On Independence Day

People are always doing things that frustrate me.

Like the guy who drives his truck in front of me with a sticker that has a Calvin figure peeing on another car company’s symbol.  Or the lady in line behind me at the store who apparently bathes in perfume and makes it difficult for me to breathe.  Or the couple who live behind us who drink heavily and then get into shouting matches (which, I suppose, is better than the very quiet neighbors we used to have; the couple where the wife tried to hire someone to bump off her husband).

The thing is, mildly offensive stickers, overdone perfumery, and drinking at home (though not the noise issue) are all perfectly legal.  And if I get all het up over the truck, I can change lanes.  If the perfume chokes me, I can move to another register.  If the neighbors get out of hand, I can call the constable.  And so I do those things.  I don’t try to regulate them; I regulate my reaction to them.

But as my friend Neal Meyer says: “There are plenty of people out there whose mission in life is to save the world.  Of course, if you’re out to save the world, then it so follows that you have to save people from themselves, and that means you have to stop them from doing whatever you think is bad for them. It also means that you have to force other people to do what you think is right.”

Who will choose for you?

This is how we go from a free people to a people with soda bans.  This is how we go from The Greatest Generation to record levels of food stamp recipients.  This is how we go from rugged individualism to the nanny state.  And on some level, we’re nearly all guilty of nanny thinking.

When you allow the development of a massive state that attempts to save people from their worst impulses (no matter which end of the political spectrum you’re on) you start to minimize freedom.  Just follow the progression of bans in New York City.  A soda ban (but I don’t drink sodas!)  A smoking ban (smoking should be outlawed anyway!)  A ban on trans-fats (that stuff is bad for you!)  A ban on salt (nobody needs that much salt!)  A proposed ban on earbuds (Hey, wait!  I’m a jogger!   I eat right!  Why is the government all of a sudden concerned about my hearing?)

And that is how it happens.  Liberty is chipped away all around you, until the People Who Know Better finally get to something that YOU do that bothers them.  We refuse to allow people be free because we refuse to allow them to suffer the consequences of their freedoms.

We sound cruel and heartless when we insist that people not only ought to be able to choose for themselves, but that they must also be allowed to live with those choices.  But a free life doesn’t mean a life free of consequences.  If we are going to maintain that we are mature enough to make our own decisions, then we must also accept the cost of doing so.  And when our hearts are tugged at stories of people who have been damaged by their own choices (or the choices of others) we can step in and offer our help, freely, voluntarily, and personally, rather than pointing our fingers and hollering “Someone needs to do something about this!”  We can be that someone, but of our own volition.  And we can offer help that is personal, not a one-size-fits-all “solution” that fails to recognize people as individuals.

The other side of that coin, the beautiful part of liberty, is that when we are free to make our own choices and we make good ones, when we exercise a little discipline and self-governance, it is all the more meaningful.  We become better because we choose it, not because we are compelled to do so.

On this Independence Day, let’s contemplate not only our independence from Great Britain, but also our independence from the tyranny of others who would attempt to decide for us.  And then let’s get to work tomorrow to make it a reality.