We’re supposed to like freedom, whatever its manifestation, and dislike anything that reduces freedom. After all, we’re Americans—as is Kevin Drum, who writes for Mother Jones.
In a recent article he lists nine “ways in which you were less free fifty years ago” and another nine “ways in which you are less free today.” Given the venue of his writing, it should come as little surprise that I disagree with most of what he says.
Despite my government-at-arms-length proclivities, I’d like to see some of yesteryear's less-free conditions return.
Drum says, “Most shops were closed on Sunday, thanks to blue laws.” I don’t have a lively recollection of blue laws, but, given the extremes to which our consumerist culture has gone, I’d like to see most businesses close on the Lord’s Day. Sure, leave open gas stations and pharmacies and the like, but imagine the good things that could result if malls were closed one day a week. People might actually stay home and do something useful, such as read.
Drum’s next item is that, fifty years ago, “X-rated movies were illegal, and movies in general were more heavily censored.” I’d like to see X-rated movies banned again; there isn’t any justification for them, and it’s not true that if they were made illegal that other movies would be put at risk. They weren’t at risk before. Besides, most of the best stuff that came out of Hollywood came out when movie censorship was in force—the biggest thing many recent movies can boast about is special effects, which are used in lieu of acting.
Drum’s third item is that “It was harder to procure birth control, and abortion was illegal.” Would that things were that way again! (I’d go further, but I’d settle for that status quo ante.)
I’m not sure of the force of the last item on his fifty-years-ago list: “You could not bank across state lines or get more than 5.25 percent interest on your savings.” I’d settle for 5.25 percent now, since that’s four times what my savings accounts pay.
Drum’s second list is about ways in which we’re less free today. He notes that we have to wear seatbelts when we drive—true, but does that really count as a diminution of liberty? What about “There are lots of places where you can’t smoke a cigarette”? As a non-smoker, this is a restriction I’m happy to endorse, since until such rules went in I found myself imposed upon by smokers in restaurants and other public places.
This brings to mind a restriction Drum doesn’t mention and one I hope doesn’t change: no cell phone calls on airplanes in flight. It’s bad enough to pull up to a stop light and be accosted with rap music coming from the car next to you. (Why don’t those people ever play Bach at full volume?) At least you can distance yourself from a musical offender once the light changes. You couldn't do the equivalent on an airplane if the fellow next to you decided to place twenty long business calls during your transcontinental flight—calls in an abnormally loud voice, to overcome the noise of the plane’s engines.
Freedom is a good thing, on the whole. License isn't, and much of what Drum writes in favor of is license, not freedom. But freedom, says the Church, isn't an end in itself. It is a means.
The proper end of man, here below, isn't to be free from restraints but to be virtuous. Certain freedoms may help you achieve virtue, in which case those freedoms are desirable. Other freedoms may have no effect, one way or the other, on leading a more virtuous life. License, which is false freedom, never helps you become virtuous, which is why a healthy society would try to minimize license.