It’s a free country, according to an oft-used expression, but we can’t help noticing that America is not nearly so free as used it be. The good folks at the free-market Cato Institute have corroborated this observation in their latest “Human Freedom Index,” which surveys a wide range of indicators of personal and economic liberty, and finds that America is now only the 20th freest nation in the world.
Although we’re surprised to find America ranking behind such countries as Hong Kong and Chile, the rest of the report seems about right. The authors say America has fallen three spots in the rankings since 2012, and that “the decline reflects a long-term drop in every category of economic freedom and in its rule of law indicators,” then note that “the performance is worrisome and shows that the United States can no longer claim to be the leading bastion of liberty in the world.” We’re pleased to know that it’s as worrisome to them as it is to us, but presently an even greater worry is that so much of the public seems not at all concerned. The Democratic candidates seem more concerned with the problem of “income inequality,” which apparently will require ever more rules and regulations and limits on equality, while The Republican Party seems disinclined to put much of a fight against it, and all those independents who will decide the matter tend to vote for free stuff rather than freedom.
We can’t tell if the Cato Institute is taking into account such petty rules as light bulb bans and no smoking in even the seediest honky-tonks and mandatory seat belt use and limits of the size of soda one can purchase, but there are by now so many of these offenses against personal autonomy that even the communist Chinese rules of Hong Kong can’t keep up. More significant freedoms have also been noticeably diminished. The freedom of the press has declined to a point that reporters are being kept in roped enclosures at public events and their investigative reporting is being treated as a criminal conspiracy by the Department of Music. People are still free to attend church on Sunday, but freedom of religion no longer means that you can no longer act according to the beliefs taught there if a same-sex couple wants you to bake a cake for their wedding. Freedom of speech is still largely free of government regulation, unless you make a YouTube video that is critical of Islam and makes a convenient scapegoat for a failed Libyan policy, but the howling mods of the easily offended are doing a good enough job of constricting public debate. As for economic liberty, just ask any businessperson you know about how many permits and inspections and taxes and employment laws and equal opportunity requirements and reams of forms to be filled out they have to deal with.
Once upon a time in America the people would have been boiling tar and plucking feathers to be at least as free as the people of Hong Kong or Chile, and if you re-read the Declaration of Independence you’ll realize that Americans once went to their muskets over far less, but these days few seem to mind. The average citizen of the 20th freest country is now content with that status, so long as some of the income is redistributed his way and the games are playing on cable and there’s an illusion of broader freedom because everyone’s cussing on the comedy shows and everyone’s got a tattoo and those restrictive old notions of sexual morality are being punished by the state.
The economy and illegal immigration and the continuing difficulties with the more belligerent sorts of Muslims and the rest of the issues dominating the presidential debate are all important, but we’d love to see a candidate for the presidency or any other office make it his foremost issue to return to America to its rightful place as the leading bastion of liberty in the world. Such a project would do wonders for the economy, involve the necessary enforcement of America’s immigration laws, and strengthen America’s commitment to the freedom that those more belligerent sorts of Muslims threaten. We suspect would like it, too, just as Americans used to back when this really was a free country.
— Bud Norman