More Government Does Not Mean Less Freedom

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Ironically, coercive government policies can sometimes actually have liberating effects on us and society as a whole. For many people this may seem counter-intuitive: How can having more rules increase our freedom? But it is true. This point has been made very effectively by the political commentator Garry Wills. He has argued that government restrictions on our behavior can often work to increase our freedoms. He uses a very common example to make his point – traffic laws. These laws, he points out, are often incredibly intrusive and restrictive:

One must stop on the command of an inanimate red light or stop sign, yield to other drivers in a number of circumstances, drive at prescribed speeds (a maximum speed imposed everywhere, though at different levels place by place, and a minimum speed set on some highways). We are told where we cannot drive (the wrong way on one-way streets, the sidewalk, certain bus lanes, certain downtown areas at certain times). …The very vehicle must be licensed, and the license periodically renewed. A car must have a mandated quantity and kind of lights, mirrors, windshield wipers, and unobstructed windows. Its width and turning capacity are determined by the state. It must have functioning brakes, mufflers, horn, and other parts. It must pass pollution tests. The car itself and its action upon others must be insured to prescribed levels. The accumulation of minor impositions is really quite staggering when one stops to add them up. … How can we really be free when we are continually triggered to obey on so many fronts?11

 

But then Wills concludes, “Actually, these rules are immensely liberating.” He explains that without these elaborate controls on our behavior, the traffic system would break down and we would not be free to drive anywhere. “If we all woke every morning, took out cars of uncertain performance, and tried to drive every which way, not heeding (nonexistent) signs or a right-side requirement, any speed laws or rules of precedence at crossings, we would either be crashing constantly, or would be immobilized by a fear of crashing or being crashed into.”12 In other words, without all those coercive traffic laws, we really wouldn’t be free to drive. And such rules are not an example of “Big Brother” telling us what to do, but of “us” telling us what to do. They are not a form of dictatorial coercion; but a form of mutual coercion, decided on in a democratic manner. Without these kinds of democratically generated rules, we would lack the social order necessary for us to be free to go about our business.

We can see a similar liberating function of government rules at work in many other areas. For example, we are free to breathe clean air and drink untainted water only because environmental laws prevent the numerous private activities that could pollute those vital common resources. And our venerated “free” market would not work at all without elaborate government rules governing economic behavior,  including complex laws about contracts, property rights, fraud, debt collection, and so forth. (See Capitalism Requires Government.) Without these legal rules, markets would descend into chaos and cease to function effectively. We are free to participate in market activities precisely because acceptable economic actions are so highly circumscribed by government.

Conclusion

It is clear, then, that two of the central conservative assumptions about the relationships between government and freedom are wrong. There is no logical reason to assume that a growing government inevitably threatens the freedom of its citizens. Also, when the government does restrict the behavior of individuals, this is not necessarily a bad thing. These forms of “mutual coercion” are usually in the public interest and work to our common benefit.

 

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To see why government is often the most effective way for us to defend and expand our freedoms, go to the next article, “Government as the Primary Protector of our Rights and Liberties.”


1. Jo Jorgensen, “Why Republican politicians keep selling out Freedom,” Libertarian Party News Archive, May 1997. http://www.lp.org/lpn/9705-Jorgensen.html

2. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., et al., Why People Don’t Trust Government (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997). p. 21.

3. Charlton Heston, Speech, September 9, 1990, Hillsdale College.

http://www.libertyhaven.com/politicsandcurrentevents/governmentreformitsrealrole/reaganright.shtml

4. Meg Bostrum, By, or for, the People: A Meta-Analysis of Public Opinion of Government (New York: Demos, March 1, 2005) p. 38.

5. Dick Armey, The Freedom Revolution (Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1995), p. 291.

6. Dissenting opinion in San Remo Hotel L.P. v. City and County of San Francisco, 41 P.3d 87, 120, 128-9 (Cal. 2002).

7. Max Neiman, Defending Government: Why Big Government Works (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000) pp. 160-161.

8. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Universal Motorcycle Helmet Laws Reduce Costs to Society,” http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/motorcycle/safebike/costs.html

9. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “A Helmet Law is Not a Stand Alone Issue.” http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/motorcycle/safebike/stand.html

10. NHTSA, “Universal Motorcycle Helmet Laws.”

11. Garry Wills, A Necessary Evil (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999) pp.305-06.

12. Ibid.

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