"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion." ~ Thomas Jefferson
America Closing Her Door to Freedom
Exclusive to STR
June 24, 2009
At 47, I lament how today's America is far less free than the country of my youth. Replacing it is not a 1984ish totalitarian dictatorship, but what Alexis de Tocqueville called the 'soft tyranny' of what Mark Levin sees as a 21st century 'nanny state.' We so feared a Stalin or Hitler that we ignored endless assaults on our liberty by idealistic home-grown statists and the seductive narcotic of ever more government goodies buying our acquiescence. What makes Americans' surrender to statism so shameful is that we freely chose this course in direct contravention of our founding principles.
Nowhere have we seen such an accelerating atrophy of our freedom as in K-12 public schools, where recent decades have witnessed far more books banned, and not some print version of Debbie Does Dallas. No, literary classics like J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Mark Twain's Huck Finn are verboten -- required reading in those decadent days of my '70s high school. But educrats with the backbone of a large worm now avoid anything controversial.
Students have far less choice of classes in high school, and often teachers can't make their own lessons since they must teach the test so schools can make 'adequate yearly progress.' Only about 40 percent of my college students say they ever discussed any controversial issues in high school. My high school classes reveled in such debate.
Similarly, so many high schools have become gated, closed campuses. Mine was wide open. 'Zero tolerance' for drugs and violence policies punish students carrying aspirin, cough drops, and Tweety-Bird key chains. Now diligent do-gooders want to ban school Coke machines as well. And to think at my high school we could even smoke!
Today political correctness constipates free speech at many schools (as well as in much of the public and private sectors), and hysterical sexual harassment policies suspend children for hugging a classmate. If you had predicted all this to my 1980 senior high class, we'd have laughed that you'd smoked some mighty bad dope to conjure up such an Orwellian dystopia.
Young folks' freedom has been lost off campus as well. The drinking age has of course been raised, and now there's a host of teen driving restrictions I never had to obey.
But we've all lost so much liberty. Look how government's neurotic nannies have restricted us with a host of seatbelt, child seat, and helmet laws. Likewise, so many cities and states ban smoking even in private restaurants and bars. A WWII vet can't even light up in his own bar.
So many laws have eroded our Second Amendment gun rights that, as P.J. O'Rourke notes, if Massachusetts had the same gun laws in 1775 that it has now, we'd all be Canadians.
Even political campaign speech is constricted. The Obama administration argued at the U.S. Supreme Court that the McCain-Feingold Act can ban books about ongoing election campaigns. Yet Justice Hugo Black warned that: "The freedoms of speech, press, petition, and assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment must be accorded to the ideas we hate, or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish. "
Almost half of all U.S. income is taxed today, which means we've lost about half our economic freedom. With record government spending and soaring debt, we're set to lose a lot more. And to think the Boston Tea Party was waged over a three-cent-a-pound tax on tea.
Government regulations on business cost us well over $1 trillion a year in higher consumer prices, and there are exactly 26,911 government words policing the sale of a head of cabbage.
In recent years, obsessive-compulsive environmental regulations halted a Massachusetts town from using fireworks on Independence Day since an 'endangered' bird's nest was found near it. News flash: on July 4, we celebrate independence from a tyrannical government. Yet George III never taxed, regulated, or policed us remotely as much as Washington , D.C. does today. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says 'Every aspect of our lives must be subjected to an inventory.'
Everywhere rules and paperwork mushroom as nit-picking bureaucrats grow in numbers and power. As a buddy bemoaned, the increasingly shrill message of the establishment is 'Sit down ' and shut up.' No wonder so many Americans feel frustrated and impotent.
Why has our liberty eroded so badly? Statist public schools have long taught that equality (of results) and 'social justice' trump freedom since liberty is the handmaiden of 'selfish' individualists harming 'the community.' As we've grown affluent, there's more desire to protect everyone from risk, and our burgeoning welfare state demands ever more of our economic liberty. Plus, as societies get more secular, they become more socialist (see Western Europe ).
We also have endless media-savvy professional grievance groups contending that every erosion of freedom is imperative for our safety. But, as Justice Louis Brandeis warned: "Experience teaches us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."
Jefferson warned that 'The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.' I pray Americans never forget that we are the heirs to the most libertarian, God-fearing revolutionaries in history.
Douglas Young is Professor of Political Science & History at Gainesville State College in Gainesville, GA. .
America Closing Her Door to Freedom