It is a common occurrence at sporting events. Someone is singing the U.S. national anthem — “The Star-Spangled Banner” — and when he gets to the last line of the first verse (although the song has four verses, the first verse is the only one that is ever sung), the crowd starts cheering and shouting after the singer utters the phrase “the land of the free.” Most of those same people have an equally high regard for the country song by Lee Greenwood, “God Bless the U.S.A.,” and especially the beginning of the chorus that says, “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” Greenwood has sung the song at Republican and conservative political events. In churches on the Sunday before Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Veterans Day, the patriotic song “America” (“My country, ’tis of thee”) is often sung. It speaks of America as the “sweet land of liberty” and the “land of the noble free.” It speaks of the “ring” of freedom, “sweet freedom’s song,” and “freedom’s holy light.”
To suggest that America is not free, not as free as other countries, or not as free as the majority of Americans believe is anathema. To imply that government at all levels in America is becoming more and more intrusive, authoritarian, and dangerous is unconscionable. To even hint that America is a nanny state or a police state is all but treasonous.
Of course Americans are free, say the people cheering and shouting at sporting events and singing along with Lee Greenwood at concerts. Americans can travel freely across the country. Americans are free to choose from among fifty varieties of salad dressing at the grocery store, a hundred types of wine at the liquor store, a thousand television channels in their living rooms, and a seemingly limitless assortment of songs on the Internet to download to their phones. Americans are free to attend the church of their choice or no church at all. Americans have the right to vote. Americans are free to eat at the restaurant of their choice. Americans are free to marry, divorce, or cohabitate. Americans are free to buy, sell, change jobs, move, or start a business. Of course Americans are free!
When compared with the citizens of countries such as North Korea, Sudan, Myanmar, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, Americans do appear to be absolutely free in every respect. But there are 190 other countries in the world. America could be the freest country in the world and still not be absolutely free. The truth is, Americans live in a relatively free society when compared with people in many other countries. The American people are relatively free when compared with people in Thailand, Egypt, India, Argentina, Indonesia, and Pakistan. But when we begin to add other countries into the mix, the freedom in the United States doesn’t look so rosy.
The Fraser Institute’s latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World “measures the degree to which the policies and institutions of countries are supportive of economic freedom” based on 42 data points used to measure the degree of economic freedom in five broad areas: personal choice, voluntary exchange, freedom to enter markets and compete, and security of the person and privately owned property. The United States comes in sixth place, after Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Ireland. The United States returned to the top 10 in 2016 only after an absence of several years.
The Heritage Foundation’s latest edition of the Index of Economic Freedom measures “economic freedom based on 12 quantitative and qualitative factors, grouped into four broad categories, or pillars, of economic freedom: Rule of Law (property rights, government integrity, judicial effectiveness), Government Size (government spending, tax burden, fiscal health), Regulatory Efficiency (business freedom, labor freedom, monetary freedom), and Open Markets (trade freedom, investment freedom, financial freedom).” The United States comes in twelfth place, after Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Taiwan, and Iceland.
Freedom House’s latest edition of Freedom in the World “evaluates the state of freedom in 195 countries and 14 territories. Each country and territory is assigned points on a series of 25 indicators. “These scores are used to determine two numerical ratings, for political rights and civil liberties.” These ratings are then used to determine whether a country or territory “has an overall status of Free, Partly Free, or Not Free.” Freedom in the World “assesses the real-world rights and freedoms enjoyed by individuals.” The United States received a score of 86 out of 100 points, behind such bastions of freedom as Costa Rica, Estonia, Lithuania, and Slovakia.
The latest edition of the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders “ranks 180 countries and regions according to the level of freedom available to journalists.” The United States ranks only 45 out of 180 countries, well behind Cyprus, Ghana, Jamaica, Namibia, and Uruguay.
Things look even worse when we get a little more specific. The government seizes more assets from Americans every year than the dollar amount taken in burglaries. Americans collectively pay more in taxes than they spend on food, clothing, and housing combined. Thanks to the war on drugs, Americans can be locked in a cage for purchasing too much Sudafed to relieve their stuffy nose or possessing too much of a plant the government doesn’t approve of. The United States has one of the highest per capita prison populations in the world. Tens of thousands of Americans are incarcerated for nonviolent or victimless crimes.
