Freedom Now vs. Freedom in the Past

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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?

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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