Who is Less Free than 40 Years Ago?

Over at Reason [h/t Instapundit], Veronique de Rugy asks:

Many libertarians, eyeing the relentless expansion of the state, worry that freedom is marching backward. But are we really worse off than we were 40 years ago?

She surveys many aspects of freedom in modern life and concludes that on the whole we have gained more freedom than we have lost. Missing from this survey, however, is one critical area in which freedom has shrunk dramatically. 

Economic freedom, especially the freedom of economic creativity, has contracted.

Anyone who actually creates new wealth has seen their freedom to create attacked in the last 40 years. Farmers, builders, manufactures and small business people all have seen their choices progressively reduced. Individuals have far fewer choices when it comes to such activities as raising crops, building houses, building factories, designing products, setting work rules or even running a corner store. 

Most of us do not see this contraction of freedom because we are not actual economic creatives. Most of us work for creatives, we ourselves do not create the businesses that pay us or the products and services they sell. We merely implement the innovations of others. We do not personally bump our noses against the government restrictions that the people who employ us and sell to us do.

Restricting the freedom of economic creatives ultimately restricts the freedoms of everyone. Without the material necessities and luxuries provided by the creatives, the rest of us cannot implement our own choices. If the State controls your access to food, shelter, medical care, transportation, information etc. the State controls you. All modern tyrannies began with economic control and then used that power to suppress other freedom. 

We seem to be on the same path, albeit in slow motion. Although most of us might feel more free today, in reality we are losing the economic creativity that ultimately makes us free.  

33 thoughts on “Who is Less Free than 40 Years Ago?”

  1. Partly true…on the other hand, if you run a railroad or an airline, your freedom to run your business as you see fit has increased substantially since 1968. Also, for startups in most any field, venture capital is much more likely to be available than it was 40 years ago…this is certainly not the doing of the government, but helps to offset some of the negatives flowing from increased regulation.

    Rich Karlgaard has a relevant discussion today.

  2. Amerikan children are a lot less free than they were 60 years ago, what with all the sex mutilation, soccer moms, helicopter parents, pedophile scares and No Child Left Behind repressive testing. Actually, just rearing a kid in Amerika is practicing child abuse.

  3. States rights have dissappeared and we have lost control of our law making. In comparison of 2008 with 1958 (not 1968, after Kennedy and Johnson repealed states rights) the percentage of blacks in prison in 2008 is four times higher than in 1958; the percentage of women is 2 times higher; of hispanics 5 times higher.

    Marijuana, Coke, Amphetimines were all legal in 1958. Drinking laws were enforced only when drinkers were obnoxious. White males caught driving drunk were escorted home.

    Malpractice suits were rare and hospital room charges were the same as hotel rooms.

    There were no police or any security at airports, train stations or bus stations. People hitchhiked and were not arrested. You did not need a special permit to camp in a national park. There were no DEA, no ICE, no ATF secret agents trying to entrap innocent people. In comparison to 1958 we live in a police state with over 50 federal agencies fielding secret police.

    But in 2008, like the average 1958 Soviet citizen – if you keep your nose clean and avoid being politically incorrect, you are free to do whatever is allowed (within reason and in moderation).

  4. Taxes are lower than 40 years ago. The internet makes everyone freer. Governments can’t restrict information the way the old soviet Union could. China, India, Russia, and nearly every other nation on earth are freer. International trade is freer. Competition is worldwide so nations that restrict freedom suffer near immediate consequences.

  5. “..Amerikan children are a lot less free than they were 60 years ago…”

    Oh..I see what you did..you spelled America with a k…giving it that ever so vague facist tinge. That is completely awesome, what you created there. You should totally spread that all around the internet, they are just dying for a meme that great!