The federal government is at times nothing short of tyrannical. It has a myriad of laws that criminalize almost everything. In Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent (2011), Harvey Silverglate showed how prosecutors can use broad and vague federal laws to indict and convict people for even the most seemingly innocuous behavior. Federal regulations apply to almost every area of commerce and life. The government takes money from those who work and gives it to those who don’t. It takes money from American taxpayers and gives it to corrupt foreign governments. Do Americans live in a free society when the government reads their e-mails and listens to their phone calls? Do Americans live in a free society when they have to be scanned, groped, and forced to throw out tubes of toothpaste exceeding 3.4 ounces before they can board an airplane? Do Americans live in a free society when they are limited to six withdrawals from their savings accounts per month? Do Americans live in a free society when no beer brewed at home can ever be sold? Do Americans live in a free society when any person who is arrested for any reason can be strip-searched even if there is no reason to suspect that he is carrying contraband?
State and local governments and their police forces can be just as tyrannical as the federal government. They violate property rights, engage in civil asset forfeiture, perform invasive surveillance, carry out warrantless searches, and execute no-knock raids. Do Americans live in a free society when legal adults cannot purchase alcohol until they reach the age of 21? Do Americans live in a free society when they need to get a permit to have a garage sale? Do Americans live in a free society when they need a license to cut someone’s hair? Do Americans live in a free society when it is illegal for car dealers to be open on Sunday? Do Americans live in a free society when it is illegal to resell a concert ticket? Do Americans live in a free society when no alcoholic beverages of any kind can be sold before a certain time on Sunday? Do Americans live in a free society when local police are militarized with an arsenal of assault vehicles and firepower and employ marauding SWAT teams?
When the question is asked whether Americans live in a free society, one can’t help but ask: Compared to what? And if that weren’t bad enough, Americans live in a nanny state. Americans have a government full of politicians, bureaucrats, and regulators, and a society full of statists, authoritarians, and busybodies, who all want to use the force of government to impose their values, hinder personal freedom, remake society in their own image, restrict economic activity, compel people to associate with people they may not want to associate with, and limit the size of soft drinks you can purchase at a convenience store. Yet, most Americans are oblivious to the extent of government encroachment on their freedoms. They are complacent when it comes to government edicts. And they are ignorant as to what a free society really means.
A free society
What, then, would life in a free society in the United States actually look like? In many respects it wouldn’t look outwardly any different from the relatively free society Americans live in now. Americans would still go to work; have garage sales; buy houses; rent apartments; take vacations; start businesses; eat at restaurants; attend school, church, sporting events, concerts, and movies; drive cars; have weddings and funerals; walk their dogs; take their grandchildren to parks; go walking, jogging, shopping, and bike riding; drink beer; order pizza; work out at the gym; watch television; play video games; and visit the doctor and dentist. In a free society, Americans would just do those things without government mandates, licenses, regulations, restrictions, standards, intervention, oversight, surveillance, or interference.
A free society is a libertarian society; that is:
- a society based on free enterprise, free exchange, free trade, free markets, freedom of conscience, personal freedom, free assembly, free association, free speech, and free expression;
- a society where people have the freedom to live their lives any way they choose, do with their property as they will, participate in any economic activity for their profit, engage in commerce with anyone who is willing to reciprocate, accumulate as much wealth as they desire, and spend the fruits of their labor as they see fit;
- a society where, as long as people’s actions are peaceful, their associations are voluntary, their interactions are consensual, and they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others, the government just leaves them alone.
Yet, misconceptions and misinformation about libertarianism abound.
In an opinion piece in the New York Times during the federal government shutdown earlier this year, columnist, economist, professor, and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman mockingly termed the shutdown “a big beautiful libertarian experiment.” After all, “it’s striking how many of the payments the federal government is or soon will be failing to make are for things libertarians insist we shouldn’t have been spending taxpayer dollars on anyway.” Although the article was primarily about Republican and conservative hypocrisy, Krugman insinuated that without the federal government, Americans were more likely to get food poisoning: “And if you have libertarian leanings yourself, you should ask whether you’re happy with what’s happening with government partially out of the picture. Knowing that the food you’re eating is now more likely than before to be contaminated, does that potential contamination smell to you like freedom?” Never mind that it is not the federal government that inspects most food. Never mind how foolish it would be for food providers to sicken their patrons. Never mind how implausible it would be for food producers to poison their consumers. Never mind how unprofitable it would be for “greedy capitalists only interested in profits” to kill their customers.
Government in a free society
Government has always been the greatest violator of personal freedom and property rights. As former Foundation for Economic Education president Richard Ebeling puts it, “There has been no greater threat to life, liberty, and property throughout the ages than government. Even the most violent and brutal private individuals have been able to inflict only a mere fraction of the harm and destruction that have been caused by the use of power by political authorities.” Government should therefore be limited to the protection of rights.
