Perspective: The Struggle for Liberty
DECEMBER 01, 1994 by ROBERT HIGGS
America is becoming a police state. Each year, more and more actions become either officially forbidden or officially required. The scope for individuals to decide how to live their own lives grows steadily narrower. The list of crimes grows longer and longer, and any deviance may subject the citizen to the wrath of the police, the courts, and the prisons—not to mention the fiery violence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
No one knows when the state will strike, for no one can possibly know whether he is violating the law—there are far more laws, regulations, and ordinances than anyone can possibly comprehend, much less obey. Citizens are now being punished for such “crimes” as filling in mud puddles or cutting down trees on their own land, selling vitamins and herbs, and charging to braid someone’s hair without a license. Many are punished for no crime at all, when their property is seized without due process of law in so-called civil forfeitures.
How can Americans stop the expansion of the police state? There is no simple answer, but some prerequisites are clear.
First, people must come to a clearer understanding that using government to impose their~ personal preferences on everybody leads inexorably toward a society dominated by those in authority. One may disapprove of many things, including the use of dangerous narcotics or “quack” medicines, the reckless disregard of some developers for flora and fauna, the decisions of teenagers to quit school, and the uncivilized opinions expressed by certain entertainers. But one cannot justify using the power of the state to crush those whose actions strike him as merely foolish or unaesthetic.
Second, people must come to a clearer understanding that, in politics, things are seldom what they are represented to be. Government thrives on sham: often it does not do what it claims to do, such as protecting life and property, and often it does what it is pledged not to do, such as singling out certain groups orindividuals for selective punishment because of their unpopular attributes or beliefs. Because government and mendacity go hand in hand, it is always risky to trust government. To trust it to carry out conscientiously thousands of important activities—far more than anyone can monitor—is utterly foolhardy.
As a practical political strategy, it might be worthwhile to concentrate exclusively on the repeal of existing laws. We are entangled in so many and such unjustified restraints that the most immediate need is to cut through some of these chains. For some people this may seem to be an unappealingly negative program. But nothing is more positive than our liberties. With each chain that we cut, we become a little freer. There is so much that deserves to be demolished. To rest content with our present condition is to accept government officials as our masters, and freeborn men and women can never make that concession.
Economic (Un)Liberty, Kansas Style
Fifteen year-old Monique Landers is a criminal.
Her crime? The young African-American started and ran a successful business washing and braiding hair for profit. For this criminal behavior, the Kansas state government threatened Monique with a fine or imprisonment in the countyjail or both.
But Monique also was recognized for her business acumen by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, headquartered in New York. The Foundation honored Ms. Landers as one of five Outstanding High School Entrepreneurs.
Hair salons and cosmetology schools learned of Monique’s achievement and complained. The Kansas Cosmetology Board put its foot down hard on the teenager: shut down your business or you might go to jail. Monique did not have a license to touch anyone’s hair for money.
The Cosmetology Board’s Executive Director said the youngster could go to a year-long cosmetology school if she wanted to braid hair. The problem: few such schools teach braiding and, to add insult to injury, those that did would not take her until she turned seventeen.
“The Board won’t let me earn my own money, and won’t let kids like me learn how to take care of ourselves,” Monique said. Monique is keenly aware of the virtues of economic liberty.
“I think owning your own business is a way of being free,” she says. “If more kids knew they could grow up to be their own boss they would be more responsible and cause less trouble.”
Monique knows about kids causing trouble; her one brother has been in jail and a sister has been expelled from school.
In her own eyes, Monique was a productive citizen; to the Kansas government, she was a criminal.
Democracy versus Liberty
[W]hen we ask where liberty is, “they” refer us to the ballots in our hands; over the vast machine which keeps us in subjection we have this one right: we, the ten- or twenty- or thirty-millionth of the sovereign, lost in the vast crowd of our fellows, can on occasion take a hand in setting the machine in motion. And that, “they” tell us, is our liberty. We lose it whenever an individual will takes sole possession of the machine: that is autocracy. We regain it when the right of giving the machine a periodical mass-impulsion is restored to us: that is democracy.
This is all either misdealing or cheating. Liberty is something quite different. Its essence lies in our will not being subject to other human wills: in our will ruling alone over our actions, only being checked when it injures the basic, indispensable requirements of life in society.
—BERTRAND DE JOUVENEL