What is the role of government in our lives? Is it here to protect us from ourselves? To promote general welfare? Regulate corporations? This is a major question societies around the globe have been grappling with for most of history, and it remains at the heart of major policy decisions involving personal liberty. These decisions also revolve around the societal and global impact actions have. For example, the justification against most anti-smoking laws is that second-hand smoke is a public danger to the (mostly) clean air other people have a right to breathe.
As with most other issues, it gets more complicated. Gun ownership doesn’t hurt anything by itself, but the presence of guns does potentially pose a danger to others. Does a person have a right to pollute the environment with their actions? Are there extenuating circumstances regarding such problems? Where does one draw the line, and can that line change over time? Who gets to draw that line? There are far too many questions we don’t have answers to, and far too many opinions about the right way forward, making finding the truth that much harder.
Yet, even without a consensus regarding this issue, we continue to see legislation getting passed that restricts personal freedom. For example, many would argue mandated health care is an infringement on personal freedom, and others will say increased police presence and power combined with enhanced counter-terrorism tactics are slowing chipping away at the amount of freedom most Americans have. The list of examples runs quite long.
Regardless of one’s political affiliations, there are clearly forces working against the idea of personal liberty, and we need to have a better understanding about how and why this is happening if we hope to preserve this important idea.
Power Is Consolidating and Becoming More Partisan
A wide range of ideas and a diverse political landscape is healthy for personal liberty. In-depth debate makes people realize how essential being able to pursue their ideas unfettered can be to their lives, and differences serve as a deterrent to one-sided politics and extreme party loyalty.
Currently, America does not have a healthy debate, and as rhetoric becomes more inflamed, this is only serving to further entrench the two-party system. People truly are starting to see those with different political beliefs as the enemy, and as certain cultural beliefs take hold, they often turn into oppression. If one side gains too much power, the current environment of hostility only serves as a justification to deny liberty to the “enemy.”
Depending on how politics play out, we will either see a back-and-forth between parties undoing the damage of the last administration while doing more damage of their own, or we’ll find one party taking hold and consolidating power by marginalizing opponents and demographics. Either way, we can expect personal liberty to slip away quickly unless the political environment changes.
Technology Is a Double-Edged Sword
The personal computer and smartphone have given American far more options for services, entertainment and information than ever before, but there’s a cost to this. While we know more about the world, the world knows more about us. Data is a commodity to be bought and sold, and eventually, we can expect someone to use the information gathered by the programs Snowden revealed to act to diminish our personal liberty.
It won’t happen in one fell swoop. Someone will suggest data can make decisions better than a human, and personal liberty and decision-making will be slowly taken over by automation. In many ways, this process has already started. Automated traffic cameras are a small example. But the use of data by politicians is a much larger one, and the practice of using this data to target voters and use biased and misleading information to try and win their vote is a direct affront to American liberty and the democratic process.
We have some controls in place, but it’s possible one political party will grow desperate or opportunistic enough to remove protections and allow ISPs to sell and exploit our data even further. While some people are fighting back by using proxies or going off the grid, the very knowledge that data is being collected on them is enough to change people’s decisions. People will become increasingly afraid to do as they wish or to speak their mind, and the foundations of liberty are built just as much on the ideas of trust and safety felt within a society as the laws in place to protect them.
The Growing Needs of a Growing Populous Give Us Few Other Options
Eventually, population growth and scarcity of resources are going to force us to make some difficult decisions. People are going to start to be ok with restricting the size of families (or heavily incentivizing careful planning) once the problem, or rather the consequences, of scarcity starts to take hold. If the economy doesn’t grow fast enough, we’ll start to see socialist ideas being more freely propagated in society.
While enforced family planning is an admittedly extreme example, we’ll either have to match our technology to our needs or more restrictions will be needed. Water use will likely be restricted far more frequently as climate change becomes more intense and turns previously safe places barren. Food might grow more expensive or restricted, removing people’s liberty to eat as they will. Other consequences could include:
- Greater power for public health officials as they try to contain contagion and epidemics.
- Increased pollution beyond what the Earth can sustain will start to have massive consequences. The need to restore the environment will lead to increased regulations that inhibit personal liberty.
- The economy might not be able to sustain employment for the entire population. This will lead to growing crime rates and harsher laws and enforcement.
- It is possible resource scarcity will even lead to international conflict, and wartime measures are nearly always restrictive.
It is likely governments will try to regulate corporations and production before inhibiting personal liberty, but that will only delay the consequences. Without a major societal shift, many crises are inevitable.
Fear Is Growing
Donald Trump is president. Congress is divided. There is a constant threat to the American people in the form of terrorism of all shades, and some of America’s adversaries abroad are growing bolder, including Russia and North Korea. The world is changing far too quickly for people to get used to it, and the rate of expansion isn’t slowing down. No one can keep track, at least not alone.
In short, people are scared, and that means people are far more likely to accept measures they think will keep them safe but that actually restrict their individual liberties. Power will continue to consolidate until people can’t fight back (or don’t know how to), and at that point, we are in for a greater host of problems. It’s quite possible America won’t look like the country we grew up with.
What are your thoughts on the direction personal liberty is taking? Do you think that we can expect a turnaround as people take notice, or will we continue down this troubling and restrictive path? Please leave a comment below and tell us your thoughts.
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