Individual freedom most important
September 8, 2003
When social life becomes politicized, one is tempted to present one’s wishes to politicians and bureaucrats, because they have the power to fulfill them. For example, a resident wishes that a local restaurant not play music he doesn’t like. Even though the bureaucracies dealing with these matters gave permission for the restaurant to feature live music, this resident wrote to a politician, who then managed to sic the authorities on the proprietor, and the music was banned.
Or, in another example, a parcel of land is being planned for development, all in line with the rules, passing various boards and commissions. But, no, those with strong wishes against it are needling their politicians and even the courts to get the thing stopped.
Many wish that there be no smoking in any restaurants in California or New York or wherever, so they appeal to the politicians and bureaucrats and they, in turn, deliver.
The examples could continue ad infinitum. This kind of populism — enacting into law whatever enough people wish for — is, of course, a form of dictatorship. No, not the dictatorship of one powerful person such as a Mussolini, Hitler or Stalin but of several thousand or millions who happen to share strong wishes among themselves.
But notice there is also a tradition in the American system that opposes such lynch mob politics. This tradition emphasizes individual rights and their protection by the law. According to that tradition, within one’s own realm of authority — that is, when it comes to oneself, one’s home, one’s business establishment — the decisions lie in one’s own hands not in those of politicians. And the public authority within that venerable tradition is severely limited.
In short, in the American political tradition of limited government, politicians and bureaucrats have just one basic job: to secure the rights of all individuals. They are not there to promote the projects of any group of these individuals.
No one’s favorite idea is supposed to get special government endorsement or support. If I do not wish for people to smoke, I am supposed to advocate this, promote it through various voluntary means without getting politicians to back my wish and ban smoking for folks who don’t want to live by my wishes.
Unless the music from the restaurant is unreasonably loud, just because some cranky guy nearby wishes there to be none in his region, he does not get to call the shots with the aid of the local sheriff or a state senator.
This idea that government upholds the basic rules of a free society and leaves the rest to peaceful cooperation — or lack thereof — among the rest of the citizenry seems to have very little standing in our day. Everyone thinks his or her wishes should rule, never mind other’s rights and the limits of state.
Yet, it is exactly that idea of politics — whereby government is supposed to secure our rights and we must go about getting our wishes without its favoring us with its forcible intervention — that made this country special and politically sound in the world. That is what earned it the label, “leader of the free world.” For the only freedom that’s really worth having is individual freedom.
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at [email protected]