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New Threats To Freedom

May 5, 2010

Always the purveyor of sugar free pessimism, David Brooks once lamented that we’ve become a culture that prizes aggregation above creation. Instead of embracing single creators, Brooks said we now pile the long tail of cultural debris on a pedestal and call it king.

But there’s an artistry and philosophy to aggregation that Brooks overlooks. Not only can collections possess a strange beauty (for example, WALL*E’s collection of knickknacks or T.S. Eliot’s heaps of broken images) but they also can be useful.  I have here a new book edited by Adam Bellow. It’s called New Threats to Freedom: From Banning Ice Cream Trucks in Brooklyn to Abandoning Democracy Around the World. Bellow has put together a remarkable collection of essays by an eclectic group of professors, journalists, intellectuals, and other wordsmiths, all on the topic of what’s corroding the mainstays of liberty in America. I mention the artistry of the aggregator because Bellow’s collection would not be mine. Instead of a disquisition on democratically induced sclerosis, it at times reflects different, more conservative concerns, but of course that is why I find the book so useful. I suppose a handful of chapters in this book will irritate “libraltarians.”   But Bellow can draw me in with essays from our own sometime contributor, Max Borders, or Richard Epstein on excessive and oppressive regulation, and by doing so, get me to stick around to read about ingratitude (Mark T. Mitchell) or self-absorbed single women who vote for progressive policies (Jessica Gavora). These last two aren’t what I would consider to be dire threats to freedom, but it’s interesting to me that there are people who do.

The essays are arranged alphabetically but this leads to some interesting pairings and felicitous contrasts. Right after reading Mark Helprin’s essay on the intolerance of the new atheists, you can follow that up with new atheist Christopher Hitchens’ musings on the thought police of multiculturalism. Or again, after reading Katherine Mangu-Ward’s nicely drawn survey of democratically supported paternalism, you can read Tara McKelvey’s misgivings about America’s reluctance to promote democracy abroad. For a book of this kind, these kinds of philosophical tensions are a good thing on the whole, I suppose. Freedom is a nebulous concept and its friends are a diverse bunch.

Bellow by no means suggests that his collection is exhaustive. But I can’t help but raise a few points about threats left off the discussion table–democratic sclerosis and the decline of nations, increasing centralization of power, democratic fundamentalism, the church of unlimited government and its psychology, xenophobia, and so on. The main criticism I have is that it doesn’t examine the tensions between democracy and liberty. As in many other books, the words democracy and freedom are treated as near synonyms when they ought to be treated as potentially conflicting concepts.

Of course there are other ways of aggregating information about threats to freedom. A prediction market would do a better job ranking the importance of these threats and their likelihood. But then we’d be left without the eloquence of David Mamet–“The first amendment ensures not that speech will be fair, but that it will be free. It cannot be both.” And the status-affiliation of associating ourselves with such people. Maybe in the best of all worlds we’ll have both–solidarity and facts. In the meantime, give Bellow’s collection a read and decide for yourself.


One Comment
  1. Walton Loving permalink
    March 31, 2011 4:14 pm


    By Walton Loving

    After listening to Max Borders on the urge to regulate, I began to wonder how many bureaucrats had been involved in the lunch I had just eaten. The federal government probably spent far more time and money than I did in preparation of my ham sandwich. From the farmers who grew the wheat for the bread to the grocers who refrigerated the meat, regulations ruled.

    While many of these rules are designed to protect Americans, they have become so numerous and unnecessary that they are stifling the entrepreneurial incentive. There are many people like Max that desire to start a business but ultimately decide against it due to the excessive time and money it takes to comply with the regulations. Our economy would be far better off without so many needless regulations. More jobs would be created, more investments would be made, and more money would be put into the economy as a result of encouraging entrepreneurship. The spending of the federal government would drastically decrease, allowing those taxpayer dollars to be put to better use. Federal regulators have no conception of what is is like to compete in the private sector; they continue to implement new regulations under the guise of “protecting the environment” or some other phony claim.

    A point that Borders failed to mention in his video, however, is the necessity of some regulations. Today we are taught that man is naturally good but is a product of his environment. On the contrary, the Bible instructs us that humans are born with an evil, sinful nature. We need government to impose some laws and regulations to keep man’s sinful nature under control and to protect the public. In fact, God instituted government in Romans 13:1-7. As a society becomes more evil, they will be subject to more regulations.

    Aside from that fact, however, the regulatory system in the United States is out of control. If a couple like Max and his wife want to sell some barbeque sauce to make ends meet but cannot due to the time and money it takes to comply with the regulations, something is inherently wrong. It should not be easier to collect a welfare check than it is to start a business. Federal regulators are not elected officials, nor are they approved by the House and Senate. If they are going to make rules that affect every American, they should be elected by the people, just like senators and representatives. The only way to bring government’s insatiable urge to regulate under control is for the American people to stand up and say, “No more!” “We will not allow you to control our lives any longer; we are taking our government back!”

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