Is Freedom Negotiable In Today’s America?

Yesterday I wrote about the tendency for Americans to easily trade their freedom for safety, and it seems that I’m not the only one thinking about liberty. Courtesy of Glenn Reynolds’ Instapundit blog, there has been some discussion of the “libertarianizing” of America on social issues, but away from it on political issues. In discussing gay marriage and gun rights in his USA Today article, Reynolds observes:

However, I think the war [against gay marriage] was lost because when Americans aren’t sure what to do about something, they give the tie to freedom, letting individuals make up their own minds instead of being forced to live a particular way.

He goes on to draw an alalogy with the recent failure of gun control legislation:

And, in fact, the anti-gun sentiment that the nation is outgrowing seems a lot like the anti-gay sentiment that we’ve largely outgrown. Even during the repressive decades of the past, of course, people knew that gays were around, and having sex — but still supported laws that repressed them because they wanted to stigmatize gays and their lifestyle as unacceptable.

Likewise, many anti-gun activists realize, and sometimes even admit, that gun laws won’t keep guns out of the hands of criminals. (Even Britain, an island nation with super-repressive gun laws, hasn’t been able to do that). But they sometimes admit that they’re really more interested in attacking the “gun culture” than in preventing crime. It’s a species of prudery, only aimed at firearms.

Echoing the first quote above, he summarizes:

But prudery plays badly in America. People talk about whether the country is moving to the left or to the right, but the common thread in the big social movements that have succeeded over the past half-century, from civil rights, to gay rights, to gun rights, is that they have all been seen as pro-freedom. Political types might want to keep that in mind.

Sounds good (to me at least, with a few minor quibbles – for another post), Americans, as a whole, have always embraced freedom. In fact, it is the principle on which the nation was founded, and I’ve always believed the clichéd retort “It’s a free country” was rooted in truth – we may not like someone else’s choices, but they free to make them (to the extent those choices don’t infringe on another’s freedom). It would be great if that’s the direction the country was heading, but really, it’s not.

Unfortunately, it seems that Americans, in general, are not embracing liberty per se, but are rather looking for license to practice whatever lifestyle they want, while looking to the government to enable it.   Ross Douthat expounds on this idea in the context of the Democrats’ policy agenda:

Instead, the kind of “liberaltarianism” that’s increasingly ascendant is one that combines a highly individualistic view of our social and cultural fabric, and government’s role therein, with a statist understanding of government’s role in providing economic security — and security, period. As Scott Galupo shrewdly puts it, it’s big government as “a guarantor of personal liberation and self-actualization” — unless your form of self-actualization runs afoul of the national security state, in which case you can be tried in a star chamber and executed by drone.

This is where the Democratic Party has been moving, in fits and starts, for some time now, but the Obama era has thrown the combination — an imperial presidency, a  corporatist economic policy, and then a libertarian turn on almost every social issue — into sharp relief. It isn’t the liberaltarianism that Brink Lindsey had in mind, but it’s the liberaltarianism we seem destined to live under for at least a little while to come.

Here we come full circle from social issues to security; the cultural shift in the United States appears to be embracing a more libertarian approach to cultural norms (in fact, I would argue that it is more of a sexual libertinism) bought from the government with one’s freedom. A complete police-state lockdown like we saw in Watertown is perfectly fine, as long as it ensures that we will be safe for more pleasure-seeking (this is where I think Aldous Huxley may be more prophetic than George Orwell). As an aside, I think this also explains why the Republicans, who seem to be embracing a libertarian economic policy – moreso than social policy – haven’t fared very well with a statist-minded citizenry in the last couple of elections. 

James Poulos also seems to be prophetic when he discussed this shift in an interview a few years back, calling it “the Pink Police State”:

I worry, and I think we should all worry, about the way cultural libertarianism is snowballing while the snowball of political libertarianism rolls deeper into hell. I’m aghast at the shrug with which many self-styled libertarians greet massive government, so long as it’s run by people with ‘enlightened’ attitudes about pleasure-seeking. It’s not death to the state these libertarians want, it’s the state as cool parent, with a stripper pole in every pot. I’ve actually had one good libertarian friend argue straight-faced that the solution to the drug problem is a monopoly partnership between Washington and Walmart. Well, with solutions like that, who needs problems? And of course you get that kind of institutionalized approach from fans of legal prostitution. It’s almost as if libertarians are willing to let the state regulate everything so long as everything’s decriminalized.

On top of this, we all know how intimately sex — or at least images of sex and talk about sex, alas — has become a part of everyday life. What gives me fear is the idea, which large numbers of people seem to be buying into, that a growing sphere of libertinistic freedoms compensates (or more than compensates!) for our shrinking spheres of political liberty and the practice of citizenship. You can guess what I think about ‘liberaltarianism’.

So citizens of a Pink Police State (I should say subjects) are apt to surrender more and more political liberty in exchange for more and more cultural or ‘personal’ license. And the government of a Pink Police State tends to monopolize and totalize administrative control while carving out a permissive playpen for the people. This tradeoff has a creepy economic component. Already, in places like Russia, China, the Gulf states, and Singapore, we see the machinations of a new ‘laboratory of autocracy’, as oppressive regimes grant wealthy residents de facto privileges to all the sin money can buy.

I agree with Poulos’ use of the term “license” above, because it accurately describes the objective: guilt free pursuit of any pleasure (vice) with no consequences. I remember a homily I heard once that described the difference between freedom (to do the good) and license (to do what ever one wants). Just taking a moment to reflect that our culture today is less concerned about doing the good than it is about doing whatever we want, without having to worry about consequences, or that pesky consequence. As Poulos continues:

Next to the al Qaeda neanderthals, the harbingers of the Pink Police State pose a far more frightening and serious challenge to the Western model of social order. Nobody frets, like many of our intellectuals did over Stalinism, that maybe Osama got it right.  There’s more to worry about when we see China’s youth consent en masse to equality in servitude in the shadow of Macau, Earth’s biggest gambling mecca.

Therein is where the real danger lies. We (as a whole) seem all too ready to give up our freedom to the police state (or, per Douthat – an imperial presidency) in exchange for the ability to maintain our libertine pleasure-seeking license.