Peak Liberty

This is a post I wrote at my personal blog back in June 2005. I was reminded of it today, as many of the points Doug touched on in his post this morning were in the same vein as points I made back then, and after a search I was surprised that I’d never cross-posted the old post here. Even today, infringements on personal liberty such as the individual mandate are only making the situation worse, and the piece, while 5 years old, hasn’t lost its relevance. So here it is.


America has been, throughout the course of our history, a nation that values liberty. In 1787, at the time of the Constitutional Convention, liberty was on the brain. A Constitution was written to ensure that all people in this nation, for all time, would enjoy the blessings of freedom. Freedom from tyranny of government, which was ensured by the protections of a document that limited its powers and a Bill of Rights that enshrined personal liberty into its hallowed wording. And a nation whose freedom was guaranteed based upon the rule of law as written in that document, not the whims of an electorate or the legislature of the day.

There were flaws at that time, to be sure. The nature of our nation did not yet live up to that document’s billing. “Freedom to all” meant freedom to land-owning white males. Everyone else was out of luck. The work of millions of people helped to change that fact. The souls of hundreds of thousands of young men were lost in a war to bring freedom to the slaves, only to take another 100 years to bring true equality with the end of Jim Crow. Racial equality came to pass. Gender equality came to pass. Even today, these battles are still being fought for the rights of same-sex couples. Since the day this country was founded, you have seen the liberty of unpopular groups gain hold and reach parity with the rest. In a country that is based upon the right to be safe in unpopularity, the march of history has been remarkable to make that a reality.

But there’s another current at work. We are slowly seeing social liberty for all groups reach parity. Parity, however, can be equally great or equally poor. As unpopular groups have raised their level of acceptance and been granted the same rights as those of the popular, liberty has been defined down for all.

We have reached a point, socially, where government regulation intrudes on our lives and decisions from the time we wake until the time we retire, and all through our slumber. Rights, from what one can ingest into his body, be it benevolent medicine to malevolent narcotics, are decided by government. Free speech has survived, mostly, as long as you have a legal degree and training to comply with McCain-Feingold. The 2nd Amendment is still alive, and you’re allowed to own firearms, as long as you apply to the right bureaucrat to inform the government where to look for them. You have the freedom to practice religion, as long as you make sure not to do it anywhere approximating a “public” place. You have the right to be safe from unreasonable search and seizure, provided, of course, that you never visit the library. Seemingly innocuous laws such as the requirement to wear a seat belt in a car or a helmet on a motorcycle may be in your own best interest, but forcing such behavior is tyranny nonetheless.

Economic liberty, of course, has become a joke. It is almost unnecessary to even go into the details, but we must remember what we’re up against. The land of the founding fathers was one where government and business were more separate than religion and government are now. Starting with the anti-trust acts (probably before, of course), continuing through Wickard v. Filburn, through the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation of 2002, the government has a hand in regulation of every business in this nation. On the personal level, nearly every monetary transaction performed is taxed through a myriad of different local, state, and federal rules, you only own as much of your income as government allows, and likewise you only own as much of your property as government allows. You exist economically not as an individual, but as a servant of the state.

It is obvious, that as some personal liberties may be slowly advancing, many other liberties are quickly dying. So we ask ourselves, how did it get so bad? Can we turn it around? Jon asks in this comment at Dadahead whether we should start thinking of it as Peak Liberty. I.e. just like the extraction of oil from the ground might eventually hit a point where the increase in demand and limited supply lead to global catastrophe, have we reached a point of no return in our loss of liberty? Have we reached a point where our only options will be an eventual slide into tyranny, requiring nothing less than a bloody revolution to turn around? And if so, how do we know the “Peak”? Has it happened yet?

Then perhaps somewhere it peaked and we’ve been sliding downward, living on the backside of the bell curve for a while now. We’ve peaked and have entered liberty’s long emergency. As with peak oil, defining peak liberty might not be clear except in hindsight. Was it the Civil War? Was it Brown v. Board of Education? The Sherman Anti-Trust Act? The Civil Rights Act of 1964? Was it landing on the moon? ADA?

Or was it some act against democracy that defined the peak (Dred Scott? ERA fails? NAFTA?) Is protecting against “flag desecration” just one more drop out of a near empty tank? Does our ‘democracy’ function like our suburbs now, sprawling, messy and without some sense of direction other than growth?

It is a valid question. After all, we can look at the possible peaks. The Civil War, where slavery was ended but the concepts of federalism were greatly weakened and the federal government made more powerful? The 16th Amendment, where we first determined, as a nation, that the ability to keep ones income was a privilege, and the extent allowed was determined by the whim of government? The New Deal, where many people were helped, but where it was taken as fact that individuals were subservient to “society” and the government thereof? The sixties, where we reached our greatest heights in the civil rights movement, only to transition to the even more obtrusive welfare state of the Great Society, and the victim politics that arised? Or was it today, when our Supreme Court decided that private property rights no longer matter? Or has it not happened yet? Are we still on the upward trend (doubtful).

I can’t answer where the peak was, but it certainly seems like we’re on the downslope. Peak Liberty, as a theory, has some serious flaws. After all, liberty is not a finite resource. It is elastic, and greater liberty can be enjoyed by all. So no matter what happens, it can be reversed. It is certainly possible that an equilibrium point can be reached. It may be argued that Europe has reached that point, and only something as silly as a “European Union” can move them farther down the slope. But the effort and ease at which that reverse occurs depends greatly on what point of the downslope has been reached. If we act in time, we can defeat tyranny at the ballot box. But history has shown that people do not respond to the lack of liberty until it is too late. If the slide continues, the day will come where government will not tolerate our attempts to restrain it, and that government must be replaced, by any means necessary.

Peak Liberty, like Peak Oil, can happen. Each can also be avoided. Peak Oil, of course, is a completely different topic, so the aversion strategies are beyond the scope of this post. But to avoid Peak Liberty, it simply takes education. Oddly enough, our own government has provided us all the lesson plans we’ll ever need. Pissed off about Social Security? A failure of government. Pissed off about the inefficiencies of the IRS? Blame government. EPA declared your home “wetlands” and not letting you build that inground pool? Overreaching intrusion of government on your private property rights. Government educational system in your locale a morass of corruption, lack of discipline, excess of political correctness, and not doing a thing to educate your kids? Ask why we rely on government as the primary source of education in this country? And first and foremost, trumpet Kelo v. New London to everyone in earshot. People listen to what affects them personally. Nothing is more personal than the government seizing your house for what they determine is just compensation, only to turn it over to another private entity.

Peak Liberty, like Peak Oil, relies on current trends. We may have reached Peak Liberty, but by changing trends we can step back from the abyss. Our current populace cares about nothing but bread and circuses, and our current political crop is perfectly willing to erode their liberty while providing those diversions. We can change the trends, but to do that, we need to win the hearts and minds. We can’t change government without changing the minds of voters, so let’s get cracking. There may be dangerously little time left.