Freedom Now vs. Freedom in the Past

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?


We recently wrapped up the crowdfunding campaign for our ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project, and it was a smashing success. About 10,364 readers pitched in with donations averaging $45, and together they contributed about $467,374 toward our $500,000 goal.

That's amazing. We still have donations from letters we sent in the mail coming back to us, so we're on pace to hit—if not exceed—that goal. Thank you so much. We'll keep you posted here as the project ramps up, and you can join the hundreds of readers who have alerted us to corruption to dig into.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

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


Support our journalism

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


Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.