In the “big beautiful libertarian experiment” known as a free society, government — in whatever form it exists — would be strictly limited to reasonable defense, judicial, and policing activities. As libertarian theorist Doug Casey explains, “Since government is institutionalized coercion — a very dangerous thing — it should do nothing but protect people in its bailiwick from physical coercion. What does that imply? It implies a police force to protect you from coercion within its boundaries, an army to protect you from coercion from outsiders, and a court system to allow you to adjudicate disputes without resorting to coercion.” In a free society, these are the only possible legitimate functions of government. There is no justification for any government action beyond keeping the peace; prosecuting and punishing those who initiate violence against, commit fraud against, or otherwise violate the personal or property rights of others; providing a forum for dispute resolution; and constraining those who would attempt to interfere with people’s peaceful actions.
It is not the proper role of government to inspect food; fight poverty; subsidize or give grants to any individual, business, occupation, or organization; create jobs; level the playing field; explore space; feed anyone; vaccinate anyone; rectify income equality; maintain a safety net; help the disabled and disadvantaged; regulate commerce; establish CAFE standards; fight discrimination; provide disaster relief; mitigate climate change; stamp out vice; have a retirement program; or provide public assistance. Government should be prohibited from intervening in, regulating, or controlling peaceful activity. And government should never punish individuals or businesses for engaging in entirely peaceful, voluntary, and consensual actions that do not aggress against the person or property of others. Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address in 1801, described thus the sum of good government: “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”
Aside from the nature of government, there are many topics that can be explored in the course of which it can be explained what life in a free society in the United States would actually look like. I want to discuss four of the most significant ones: education, charity, employment, and commerce.
Education. In a free society, all education is privately provided and privately funded. On the federal level, there would be no student loans, Pell grants, school breakfast or lunch programs, school accreditation, Head Start, Higher Education or Elementary and Secondary Education Acts, special-education or bilingual-education or Title IX mandates, Common Core, research grants to colleges and universities, math and science initiatives, and no Department of Education.
On the state level, there would be no public schools, government vouchers, teacher-education requirements, teacher licensing, teacher-certification standards, property taxes earmarked for public schools, and no departments of education. Education in a free society is also voluntary. There are no mandatory attendance laws or truant officers. In a free society, no American is forced to pay for the education of any other Americans or their children. In a free society, the education of children is the responsibility of parents, just as their feeding, clothing, lodging, training, health, recreation, and disciplining are.
Charity. In a free society, all charity is private and voluntary. There would be no Social Security; Supplemental Security Income (SSI); Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF); Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); refundable tax credits; Medicaid; or Medicare. Generosity is a hallmark of Americans. According to the Giving USA Foundation, “Americans gave $410.02 billion to charity in 2017.” But government charity crowds out genuine charity. In a free society, Americans would keep the entirety of the fruits of their labors and give or not give — individually or through charities — to those in need as they saw fit. A free society must include the freedom to be generous or stingy, benevolent or miserly, charitable or uncharitable. But that decision is up to each individual American. Foreign charity would work the same way. In a free society, it would be up to individuals, or charitable organizations funded by individuals and businesses, to provide other countries with disaster relief or foreign aid. A free society must include the freedom to be unconcerned or insensitive to the plights of foreigners.
Employment. In a free society, employment is a private contract between employer and employee without any government interference whatsoever. There would be no minimum wage or overtime pay laws. There would be no family-leave or health-insurance mandates. There would be no government job-training programs or government licensing or certification. There would be no unemployment-compensation program. Unemployment insurance would be purchased on the free market just like fire, car, homeowners’, and life insurance. In a free society, union membership and collective bargaining would be voluntary, and employers would be free to allow or disallow either. In a free society, it would not only be perfectly legal to fire workers who strike or otherwise refuse to work, but it would also be perfectly legal for employers to fire employees at any time and for any reason. In a free society, employers could hire anyone from any country without having to check his “status” or “papers.” But there would also be no Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Discrimination in hiring, pay, or promotions on the basis of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, citizenship, marital status, dress, appearance, political affiliation, or anything else would be perfectly legal.
Commerce. In a free society, commerce is conducted in a free market without interference from the government. There would be no government regulations to stifle businesses, no occupational licensing to prevent people from working, no price controls, no government grants or subsidies, no government loans or loan guarantees, no protectionist tariffs to benefit certain industries, no Export-Import Bank, no Small Business Administration, no crony capitalism, and no usury or price-gouging laws. Mergers and acquisitions would not need government approval. No more anti-trust laws. No business would be singled out for special protection by the government. Bye-bye, farm subsidies. All transportation would be private. No more AMTRAK or public transit. Businesses large and small, including airports and airlines, would handle their own security. Good riddance, TSA.
America once had a free society, and it can have one again by returning to the libertarian principles that made it the freest country in modern history.
This article was originally published in the June 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.