This July Fourth, as we set off our illegal fireworks, ignore federally-required warnings about letting young children play with sparklers, and celebrate our liberation from government-mandated COVID protocols, it seems like a prescient time to ponder if we are still a “free people.”
It’s a surprisingly complex question to answer.
Obviously, to anyone who survived the chaos of the last year, there are plenty of reasons to doubt it. The ease with which governors were able to exercise their authoritarian impulses and seize unilateral control over our lives was… well, it was disturbing. The COVID shutdowns of 2020 were a shocking realization that many of the unenumerated freedoms we enjoy on a daily basis are little more than a mirage. And while COVID protocols have been largely relaxed, the impact of a such panicked rush to authoritarianism will live with us for decades to come.
Just look at how quickly the emergency protocols adopted after 9/11 became “the new normal”—and how complacent most people have become about it. The Orwellian nature of the NSA digitally spying on Americans, the TSA’s electronic body scanners and the creation of a clandestine “no-fly list” all seem like plot devices for a futuristic dystopian fiction—not actual facts of everyday American life.
Beyond the liberty-decaying impact of “emergency” government overreach, there are plenty of other reasons to worry about the state of freedom in modern America as well. For example, the ever-increasing regulatory zeal of lawmakers is so out of hand, our nation’s executive branch has found it impossible to fully calculate how many federal agencies actually exist.
Culturally, things don’t look much better. Political tribes have grown more divided and more intolerant of dissenting views—and “cancel culture” illiberalism is growing on both the political left and right. Progressives in Silicon Valley have taken it upon themselves to “moderate” political discourse on social media—and populist conservative politicians argue we should empower the crushing aforementioned regulatory structure to, ostensibly, fix the problem.
So, yes… things seem bleak.
And yet, it’s actually difficult to argue that the human condition— especially in America—has ever before enjoyed more freedom.
It wasn’t that long ago that it was illegal for people with certain skin tones to drink from public water fountains, sit in certain bus seats or enter restaurants through certain doors in many American cities. In 1908 in New York City, women weren’t even allowed to smoke cigarettes in public—let alone take part in the electoral process.
The point has often been made that, by historical standards, a modern middle-class American enjoys a standard of living far greater than what even John. D. Rockefeller enjoyed in 1916. The same could be said for our collective enjoyment of freedom as well.
Much of human history, after all, is merely a story of people being enslaved and the impoverished (which was most of humanity) being ruled over by a handful of glorified looters and murders calling themselves kings, emperors or some other lofty title. The story of America, on the other hand, is largely a story of citizens and activists fighting the political class and government itself to broaden the definition of who is afforded the freedoms promised by our founding documents.
And those citizens have largely been successful.
When measured against a long enough timeline—or against certain historical injustices—there is little doubt that we are among some of the freest people experiencing one of the most classically liberal moments in human history. However, as last year should remind us, freedom is a fragile and historically rare condition for mankind. It’s a condition that is easily eroded by incremental infringements and gradual cultural decay—two things our political ecosystem is, unfortunately, ridiculously prone to do.
The reason it is so complicated to determine whether or not we should consider ourselves a “free people,” is because our perception of what freedom means has expanded greatly—but so too has the assault on many of the unenumerated freedoms we take for granted.
In the end, how free we consider ourselves isn’t nearly as important as how hard are we working to ensure the future is more liberated than our past. Thomas Jefferson once advised that we, “postpone to the great object of liberty, every smaller motive and passion.”
Both collectively and individually, the question we should be asking is whether or not we have done precisely that.
Michael Schaus is Communications Director with Nevada Policy Research Institute.