The idea of freedom counts for little in public discourse. It may come up now and then, only to be quickly shoved to the rear as something quaintly outmoded if not suggestive of paranoia.
Examples abound, and this week saw its share. The first that comes to mind is New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s legal setback in his attempt to prohibit restaurants from serving sodas in containers bigger than 16 ounces. A judge struck down the mayor’s decree as “arbitrary and capricious,” but much of the discussion on television news programs focused not on freedom but rather on health or pragmatic concerns: Would the ban really help combat obesity? How big a role does soda play in that problem? Would the ban help bring down the cost of medical care?
Anyone who argued that Bloomberg’s rule is out of bounds because it forbids a certain kind of peaceful exchange between restaurants and patrons, and that government has no moral right to interfere with voluntary exchange, would likely have been dismissed as weirdly out of touch. After all, Bloomberg has addressed the issue of freedom, hasn’t he? He’s said repeatedly that his rule would violate no one’s freedom because you may have your 16-ounce cup refilled as many times as you wish. All his rule would do is “remind” us of the health implications of drinking too much soda.
Of course, that is not all his rule would do. It would, in fact, outlaw a certain class of transactions. It’s not a reminder; it’s a prohibition. But if you insisted on this point during the typical media discussion, you probably wouldn’t be asked back the next time the issue came up. Yet it’s a legitimate question: Granting all the good motives in the world, how dare anyone propose that people be forced in this way?
The other example relates to the poor and was prompted by the selection of the pope. In much of the media discussion about the election at the Vatican, pundits equated concern for the poor with an embrace of government programs allegedly aimed at alleviating poverty. If you care about the poor, so goes the argument, you must favor government antipoverty programs. Contrariwise, if you oppose the programs, you are indifferent to poverty and misery.
What is remarkable is that this link is never thought to need justification. Just how does one get from “We have a moral obligation to the poor” to “Government should force people to help the poor”? Whatever one thinks of the declared moral obligation, additional argument is required to get from it to an enforceable legal obligation. Let’s not forget that if someone refuses to pay taxes and announces that he will help the poor through voluntary activity, he could be imprisoned and even killed, were he to resist the state’s efforts to seize his money for its “charitable” works. Why is the freedom to help the poor privately or to abstain from helping at all not recognized as an individual right? Do those who preach the moral obligation to help the poor believe that it is proper to lock people in cages merely for choosing to discharge this obligation in their own way outside of government channels? Does the moral code that implores us to be our brother’s keeper not also condemn violence? Is there no connection between compassion for the indigent and abhorrence of brutality?
Why is the neglect and even dismissal of freedom so common? Because freedom, if thought of at all, is regarded as just one of many considerations to be taken into account when judging public policy. Worse, for many people, freedom is easily outweighed by other things, such as health and the needs of others. The refusal to see freedom as just one of many competing values is regarded in many circles as a sign of immaturity or “extremism.” If you insist that freedom imposes constraints on our actions towards others, and if you extend this principle to government officials, you are apt to be viewed as an oddity. The maxim that each human being is an end in himself or herself, and not merely a means to the ends of others, carries little weight, despite the occasional lip service.
People who worry about obesity are free to contribute to campaigns designed to persuade us to drink less soda. Why do they turn to physical force instead? Similarly, people who want to help the poor are free to contribute their time and money to that cause and to urge others to do so. Why do they call for force? If they say private efforts are insufficient and therefore force is required, I remind them that the end does not justify the means.
On the poverty issue, we can take this a step further. It is curious that those who would compel charity—if that’s not a contradiction in terms—seem oblivious to the miserable history of government promises to eradicate poverty. The expenditure of trillions of dollars over many decades has little to show for it and in fact has induced dependency. Moreover, the advocates of wars on poverty are strangely oblivious of the myriad ways that government keeps people from climbing out of poverty: from rotten schools, to minimum-wage laws, to occupational licensing, to anticompetitive regulations, taxes, and subsidies. One might be tempted to ask when the policymakers will learn that politics is a bad way to end poverty, but we must remember that they have no incentive to learn, for that would mean giving up power and access to other people’s money. (For details on how the government stifles personal economic progress, see Charles Johnson’s “Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty as We Know It” and Gary Chartier’s “Government Is No Friend of the Poor.”)
Freedom is not a luxury. It’s a necessary component of a truly human life. We who understand this principle must never tire of teaching it.