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ART HOBSON: Freedom in the modern age

Intelligent regulation brings greater freedom by Art Hobson | June 15, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

A key claim of those on the political right is that over-regulation, bloated government and taxation have robbed us of our freedom -- our ability to pursue life, liberty and happiness as promised by the Declaration of Independence. Is this claim true? Recalling that "freedom" means the power to act, speak or think as one wants without hindrance, let's ponder this power as it existed at earlier times in our nation's history, in order to determine whether we actually have less freedom now than we did then.

In those earlier days, health care was poor or non-existent for most Americans and the resulting ill health implied big restrictions on freedom. In 1800, the life expectancy of the white population was 37. It's more than twice that today. Think about this. Injury and illness reduce your freedom and you have no freedom after you're dead.

In 1800, transportation was by foot, wagon train or horse along only a few roads. Today's 12-hour automobile trip would have taken six weeks in 1800. Today, you can fly coast to coast in just a few hours.

Health and transportation are just two examples of American's new-found freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness, simply because of improved technology and infrastructure. Think also of housing, food supply, entertainment, communication, labor-saving technologies, etc.

But how about those burdensome regulations? Let's again look at transportation. By 1910, automobile traffic was becoming a problem. Speeding, reckless driving and drunk driving threatened pedestrians and drivers, and the need for regulation was apparent. Since 1921, when traffic safety statistics were first gathered, deaths per 100 million automobile-miles have declined from 24 to 1.1. This represents an enormous reduction in premature death, injury and destruction -- a huge gain for life, liberty and happiness. Far from depriving us of freedom, regulations regarding vehicle, driver and road standards provide an enormous gain in freedom. Were it not for such regulations, the hazards of driving would make driving impossible.

It's interesting to examine firearms in this context. Many enthusiasts complain about possible or actual government regulation of guns. But bump stocks, assault weapons, large magazines and the like didn't even exist when the Second Amendment was written. During the War of 1812, Americans used single-shot muzzle-loading muskets and rifles along with single-shot pistols. There was zero "freedom" to own rapid-fire weapons, for example, because none were available. Thus, today the mere existence of breach-loading rifles represents a big gain in freedom as compared with earlier days. Even if new laws banned all guns other than breach-loading single-shot weapons, gun owners would still be far ahead, in terms of freedom, as compared with the Founding Fathers. Given that 115,000 Americans are shot every year, of whom 39,000 die, there would be a fantastic gain in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness if our gun laws banned many of the more destructive modern weapons. Thus it's not surprising, and it's quite consistent with constitutional guarantees, that most Americans support stricter gun laws.

Free market enthusiasts push back against pollution regulations of all sorts. Bans enacted during the 1980s against many refrigerants, solvents, propellants and foam-blowing agents represent a typical example. Chemicals used in these products were causing a steady reduction in the amount of ozone in Earth's atmosphere, especially over the poles. Without an immediate ban, the problem was predicted to worsen rapidly, allowing increased ultraviolet radiation to reach Earth's surface, causing skin cancer, cataracts, increased ground-level ozone leading to respiratory illnesses, damage to many animal species and damage to crops and all plant life. The ban on polluting agents was essential precisely to preserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Global warming presents an extreme example. Continued use of fossil fuel will rob many future generations of their right to a planet free from devastating wildfires, extreme weather, flooded coastal cities and much more. Reining in the fossil fuels will ultimately provide more freedom for everybody.

The general lesson is that modern technology has given all of us far more freedom than Americans have ever known. But we cannot expect to have this freedom without also requiring greater regulation. Modern technology is simply more pervasive and powerful and therefore more dangerous if not regulated.

Beware the siren call of freedom enthusiasts. Unregulated or "free" markets will ultimately destroy the freedom of everyone except the most powerful, and those powerful few will find themselves adrift in a ruthless and polluted world in which happiness is rare and nobody is free.

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