    Anyway, the average citizen in the US is far more free than 40 years ago. People want to complain about the police being at the airport…everyone is videotaping somone use a taser on youtube every week…and the general notion that police brutish-ness is something new or getting worse. Heat to break it to you, but in Kansas City back int the 50’s, the police regularly killed people and threw them in the river…to cover their own tracks…to get rid of witnesses…to hide their corruption..whatever…it happened ALOT in those days, and my bet is it happened in many urban areas back in those days. Contrary to what your sociology professor trying to relive his glory days of 69 might want you to think, there is FAR more accountability for police and far less corruption than there was 40-50 years ago. The KCPD were the enforcers for many mob bosses in the KC area back then, even acting as the de facto “security” at mob gambling spots, and they killed and maimed plenty of people back then in that role. Go back a couple more decades and you had the Pendergast administration in KC, which made the 50’s look like Mayberry with regards to corruption. Again, KC couldn’t have been the only city with that sort of thing going on. Nowadays, you just don’t have that sort of open collaboration between corrupt officials, corrupt police, and the criminal element. Does corruption happen? Sure it does, but it’s a far cry from the outright abuses that took place decades past.

    And that is the sort of thing that limits the freedom of citizens. When there is no check to keep the average citizen feeling secure and free enough to engage in business or commerce or partnership with anyone they see fit, then it severely hampers their freedom, economic and otherwise.

    As for economic freedom, any idea that Americans are less economically free today than they were 40-50 years ago is right out in my opinion. Back then you had much more institutional class distinction that kept young people “in their place” as they became young adults than you have now.

    And anonymous,

    “..In comparison to 1958 we live in a police state with over 50 federal agencies fielding secret police…”
    We have 50 more medical research centers now than we had in 1958, so the more is automatically worse reasoning fails me…

    Spoken like a true believe that hasn’t ever experience a sliver of somethign like 1958 Soviet Union. The irony of people complaining about the secret police watching their every move and waiting to arrest them if they say anything politically unsavory on a public internet forum never ceases to make me chuckle…

  6. Marijuana, Coke, Amphetimines were all legal in 1958.

    Coca Cola was certainly legal back then. As a matter of fact, it’s still legal now.

  7. > Actually, just rearing a kid in Amerika is practicing child abuse.

    As of the first Tuesday in November, we are no longer members of Amerikkka. We are all now part of The Obama Nation.

    Please refrain from putting too soft a pronounciation onto that first “o”.

  8. > Spoken like a true believe that hasn’t ever experience a sliver of somethign like 1958 Soviet Union. The irony of people complaining about the secret police watching their every move and waiting to arrest them if they say anything politically unsavory on a public internet forum never ceases to make me chuckle…

    Your chuckles will be amusing to the rest of us when the slippery slope turns into a landslide. Sad, but at least we’ll be laughing at your stupidity. One hopes they Take You First.

    The difference between 1921 and 1936 in Germany was quite profound, despite being a mere 15 years.

    To assume that the USA is incapable of the same sort of transformation, in an equally short time, is profoundly arrogant. After all, we’ve had the same public youth indoctrination system that produced the Nazis for a long, long time, now: Listen to authority. Obey orders. Don’t ask why. Just do it.

    Heck, that’s even been a refrain from a very successful series of commercials: “Don’t ask why. Bud Dry.” (read: “Buy it because we say so. Stop asking questions, do it, do it now!”)

    Your great grandparents, to say nothing of the Founders, would shake their heads in dismay at the notion that the Federal Government has anything to say about many of the things we take for granted as completely acceptable today. That the resulting deterioration of social mores and the effectiveness of many key parts of the social fabric is associated to the same would not be lost on them, either.

  9. P.S. There’s a phrase which has lost all meaning:

    “Don’t make a Federal case out of it”.

    It used to be that Federal law was rarely seen and even more rarely invoked. Nowdays, if you’re crossing the street against the light, there’s probably a Federal law under which you can be charged, prosecuted, and sent to jail.

    So even when you don’t see it, the web of Federal intrusion is there, waiting to pounce at the whim of a disgruntled bureaucrat or “civil servant”. And you can always presume that that same web won’t dare touch one of The Annointed.

    Example: I’m willing to bet that there is a law in D.C. that makes smoking inside a Federal building illegal, and probably out to a certain number of feet. The White House is a Federal building. Do you think that Mr. Obama is going to be able to smoke in the White House, or will he step outside just like you and I would have to?

