"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Why don't we care more about freedom?

As a young man, I was a Republican of the libertarian sort. I believed that the sole duties of government were to defend the borders, enforce contracts, and punish those who victimized others by force or fraud. Once government went beyond those duties, I believed, it would inevitably swallow up more and more of our liberties until freedom meant little or nothing. That is exactly the path that government in America has been following—with popular consent to be sure—since the New Deal. I shall say a bit at the end why I'm no longer a libertarian; but I still think one can and must protest against the steady erosion of freedom in our country. What really scares me is why more people don't do just that.

The latest example of what I decry is this set of subtle moves. They're part of a trend that is all the more insidious for being bipartisan. It's about forcing people to do what's right. Thus, another part of the trend is taxes: more and more of people's earned income goes to paying taxes, which are extracted by the not-so-implicit threat of force. All for the public good, right? The needs of "the people" are enormous, right? Yet in the form of income tax, sales tax, Social Security tax, gasoline tax, and car tax, at least a third of my own quite modest wages go to the government—not counting child support, of course, which is only slightly less. I'm supposed to believe that such a rate of taxation is for my own good, which I don't believe at all. Yet many people pay much more, and not a few of them think we should be paying out at this rate, if only because we can't think of a more creative and humane way to satisfy the apparently insatiable demand that things be made right. Meanwhile it's the little things that often rankle, and reveal, the most.

The sales tax is particularly noisome to me not because it exists—consumption taxes, in my view, should be government's main source of revenue, with income taxes reserved for the wealthy—but because of how it's collected. Nearly every day I have to fiddle with pennies, which cost more to produce than they're worth and are useful for no other purpose, just to pay the sales tax "to the penny," because merchants are forbidden by law to include said tax in the price of what's sold. The system is enormously inefficient, but it persists because it allows people to maintain the illusion that they're being ripped off less than they would be otherwise. Totally irrational—just like what's happened with family law, which I've discussed before but see fit to bring up again.

Because of the divorce culture, government is now in the business of regulating the family lives of countless people. Non-custodial parents, mostly fathers, are often reduced to peonage; single parents, mostly mothers, often and also need this or that government service to get by. Fatherless children are much more likely to become crime statistics than those from intact homes. What's astonishing and frightening to me is that most people don't seem to see enough wrong with such a state of affairs to want to take concrete steps to change it. Sure, most people say divorce is a Bad Thing, especially for children—but most also say that a bad marriage is worse. So, most of us want the freedom to replace our spouses but see nothing wrong with the ceding of family authority to government that this often entails. Apparently, such a loss of freedom is considered a worthwhile price for the preservation of freedom to pursue the often-receding prospect of sexual and emotional self-fulfillment. The irrationality of it ought to be, but apparently is not, widely perceived. Hope triumphs over experience, indeed; too bad it's the wrong sort of hope.

People seem to think they enhance their freedom if they "pursue happiness" unfettered in some private sphere while "the government" takes care of the rest. Yet the more we grasp at personal freedom so understood, the less of it we end up with. Such is the logic of sin. Starting with Eve, Satan has always made disobeying God seem like an exercise of godlike freedom; yet the more alienated we become from God in how we live, the greater slaves to sin, and thus to Satan, we become. That's why I'm no longer a libertarian: I now believe the government must uphold the entire natural law, else people will stop caring about it. The only way to preserve our freedom is to obey God. Then there will be less need to try to force each other to do what's right. But then we'd have to give up the illusion of control. Maybe that's why we don't care more about freedom.

Next time I fly, I'll wear my Crocs to the airport. For some reason, the TSA hates it when I doff those things.
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