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American’s Fading Love of Freedom

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Tea Party protesters, some Republicans, and many libertarians perceive the federal government as a vast engine of oppression. But are anti-Obama activists mistaken in presuming that most Americans still care about freedom?

A Gallup poll released in July asked a thousand Americans, “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what to do with your life?” Admittedly, only 21 percent said they were dissatisfied. But that percentage had more than doubled since the previous Gallup poll on this question in 2006, when only 9 percent complained. That number was surprisingly low, considering the controversies back then over the USA PATRIOT ACT and repressive “free speech zones,” and the first round of explosive revelations of National Security Agency illegal wiretaps on thousands of Americans. Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign exploited the Bush administration’s civil-liberties record to hype a one-term senator from Illinois as America’s constitutional savior.

Much of the press coverage of that poll has focused on the fact that Americans now rank 36th in the world in their satisfaction with their freedom — lower than Rwanda, Uzbekistan, and even Canada. But comparisons with foreigners’ sentiments mask the profound political changes that have occurred in the American people in recent decades. Jon Clifton, the managing director of the Gallup World Poll, observed, “Certainly the [2006] numbers make sense in terms of our classic self-perception. The recent numbers do not.” But has the “classic self-perception” been bogus for decades?

In reality, the biggest mystery from the Gallup poll is why 79 percent of Americans nowadays don’t believe they have a shortage of freedom in their daily lives. Do they like getting molested by the TSA, boarhawged by the IRS, and hounded by traffic cops every time they drive down the street? Do folks not recognize the perils of politicians who perennially plot to seize their property, take away their guns, and commandeer them from womb to tomb? Or do most people simply not want to do anything with their lives of which they think politicians or bureaucrats might disapprove?

Today’s Americans demonstrate little of their forefathers’ passion for freedom. How many college students would happily permit the government to copy all their email and computer hard drives in return for unlimited free music downloads? How many Walmart gift certificates would it require for a typical citizen to forfeit all his Fourth Amendment rights, entitling government agents to search his car, house, and himself whenever they chose without a warrant? How many McDonald’s gift cards would it take to sway a person to pledge never to publicly criticize the president? How many senior citizens would agree to support the ruling party in perpetuity in return for a 20 percent boost in their Social Security benefits? How many Americans would agree to cease reading newspapers (and their pesky editorials) in return for free cable television?

Many Americans are more comfortable rattling a tin cup for more benefits than in standing up and denouncing political abuses. Dick Meyer, editorial director of CBSNews.com, observed that voters “see the government like a pharmaceutical company. They feel entitled to cheap if not free access to products and services; they want everything to be risk-free, and they want compensation if something goes wrong. Politicians of both parties have been perfectly willing to pretend the world can work that way.” But a democracy of caretakers and cage keepers is irreconcilable with self-government or permitting people to live in ways officialdom disapproves. As the hysterical reaction to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision shows, many Americans are frightened of any limits on politicians’ power to mandate unearned benefits for them.

How many Americans want government to leave them alone compared with the number of people who value government primarily as a means to forcibly live at someone else’s expenses? Almost half of Americans are now receiving some type of benefit from the government. Federal programs create legions of political pawns that rulers can mobilize to perpetuate their own power. When people see voting as a meal ticket, they will have no concern about limiting the power of their benefactors.

The recent poll results are difficult to reconcile with a separate Gallup survey last year that found that only 19 percent of Americans “trust government in Washington to do what is right” most of the time. In other words, most of the 79 percent of Americans who said they have sufficient freedom also do not trust the government. Are folks so politically dense that they don’t recognize that ceding arbitrary power to untrustworthy folks was not the smartest way to preserve their “freedom to live as they choose?” Or are people’s political views simply a near-random selection of transient impressions?

Americans’ faltering devotion to freedom has made it easy for politicians to corral them with criminal penalties for a vast array of nonviolent offenses. Country singer Merle Haggard observed, “In 1960, when I came out of prison as an ex-convict, I had more freedom under parolee supervision than there’s available to an average citizen in America right now…. God almighty, what have we done to each other?” Haggard might overstate the loss of liberty slightly; however, few politicians and pundits who assure Americans that they have ample freedom today experienced parole in the early 1960s. Some of the punitive laws (such as the drug war) have spurred controversy in the media. Yet most citizens do not recognize how the vast expansion of the prison population makes a mockery of the pretensions of American freedom.

Invoking liberty

Many citizens are apathetic about their freedom because most of the media continually assure them that Big Government is nothing to fear. This dogma has become more popular with the Washington media since Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush in the Oval Office. And Americans are also encouraged to believe that there is practically a law of history that guarantees the triumph of liberty. The long record of hard facts voiding supposed “laws of history” is conveniently forgotten.

The latest variation of the “inevitable triumph of freedom” theme trumpets the fact that the word “libertarian” is no longer banned in polite society inside the Beltway. But invoking libertarian thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek has not stopped the Federal Reserve from ruining the U.S. dollar. Invoking Milton Friedman does not prevent politicians of both parties from wrecking markets whenever they can reap campaign contributions.

Ronald Reagan declaimed in his first inaugural address in 1981 that government was the problem, not the solution. Yet, despite Reagan’s rhetoric, the federal government became far more intrusive, punitive, and arbitrary. Reagan often abandoned his limited-government mantra and launched one moralistic crusade after another, including reviving a war on drugs that was the primary source of a fourfold increase in America’s prison population in the following decades. He did little or nothing to curb Internal Revenue Service agents’ abuse of American citizens. The Justice Department pioneered sweeping new interpretations of the racketeering law that criminalized new forms of white-collar behavior. It also swayed the Supreme Court to define down the Fourth Amendment to give federal agents far more leeway to invade private land without a warrant.

In 1994 the Republican Party captured control of Congress after promising to roll back federal power in numerous areas. The “Republican Revolution” was hailed as a sea change in the fight against Leviathan. But the Republicans championed new laws and mandates on a slew of issues at the same time that their efforts to repeal previous political and regulatory power grabs were largely toothless.

Likewise, the resurgence in popularity of libertarian buzzwords has done nothing to prevent Obama from proclaiming that he will rule America with his pen and phone, barraging the nation with executive orders of doubtful legality. As long as Obama does not explicitly announce that the Bill of Rights is null and void, many Americans and most of the media continue to presume that his actions are legitimate.

A mere change in fashionable political terms will not revive a constitutional system that has been going downhill since at least the New Deal. Nor will a transient shift in political opinions suffice to roll back Leviathan. It is far easier to enact new government programs than to abolish old abuses. Anyone who doubts that truth should examine the sordid history of federal farm programs. Nor is there any reason to presume that the next president or the next gang of congressional leaders will have any more devotion to freedom than today’s power-hungry rascals.

The recent Gallup poll proves that Americans are far more politically docile than we have been taught to believe. But it will take more than reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to safeguard our remaining freedoms. We may soon learn how many people would happily surrender all their constitutional rights in return for a president’s worthless promise that he will thereby make them safe.

This article was originally published in the October 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.