    “In a mature society, ‘civil servant’ is semantically equal to ‘civil master‘.”
    – Lazarus Long(R. A. Heinlein) –

  10. Obloodyhell,

    My grandparents used to use, “don’t make a federal case out of it” all the time. I agree it is telling that we can no longer use a “federal case” a an example of of an extreme last resort action.

  11. “..Your chuckles will be amusing to the rest of us when the slippery slope turns into a landslide. Sad, but at least we’ll be laughing at your stupidity. One hopes they Take You First…”

    You’ll have to get in line with the thousands of others telling me about how the end of freedom is coming in the next 10 years….for the last 25 years.

    Look, my stance on the whole complaing of America becoming a facist state remains thusly. Either pick up a gun and commence to killing the bastards you feel are responsible for this undertaking or be quiet. I usually hear this complaint from nutjob liberals I work with and I tell them the same thing. If I really believed that an election had been stolen, or that there was a cabal at work subverting my rights and my liberty was at stake…I’d get rifle…get some like minded individuals and commence to killing the people I thought were responsible. The only position of someone who on the one hand complains of the yoke of oppression ever tightening around them and does nothing about it is cowardice. If you REALLY believe that there is a huge conspiracy gunning for your very liberties and do nothign about it, you are a coward….and I would argue, not even really living the American ideal. Blowing people in power away who were doing this to you is EXACTLY what I think they guys who invented America would not only want you to do, but almost DEMAND you to do.

    Protesting “my civil rights are being eroded!” is completely boring at this point. Pick up a gun, or stop complaining….

  12. > You’ll have to get in line with the thousands of others telling me about how the end of freedom is coming in the next 10 years

    I’m sorry, I said that where?

    I SAID was that it can happen rather more rapidly than one might hope… and the time when the gravel starts moving fast is just a bit TOO LATE to solve the problem. Better to avoid the situation where you’re standing on loose gravel in the first place by not removing the mortar that’s holding the whole thing in one piece.

    Removing the mortar around one brick in a huge structure, no, that most likely won’t cause a major problem. But you keep pulling out the mortar, random bricks start falling out on their own… and sooner or later, the result will be anything but pretty.

    But no, *everyone* wants to pull out “thiiiiiiis little pickup stick”, always sure that THAT stick attached to the thing they don’t like isn’t THE one that will bring the whole shebang crashing down.

    Go ahead. Ignore common sense that says it’s dangerous to screw with a system that’s already working about as well as any human system CAN work, and far, far better than almost any other human system in recorded history, just because one tiny little part of it isn’t to your liking.

    Like I said — hopefully, they’ll Come For You First.

  13. > Protesting “my civil rights are being eroded!” is completely boring at this point. Pick up a gun, or stop complaining…

    Not time yet. This is that madrugada period when it’s getting too late to fix things but it’s still too early to shoot the bastards, and you come off as Timothy McVeigh if you were to attempt to. Too many cattle who are too happy with their nose buried in the bread and circuses feedbag.

  14. Gotta agree with Chris on this one. It’s part of deciding whether to be a doctrinaire libertarian or an optimist. It helps to be a little older — I’ve heard the one (among many possible examples) about the next election being cancelled for 7 presidential elections in a row now. And the older I get, the more optimistic I get.

  15. “After all, we’ve had the same public youth indoctrination system that produced the Nazis for a long, long time, now: Listen to authority. Obey orders. Don’t ask why. Just do it.”

    People who say things like this have apparently not been in a classroom in a while – try ordering a modern teenager to do anything at all, and see how much slavish obedience to Der Fuhrer you observe. Teaching nowadays is often more about herding kittens than about producing legions of mindless proto-Brownshirts.


  16. “Here’s a depressing little story. I doubt if these people feel very free.”

    They fought “city hall” and won. I find that inspiring.

  17. To many of Reason’s contributors, the fight for liberty is on all fronts. To them, lowering social barriers that are simply enforced by social conventions is basically the same class of victory as one where the state has put its armed might between you and doing what you want.

