Freedom Now vs. Freedom in the Past

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


This is apropos of nothing in particular, but I happened to be thinking about the question of whether we’re more or less free than we used to be, say, 50 years ago or so. The usual answer, of course, is that government at all levels now intrudes into every facet of daily life, which makes us less free. And yet, speaking for myself, I very rarely find myself prohibited from doing something I want to do. In practice, I’m pretty damn free.

So which is it? Less free, more free, or no real difference? First, I want to make a few stipulations:

  • If you’re black, or gay, or disabled, or female, you’re a helluva lot freer than you were 50 years ago. Let’s acknowledge that and put civil rights to the side for now.
  • I think it’s unquestionably more onerous to start up and run a business than in the past. We can argue about whether that’s good or bad, but again, let’s put that to the side. I want to focus on personal freedom.
  • I’m not interested in whether 2013 is “better” than 1963. Obviously we’re freer to send text messages and ship packages overnight in 2013 because, you know, that stuff was impossible 50 years ago.

So the focus here is on regulatory freedom, things the government makes harder or easier on individuals. Here are some examples to give you an idea of what I’m thinking about:

Ways in which you were less free 50 years ago:

  • Most shops were closed on Sunday, thanks to blue laws.
  • You stood a good chance of being drafted into the military.
  • X-rated movies were illegal, and movies in general were more heavily censored.
  • Travel to foreign countries was more onerous (getting visas and other travel documents was a huge pain).
  • It was harder to procure birth control, and abortion was illegal.
  • Owning gold was illegal.
  • Casino gambling was banned nearly everywhere.
  • It was harder to buy and smoke marijuana.
  • You could not bank across state lines or get more than 5¼ percent interest on your savings.

Ways in which you are less free today:

  • There are lots of places where you can’t smoke a cigarette.
  • Boarding an airplane is more hassle, and just generally, there are more security-related restrictions on our daily lives.
  • You can’t dump hazardous crap anywhere you want.
  • The permitting process for building on your property is generally harder. (If you live on the coast in California, it’s way harder.)
  • Buying a gun requires a background check and, sometimes, a waiting period.
  • You have to wear a seat belt when you drive.
  • Your taxes are higher.
  • It’s harder to buy raw milk.
  • As of next January, you will be required to buy health insurance.

I hope this gives the flavor of what I’m looking for: legal and regulatory hurdles that affect us in our daily lives. What else have you got along these lines?

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate