Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Americans enjoy more freedom today than ever -- by Jonah Goldberg

Basic argument:

1) Women and blacks are no longer the subject of legal discrimination
2) speech is less restricted
3) Technology makes it possible for Americans to do what they please, when they please, and how they please to (birth control pill, The Internet, cell phones, laptops, and cars)
4) internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II not being repeated. The United States hasn't rounded up whole communities of American citizens.

Then there's the note from The Corner on National Review Online:

Worst Column Ever!
I have to assume many Corner readers will also despise the column. If you want to tell me so, fine. But please give me concrete examples of how your grandparents were demonstrably more free.

One of my favorite topics. First, to dispose of a Strawman, we are speaking of political liberty here. While it's true that technology is very liberating and indeed can allow individuals to make choices in opposition to legal restrictions. Note the technical difficulty of the World's governments in restricting communications these days. But there are plenty of ways in which I'm less politically free than my grandparents.

1) Taxes. Federal taxes are still seizing the highest percentage of the economy in history. About the same as in 1945 when WWII expenditures peaked. And at that time, state and local taxes were very much lower so total tax burden was much lower. W's tax cuts have yet to have much impact on the Federal take and will have zero effect on the states. It's obvious that higher tax exactions restrict one's liberty to spend the dough directly, are directly coercive, and may involve a lot of loss of privacy. When my grandmother worked for Dun & Bradstreet (then Dunn & Co.) in the early '20s, the trolly came by her desk every Friday and the payroll clerk gave her a $20 gold piece with zero withholding. Income taxation involves forcing people to disclose a great deal of personal info to government. Most Americans paid no income tax until WWII.

2) The DMV. When my grandfather started to drive at the age of 12 or so in the San Francisco of 1914, he didn't need a license. When licenses were first issued they were a tax collecting measure. They didn't even test drivers. Then they tested them but did not require any proof of age or identity. Then they started to ask for proof of age and then identity. Since then they've gotten much more "user unfriendly". They are suspending licenses for many "failures" not related to driving. Child support arrears, for example. They have become a popular social control measure.

3) ID requirements in general. In the '20s, 30's, & 40's; SF author Robert Heinlein managed to attend school up through Annapolis; join the Navy; vote; run for public office; and work as a civilian contractor in the Pentagon in time of war; without ever having proved his identity to anyone. He was born before birth certificates. One just said who he was and went on from there. Government ID requirements have become more onerous and involve a loss of freedom.

4) The CFR -- not the Council on Foreign Relations -- the Code of Federal Regulations. People are more free the fewer regulations they have. We have a lot more regulations on us than our grandparents did. The CFR occupies a whole shelf. The Federal Register is a 300 page daily magazine that lists our orders from the Federal government (together with a lot of general bureaucratic nonsense). Then there are the similar books of statutes and administrative codes at the state and local levels. The more pages of these there are, the less free we are. And there are millions more pages than there were when my grandparents were young.

6) Financial privacy -- The Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 outlawed it. My grandparents could walk into any bank, give any name, and deposit any money they cared to. Legal restrictions make this more difficult today.

7) Even the much vaunted social freedoms of today do not represent a huge increase over the 1920s. When my grandparents were young, heroin, morphine, pot, alcohol, and tobacco were all legal and easily available (except pot). They could smoke in the theaters of San Francisco and legally drive with a blood alcohol level of .08. Prostitution, fornication, adultery were not unknown phenomenons and "feelthy pictures" were available -- if harder to find.

Now all of these thousands of laws and regulations may be utterly fabulous and necessary but they certainly reduce my freedom.