    Since she brought up the Internet, I’ll debunk that as a point of liberty (like all arguments that more property and prosperity enhance freedom). Yes, we have more freedom to express ourselves. The state also has more freedom to conduct surveillance on our activities because of how many systems are based on TCP/IP networks! Just wait until land lines are folded into VoIP and the federal government finally gets a data retention mandate through. Yes, you’ll have more of an ability to exercise your 1st amendment rights, but the state will never have had such a technological ability to systematically rip the 4th amendment to shreds.

    Technology and property are neutral, but Reason doesn’t want to admit that because if they did, they would have to recognize that except on a few issues that they happen to agree with left-liberals, America is demonstrably less free than it was in the 1960s. In fact, one could say even that poor black communities in particular were probably less exposed to being terrorized by local cops under even Jim Crow than they are today by the War on Drugs with the no-knock raid nonsense.

  18. I think economic freedom is THE freedom that matters, along with the right to self-protection.

    You can give North Koreans all the free speech they want. It doesn’t help them make productive lives or even survive, much less thrive, if they can’t freely trade goods and services amongst each other. They’d just be slightly noisier prisoners.

    That article left me cold just for that reason. They (Reason) tend to ignore taxes and economic freedoms in favor of speech and expression freedoms.

    Taxes and economics affect literally every move I make in every day. It’s where the rubber meets the road for 99% of people in there interactions with the state. And I am not terribly impressed with our strides there.

  19. This is one of those “It depends…” kind of questions. We are today more free in certain ways, less so in others. Let us not forget that how the question is answered turns on how you define freedom, whether it exists in isolation from other values (responsibility, self-discpline, etc.) or not, and so on.

    Government at all levels is much larger than 40 or 50 years ago, and our lives are more closely regulated. The ever-present “nanny state” at times tells us what to eat, whether we may smoke or not and where, whether we may use recreational drugs such as marijuana, taxes alcohol, and mandates compulsory sex education for children in public schools. Many adults are forced at their workplaces (by the implied threat of lawsuits) to take sexual harassment/gender senstivity workshops, or other politically-correct fare. In gym class, students may not play dodgeball for fear of hurting someone’s feelings, and some schools are doing away with grades, especially failing ones, because it “hurts self-esteem.” Children are expelled or even led away in handcuffs for having a Tylenol (we have a zero tolerance policy on drugs! say administrators) in their possession, or for playfully slapping or pinching one another (zero tolerance, this time for play that is deemed aggressive or perhaps sexually harassing, even though a 7-year old cannot plossibly know the adult meaning of these things). Municipalities – ever-fearful of lawsuits – have removed diving boards from public pools, and abolished high-risk sports from their school curricula. As adults we have traded our freedoms bit-by-bit in return for convenience, consenting to have our movements tracked by RFIDs, cameras at intersections, ATMs and stores, and out purchases monitored by credit card providers, banks, and merchants of every kind (do you have our super saver card? Sign up today and you get 10% off your purchase!). Quotas on who may apply for certain forms of employment limit the freedom of organzations to hire whom they wish and when; this movement is hidden under the pseudo-speak of “diversity” and “inclusiveness” – but they impose a de facto quota system for those favored.
    This, too, is a limitation on freedom – whatever its other consequences. Our government very nearly compells parents to send their children to public schools, and if parents opt out of the system in favor of home schooling or a parochial or private institution, they are still taxed to pay for public education. Similarly, workers are compelled to pay payroll taxes, SS taxes, and the like – these systems are compulsory.

    We are more free than 50 years ago if one defines freedom as license to do what one wishes. In those bygone days, you weren’t as free to behave like an imbecile in public w/o conseqeunces, as so many now do – cursing, littering, walking about half-dressed, or engaging in sexual acts in public. We used to understand freedom unrestrained by discipline and responsibility is essentially chaos. Now, I am not so sure we do anymore. The individual is supreme now, and to heck with others and their feelings, or the effects of my behavior on children nearby.

