatrists do not examine brains, how is such illness inferred? From the observation that drugs can change a persons mood or behavior. That a homesick person feels better after a glass of wine does not entitle us to conclude he had a real disease.

Leave aside that psychiatry cant prove that what used to be called mental illness is really a brain disorder. No law permits the involuntary hospitalization (that is, imprisonment) or drugging of people with proven brain disorders, such as epilepsy and Parkinsons disease. Again, why are schizophrenics and manic-depressives handled differently? What happened to parity?

In sum, the mental health laws are a disgrace to a society that regards itself as free.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.