Beverly Garside

Is Individual Freedom Dying?

     It's a refrain we hear all the time: America is becoming a police state, individual freedom is dead. Then some new law or regulation on the part of the government or private institution is bemoaned as being the "last nail in the coffin," of our freedom to do whatever we want with our own fill-in-the-blank. I believe there is some truth to this. We can't deny that new laws and regulations crop up regularly. What's interesting to me is not the fact of this phenomenon but the reasons behind it and the motivation of those decrying it.
     I think the reason we're getting hit with increasing regulation is actually simple. There are more people on the Earth now than ever before in history. The world is getting more crowded every day, and the more of us there are, the more we get in each other's way. In the less populated America of bygone days, there was no need for emissions control regulations on cars or factories. There simply weren't enough cars and factories for exhaust and air pollution to be a problem. Today we have the Clean Air Act, which is an undeniable restraint on personal liberty to do whatever one wants with one's own car or factory. What would happen if that individual freedom were restored to us? All we have to do is look at pictures of New York City in the mid 1970s - choked with smog so thick you can't see the sky. Today it's hard to imagine New York without a crystal clear skyline, or to imagine a Beijing where the sky is visible at all for all the smoke. Because we have the Clean Air Act and they don't.
     When it comes to restrictions on our personal liberty, the reason should always be consideration for the needs of others. Other people should not be allowed to smoke in our faces, let their dogs poop in our yards, or fill our TV screens with dirty words we don't want our children to repeat.  It should never be just because we don't like the people who are doing the action in question. In Europe, some countries have passed laws forbidding Muslim school girls from wearing traditional Muslim head-wear in public schools. As Americans, we are scandalized by such authoritarian nonsense. Like the government is going to tell us what kind of hat we can wear? Unless the hat is blocking our view in a movie theater, it's none of our business.
     I think the U.S. most often gets it right when it comes to laws and regulations. But there is a growing chorus of people who disagree. They cite every new rule as the death-knell of liberty and the onset of fascist, totalitarian rule. It's interesting to watch these folks, however, as they proclaim that they should have the right to smoke in anyone's face they want to, let their dogs poop anywhere they please, and exercise their right to "free speech" using whatever curses they want in front of anybody's children and grandmothers. They are champions of "freedom" right up until some kid parks his car on the street near their house and exercises his right to play his own stereo at any volume he wants at 3:00 a.m. Or until someone else exercises their right to use their land anyway they want and starts letting runoff from their hog pens pollute a stream that also crosses their property.
     Then all of a sudden the local police and government transform from jack-booted, brown-shirted thugs into lazy, tax-money-sucking public servants who are slacking off in their job of protecting them. In other words, their credo is actually: "I should never have to be considerate of anybody else, but everybody else should always have to be considerate of me."
     We're all familiar with this credo, because we've all held it - back when we were young children. No one is born with empathy and consideration for others. It's something we learn gradually as our brains grow and our character matures. A teacher is aware that kids who finish a test early should not be allowed to chatter, laugh, and run around the classroom, thereby disrupting the concentration of those who are still trying to figure out the final answers. Kids are not.
     All this howl and bemoaning about regulations and the death of individual freedom in America strikes me as the tantrums of toddlers. There is a word for this attitude and this is it: selfishness. This is why I don't worry about the fate of individual freedom in our country. We don't have a freedom crisis here. What we have is a maturity crisis. 
     

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