  20. We’re definitely less free today than we were pre-January 2001 – will grant you that.

    As for 1968, well, if you’re black, Hispanic, a woman or GLBT, you’re certainly a lot freer today than then.

    As for the economic regulation point – it was easier to dump your toxics on your downstream and downwind neighbors in 1968, but it’s hard to argue that change is a net loss of freedom as between you and your neighbors. Other than environmental regulation, it’s hard for me to think of an industry that hasn’t been substantially deregulated since 1968. Certainly financial services (my industry) has been greatly deregulated.

  21. Morgan, this writer is in full agreement with you regarding the link between economic freedom and other kinds of liberty. The late, great Milton Friedman made much the same point in “Capitalism and Freedom,” as did Hayek in “The Road to Serfdom.” Modern-day apostles include Tom Sowell, Walter Williams, etc.

  22. > People who say things like this have apparently not been in a classroom in a while – try ordering a modern teenager to do anything at all, and see how much slavish obedience to Der Fuhrer you observe.

    You are SO naive. These are the same kids who are so utterly conformist amongst themselves that their entire identity is wrapped up in their cliques and image — they have no identity or concept of one which isn’t defined by the outside.

    That is the recipe for the authoritarian cattle mindset. It means you have an entire generation who listen to “authority” telling them what to think, what to do, what to feel.

    And that same crew you find so “catlike” in their behavior are that way because NO ONE has ever smacked them. Someone in authority smacks them — and cops don’t hesitate — and they’ll fall all over themselves in amazement that someone actually does such things. That arrogance and bravado you think so overwhelmingly dominant is a tinfoil facade.

    Hell, I’ll lay huge odds that most of them would instantaneously submit to the Tone of Command, even, if anyone ever actually used it on them — just from surprise that such a thing exists.

  23. It’s “freer,” folks, not “more free.”

    And, no, we’re not. I speak as one of the “creatives”–whatever the hell that is. (Can we all say: Producer?) I owned a business. Today, I could not make a profit in that business without breaking the law.

    Why do we (some of us anyway) think we’re freer when in fact we are not? Because we’re losing our ability to reason. IOW, we’re getting stupider. Why? Because our epistemology is degenerating.

    Why? Because our ethics is corrupting it.

    This short video is interesting from the perspective of causality. The first perspective is explicit. In the video, we see and hear Al Gore’s (dramatic: darkened stage; high tech graphing; uses of vibrant colors; etc.) presentation regarding CO2 causing global warming; then, in far less dramatic settings, we hear the experts’ response, namely that Gore is reversing causality: It is warming that is causing increases in CO2, not the other way around.


    The other perspective is implicit….

    First, recall my post on … in which I recount a story told me by my father. I noted it as an example of mass scale epistemological corruption. It involved a neighborhood in which most of the people believed they were seeing a miracle, which came in the form of a silhouette resembling (the typical version of) the Virgin Mary on the exterior wall of the local Catholic church. As time past, the crowds grew larger and the priests inside the rectory next to the church grew alarmed. So they placed shrouds over crucifixes that had long handles (used in processions) and walked in front of the shadow to demonstrate to everyone that it was the result, not of a any miracle, but of a streetlight shining through some tree branches. Nothing, though, could convince the growing crowd that this was not the work of some divine agency. Eventually, the priests asked the city (of Camden, NJ) to extinguish the streetlight; after a suitable period, the city sent a crew out to trim back the tree’s branches.

    An example, of course, of how the emotionalism of faith corrupts epistemology.

    The question that arises from this (in my mind) is: How does the belief in faith—the faith in faith itself—become so ensconced in people’s epistemology that, despite all the facts to the contrary, they refuse to relinquish it? How does one aggressively ignore one’s mind, which is precisely what one must first do, when one is young—in one’s teens—before one becomes corrupted and starts lying to oneself? My answer is: Because one long ago—from 4 to 10—accepted the morality of self-sacrifice. Faith in a supernatural entity that embodies and preaches self-sacrifice re-enforces that morality, rather than leads to it.

