Freedom is difficult, but it is not complicated. Either you wish to make your own choices in life (freedom) or you wish to let others make them for you (government).
Ron Paul likes to say “freedom is popular” and he is right, when it comes to our own freedom; none of us wants someone else to spend our money and tell us what to do. That’s not complicated. It is when we think about extending that same courtesy to those who spend their money in ways we find offensive (buy drugs, for example) and do things that we do not approve of (take them), that is gets difficult.
Ever since Rick Santorum surged to a virtual tie in the Iowa Caucuses, the national debate has turned back, at least temporarily, to social issues and the central question of what role government should play in promoting morality and values. Most Republicans think the government should take an active role in promoting civic morality; most Democrats think government is civic morality. Most libertarians think this is why mute buttons were put on remotes; we’ll check back in when they get back around to war and economic collapse.
I hate sin as much as any of my social conservative friends do; the difference between us is our willingness to imprison those who hate it a little less.
Violent crimes are committed by violent criminals, and we need laws and prisons and courts and private arms in order to defend ourselves and property from predators. Force and fraud are the libertarian lines in the sand where freedom ends and crime begins. Most of us are actually “tougher” on real crime than the average Republican. Freedom and consequence are reciprocal; we don’t like either to be metered out in small doses.
But victimless crimes are something else altogether. The buyer and seller of contraband – whether it is raw milk, below minimum wage labor, drugs, sex, a wager, scalpers’ tickets, usury loans, alternative medicine, unlicensed haircuts, RYO cigarettes, or Gibson guitars – have forced or defrauded no one.
As a principled matter, it is none of my business how you choose to live your life, and from a practical perspective, I don’t want to pay the costs of enforcing futility. If eternal damnation isn’t already enough of a deterrent, adding 260 hours of community service is not going to make anybody sit up straight and fly right. Immorality has survived 7,000 years of moralists; this won’t be the year we snuff it out by electing one guy or another guy. And just like anything else, the quality of morality suffers when the government takes it over.
The issue isn’t really morality, anyway; it’s the role of law. Conservatives think the law should punish what we don’t approve, libertarians think the law should make us tolerate what we don’t approve, and liberals think the law should make us pay for what we don’t approve. To the Progressives – in both Parties - civic morality is achieved when a few of us pay to impose their beliefs on all of us.
Over the years, I have come to realize that immorality is its own worst punishment; most people I know who have chosen vice as a lifestyle live in misery and squalor. I love them, of course, but have zero sympathy for them; the picture was on the brochure when they made their reservation. Laws are just words; they won’t fix anyone who is broken. And our obligation to be our brother’s keeper takes a lot more than paying taxes.
Last year, our units of government passed 40,000 new laws. The mind boggles.
No one even knows for sure how many laws there are in the United States – hundreds of thousands certainly, millions perhaps. It is absolutely impossible to be a law-abiding citizen in this country; none of us knows all the laws and we have all most certainly broken several last year…or yesterday, for all I know. I used to break lots of them on purpose when I was young and fun; no challenge now.
Have all these laws made us a better society? Are we more righteous, just, compassionate, prosperous, healthy, and happy because of them? Do we treat each other better now that we have made it a crime to offend? Do we hate less because we made hate illegal? Sure doesn’t look like it on the nightly news.
The miracle that was 19th century America was described by Alexis de Tocqueville in his epic “Democracy in America”. He correctly identified the parallel importance of liberty and religiosity in a free society:
“In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country."
That ascending America that so fascinated de Tocqueville had a limited and distributed government that consumed less than 10% of GDP at all levels combined. That is a fraction of the footprint that is advocated by either Ron Paul or Gary Johnson, our two most prominent libertarian politicians. That is how far off the rails we have veered over the past century – even our crazy libertarians aren’t radical enough.
It was that Constitutional America, where government was limited and morality was privatized, that inspired the industrial revolution, abolished slavery, institutionalized philanthropy, developed a middle class, achieved universal literacy, eradicated disease and improved life spans at a rate not seen before or since. In the latter half of the 19th century, a flood of immigrants voted with their feet for free market capitalism. Freedom is indeed popular – always has been.
Presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s argument that freedom breeds immorality ignores the history of America when it was most free. We are now at our least free, and at our most immoral, by any measure of social pathology. We have proven for decades on end that government can deliver neither prosperity nor salvation – no matter who runs it.
We don’t need 40,000 more laws each year to live free. The Constitution is just a skinny pamphlet; the Ten Commandments fit on a recipe card. Even a society of atheists would live peaceably together if they did not lie, covet, steal, kill, disrespect parents, commit adultery, or attempt to play God.
Some people think we should take those Ten Commandments down from our government buildings. Not me. I think we ought to take down the government buildings.
“Moment Of Clarity” is a weekly commentary by Libertarian writer and speaker Tim Nerenz, Ph.D. Visit Tim’s website www.timnerenz.com to find your moment.