In January of 1967, Governor Ronald Reagan famously said, “Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction.” Sixty-six years later, the truth of that observation is all around us. If we don’t reject the politicians and policies that compromise our freedoms, this generation may be the one who will live through that extinction.
The erosion of our freedom is not a paranoid figment of the libertarian imagination. Recently the Cato Institution released its Human Freedom Index for 2022, and found that globally, freedom has declined. The Land of the Free has dropped seven points since last year, and now ranks 23rd of 160 nations.
Politicized and unscientific Covid mitigation protocols account for some of this decline. Such policies furthered the loss of freedom by violating “the rule of law and the freedom of movement, expression, and assembly,” which are among Cato’s criteria for measuring freedom. But here in the U.S. we have seen the degradation of our freedoms long before Covid.
The gross violations of the rule of law, for example, accelerated after the 2016 election. The accusation that Donald Trump colluded with Russia to fix the election was fomented by our intelligence, investigative, and surveillance agencies. The special prosecutor took two years to debunk the charge.
In contrast, Hillary Clinton, who patently violated the laws regulating the handling of classified documents, as well as willfully destroying evidence, was given a pass by FBI Director James Comey weeks before the election, even though Clinton’s violations were much worse than those of General Petraeus and others who were disgraced, prosecuted, and some incarcerated.
Six years later, Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound was invaded by a heavily armed battalion of FBI agents, who searched his home and rifled his wife’s underwear drawer, and scattered documents on the floor for a staged photo. Trump ended up in a still ongoing investigation. A few months later, classified documents were found in Joe Biden’s think-tank office and at his home and garage. In his case, there were no raids by armed agents, no leaked staged photos for the media, and no participation by the FBI at all. Biden’s aides and personal lawyers handled the whole show, and there is still an embargo on sharing details with the voters.
Such examples could be multiplied, such as the kid-gloves used by the DOJ and FBI in handling BLM and Antifa rioters and anti-prolife vandals and arsonists, compared to the Stasi thug-tactics employed against the January 6 and prolife protestors.
As for freedom of expression, increasingly we witness the censorship and silencing of political enemies abetted by federal and state governments that look the other way or actively empower the censors. Just ask the Georgia police officer recently forced to resign for a Facebook post that supported traditional Christian beliefs about marriage and homosexuality. Most people, however, simply capitulate and silence themselves, surrendering their Constitutional right to free speech.
More broad and insidious are the federal and state regulatory regimes that compromise the freedoms and rights of individuals, businesses, and states. Often cloaked in “studies” and “science,” these restrictions on, for example, water use and rationing rules, and proposed bans on gas stoves and other appliances, materially damage the rights and freedoms of the citizenry. The latest reg is a proposed “kill switch” on cars, operated remotely by the government to stop drivers from doing something Big Nanny considers dangerous.
And watch out for the Biden cartel’s attempt to nationalize rent control. This destructive intrusion into the law of supply and demand always ends up hurting rental property owners––more than 70% of whom are individuals–– and making housing scarce and expensive for the minority and lower-income renters whom the Dems claim to champion.
How does this happen in a country known throughout the world for its love of freedom? Human nature is one reason. Every good that humans achieve, from freedom to flush toilets, starts out as rare luxuries for most humans, but as they spread to more and more people, they eventually become the default bare minimum. We start taking them for granted, and we become chronically dissatisfied, especially in a culture that believes in endless progress and an achievable utopia.
Our seemingly cavalier attitude to freedom also is the result of the simplistic understanding of what freedom actually means. We frequently fail to distinguish between political freedom and just doing whatever we want. Political freedom––the scope given us to participate in our own rule by voting, holding office, or publicly discussing and deliberating on issues that affect how we are ruled and what policies we pursue––is true freedom or ordered liberty.
Just doing whatever we want, on the other hand, is what the Founders called “license,” which isn’t true freedom. Often such freedom is destructive to ourselves and others, and leads to vicious behavior that enslaves our minds to the desires of the body. In a political order like ours that empowers all citizens to participate in governance, the self-gratifying interests and passions of individuals and factions can shape policies that serve some citizens at the expense of others, or endangers the welfare of the state as a whole. As Xenophon’s Socrates asks rhetorically, “Do you think that the man is free who is ruled by bodily pleasures and is unable to do what is best because of them?”
This degradation of political freedom into mere doing as one likes has concerned political philosophy for 2500 years. The ancient critics of democracy made it a major reason for avoiding popular rule. Plato in the Republic makes this problematic freedom the essence of democratic man: “Are they not free,” Socrates sneers, “and is not the city full of freedom and frankness [the same word is one of the two used for political free speech]––a man may say and do what he likes . . . [and] the individual is clearly able to order for himself his own life as he pleases?”
The problem, Plato has Socrates continue, is political leaders are chosen not for their character or virtue, but for their willingness to give the people what they want. A democracy “never giv[es] a thought to the pursuits which make a statesman, and promot[es] to honor anyone who professes to be the people’s friend.” Such a regime empowers the lupine demagogue and creates a polity in which even language is degraded: “Insolence they term breeding, and anarchy liberty, and waste magnificence, and impudence courage.” The result will be citizens given over to “the freedom and libertinism of useless and unnecessary pleasures.”
Finally, freedom defined as “doing as one likes” ends up demanding radical egalitarianism, a “sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.” And since people are unequal in their talents, virtues, or even luck, this means employing the injustice of the forced equality of outcomes so that everybody is nominally equal. That leaves appetites and pleasures as the only criteria for equality, since people’s bodily instincts and irrational passions are pretty much the same. Only the ability to gratify them is unequal.
Plato’s solution for this problem of debased freedom was his famous utopia describe in the Republic, in which selected elite “Guardians” are eugenically bred and for three decades trained in virtue and philosophical expertise that fit them to rule all the rest who are subordinated to this cognitive and credentialed elite––the ancestor of Tocqueville’s prophetic “soft despotism” in which all are equal because all are subjected to the authority of the Guardians.
This profile of debased freedom and equality should be familiar to us. Over the decades our notions of freedom have become more the tyranny of the will free to choose its pleasures, and even to select its biological sex. The equality of outcome, or “equity” as its Orwellian label has it today, lies at the heart of the “woke” ideology that permeates our institutions. Meanwhile, our consumption-based economy works night and day to find and create new pleasures, products, and distractions for the people. And we expect the redistribution of wealth and government subsidies so we can afford such goods and pleasures.
The price, as early 19th century political philosopher Henri-Benjamin Constant warned, is that we the free people, “absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests . . . should surrender our right to share in political power,” and be spared “all sort of troubles, except those of obeying and paying.” Is not our bipartisan political guild, and the centralized federal power, with its intrusive, vast agencies and their regime of regulations and the redistribution of taxpayer money they manage, just the sort of government Constant describes?
Freedom, as Reagan continued, “is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation.” If we continue to allow our political freedom to be diminished, the anti-scientific, destructive Covid mitigation policies will become the new normal in all our institutions.
There’s a word for that: tyranny.