    In short, just as CO2 isn’t the cause but the effect of warming temps, ethics is the cause, not the effect, of a corrupt epistemology. And that is the reason that one will always fail—whether priests proving a miracle is merely a streetlight cast shadow or scientists proving that global warming is a hoax—when presenting facts to minds whose ethics have corrupted their epistemology. It’s not the corrupted epistemology—faith in God nor even the faith in faith—that leads one to believe in self-sacrifice. The cause is the acceptance of the sacrifice morality itself. That, in effect, stunts the person’s epistemological growth, which remains at the emotional level. That, too, is why such emotion driven presentations like Gore’s succeed so well with those sorts of minds in the face of counter arguments that are impeccably reasoned but less dramatic.

    Facing such a mind, the only recourse for the rational—in terms of persuasion—is to attack that mind’s morality head on. To aggressively assault, with facts and with reasoned argument, that person’s ethics. Even then, if the person is over the age of, say, 25, I think there’s very little chance of success. There really isn’t a mind there; only a bundle of reactionary emotionalism (and, later, well constructed rationalizations and evasions), which is all that essentially constitutes the person’s epistemology.

    Many … will certainly disagree, of course, citing the fact that metaphysics and epistemology precede and are the foundation for ethics. I submit that such a view is rationalistic, substituting the flow chart, if you will, of philosophy for the beginning state of a child’s mind, which is not a rationally driven state but an emotionally driven one. (Parents will, I think, bear me out on that.) A child reacts first; only as time goes by does a child learn how to act—to take control of his mind (and his emotions), using his gradually learned skills of reasoning to (implicitly—explicitly comes later) form his metaphysics and epistemology. But morality—wanting to be (to feel) good and not (feel) bad—precedes that. Yes, there is a bare bones basic metaphysics & epistemology there; but the force of morality is far greater because, at this point in a child’s development, the force of his feelings is greater.

    In conclusion, the force that morality possesses over Man supersedes, at first, the (implicit) conclusions of his mind’s metaphysics & epistemology. So much so that he will arrange (as he ages) his conclusions to fit his notion of morality. (Incidentally, this is, in my opinion, prima facie evidence of the goodness of Man’s nature.) By the time the toddler has reached his teens, that morality is the bedrock upon which he has (custom) built his metaphysics and epistemology.


    A corrupt epistemology does not cause men to accept the morality of self-sacrifice. Rather, the morality of self-sacrifice results in them accepting a corrupt epistemology.

  24. Childhood is far less free than that I experienced in the fifties. (Ooops, that’s sixty years ago.) On a weekend, mom would tell me to be back for dinner and I was free to get into all of the trouble I wanted too. Follow the creek to the bay, losing my shoes in the mud flats in the process. Find the rattlers and poke at them with sticks. Same for the tarantulas. Build model rockets with homemade gunpowder. Blow up stuff. Have little wars shooting at each other with bb guns. Etc. Nobody ever got seriously hurt, although my friend Ron accidentally blew up his mom’s closet, getting spanked in the process. Children used to be relatively safe. I believe that was because our fathers had just returned from WW II. I wouldn’t have wanted to have been a child predator. He wouldn’t have gotten to trial…just beaten to within an inch of his life by the ex-soldiers and thrown into a dumpster or some such thing.

  25. I think that “freedom” is a stalking horse for a lot of our worst urges, unless it is accompanied by the responsibilities that are required for a republic and a market economy to function. The more we misuse our freedoms, the more we end up losing them as they harm society. The more we want to have things without paying the real price the more people will be there to offer them to us with strings attached. The so-called American Dream of home ownership is a great example. Debt feels like freedom until the payments can’t be made.

    Politician’s promises sound like wonderful visions of freedom from toil, scrimping and saving, until we wake up to how they will be paid for.

    If you want absolute liberty, go live by yourself in some uninhabited hinterland. When you start encountering other people, however, it becomes a matter of what you give up and what you get to keep. In that equation, I think we’ve been on a vacation from reality for my entire life, and I sense that the bubble is about to burst.

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