Free People Don't Ask the Government for Permission
"Liberty," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "is unobstructed action according to our will; but rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will, within the limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others."
We've recently celebrated another Veteran's Day, where we've heard all the usual "freedom isn't free" speeches extolling the role of the U.S. military in protecting our liberties. I've got nothing against the military and respect those who served in it, but wish that Americans would spend less time waving the flag and trading in bromides—and more time thinking seriously about the precarious state of our own freedoms.
"Liberty," Thomas Jefferson wrote, "is unobstructed action according to our will; but rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will, within the limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law'; because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual." That's as good a definition of liberty as one will ever find.
Americans are supposed to be free to live as we choose—unobstructed by government and limited solely by others' right to exercise their free will. Jefferson's words can be summarized by that old cliché: Your right to swing your fist ends at the beginning of my nose. Obviously, our nation's founding was fraught with hypocrisy given that a large portion of the population wasn't free at all, but that doesn't mean that the country's ideals aren't worth pondering today.
The second part of that Jefferson quotation is as important as the first part. Just because the government has passed laws, through its established process of legislating and regulating, doesn't mean that such rules are worthy of blind obedience. Many are legitimate, but others merely are the "tyrant's will"—an effort by one group to impose its preferences on other people. We've got plenty of laws against murder and mayhem, so most lawmaking now is devoted to these other meddlesome things, which is what Jefferson warned against.
Our country has strayed so far from those concepts that we've morphed into society where we constantly need permission from the government to proceed. Whereas government previously needed a compelling reason to restrict our actions, it now demands a host of permits, fees, pre-approvals and justifications. This "Mother, may I?" situation has turned the notion of a free society on its head.
"Whether it be building a house, getting a job, owning a gun, expressing one's political beliefs, or even taking a life-saving medicine, laws and regulations at the federal, state and local levels now impose permit requirements that forbid us to act unless we first get permission from the government," wrote Timothy Sandefur in his new book, "The Permission Society." He blames the Progressive movement, which is accurate, but conservatives also do the same thing when it comes to drug laws, tariffs and security measures.
One of the best permission-society examples involves occupational licensing. If you want to earn a living in any number of fields, you're required to spend thousands of dollars in government-dictated training—much of it irrelevant to the job you want to perform—and then get a permit. These rules apply not only to highly skilled professions such as surgery, but to fields such as hairdressing and tree trimming. Keep in mind that a competitive market—not government rule-making—does the best job of assuring that people have necessary skills.
Instead of making it easier for people to work, our state government is ramping up its undercover stings so that it can arrest people for committing these victimless crimes. Not only must we ask permission first—but we risk fines and arrest if we don't. That's true even though most licensing rules are not about protecting the public's safety, but about established industries using their political clout to pass laws that limit the competition.
Critics of the licensing regimen often focus on the many practical ways that it harms people, by limiting economic opportunities and forcing people into the underground economy. Likewise, those of us who argue against the state's burdensome building regulations and conditional-use permits—i.e., you can operate your business only under the conditions detailed by the government—focus on how it inflates housing costs and harms business development. That's true, but maybe we need to talk more about how these rules stifle our freedom.
The most pernicious recent permission-society law is Assembly Bill 5, which forbids companies (those who failed to successfully lobby for an exemption) from hiring contractors to perform many jobs. Government decides in advance whether we can enter into work relationships of our own choosing.
There's no easy button to clear the decks of Nanny State rules. But Sandefur suggests that all new laws should start with a presumption of freedom, with the burden of proof resting on those who propose them. He compares it to criminal courts, where we are presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Until we reorder our thinking, I'm afraid our liberties will continue to fritter away—and freedom will become just something that we prattle about during holiday parades.
Steven Greenhut is western region director for the R Street Institute and was previously the Union-Tribune‘s California columnist. He is based in Sacramento.
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