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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Sweet Land of Liberty?”

Summary:
In my Pittsburgh Tribune-Review column of December 14th, 2007, I lamented the fact that we Americans do not take seriously enough our boast of living in a sweet land of liberty. You can read my lamentation beneath the fold. Sweet Land of Liberty? In this sweet land of liberty it is surprising how readily we modern Americans let others rule us. I’m not talking about Americans letting some foreign government rule us. That won’t happen anytime soon. There’s no risk that, say, we will quietly surrender to an invading army sent from the likes of Moscow or Beijing. I’m talking about being ruled by homegrown politicians and petty tyrants who butt their noses into the sizes of our toilets, the amount of salt we consume and countless other provinces of our daily lives. The proud title “Land

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In my Pittsburgh Tribune-Review column of December 14th, 2007, I lamented the fact that we Americans do not take seriously enough our boast of living in a sweet land of liberty. You can read my lamentation beneath the fold.

Sweet Land of Liberty?

In this sweet land of liberty it is surprising how readily we modern Americans let others rule us. I’m not talking about Americans letting some foreign government rule us. That won’t happen anytime soon. There’s no risk that, say, we will quietly surrender to an invading army sent from the likes of Moscow or Beijing.

I’m talking about being ruled by homegrown politicians and petty tyrants who butt their noses into the sizes of our toilets, the amount of salt we consume and countless other provinces of our daily lives.

The proud title “Land of Liberty” surely signals something more than successful resistance to foreign rule. If that were its meaning, citizens of nearly every country on Earth could each sing of their “sweet land of liberty.” Russians famously and courageously resisted invading foreign powers on more than one occasion. India, much of Africa and all of South America were colonized by European powers and then, like we Americans, they eventually rid themselves of these occupiers.

And “Land of Liberty” surely means something more than democracy. Again, were that its meaning then America today would be indistinguishable, liberty-wise, from dozens of other countries. India, France, Chile, Germany, Mexico, Iran … the list of democracies today is long.

I’ve always understood the boast that America is a “sweet land of liberty” to mean that we Americans — each of us, individually — value our personal space and will tolerate no interference with our individual choices by anyone. As long as I accord others the same rights, I am free to do as I please. That, at least, is the ideal to which Americans traditionally aspire.

According the same rights to others means, of course, that I’m not free to punch my neighbor in the nose (unless he punches me first), take my neighbor’s car without his permission or rape his wife and daughters. I refrain from inflicting material harm on him and he reciprocates. It’s a wonderful arrangement.

Within the boundaries of this arrangement, neither my neighbor nor I am free to dictate the ingredients of each other’s diet or, more generally, each other’s lifestyle choices. I might be convinced — and correctly so — that my neighbor’s habit of smoking, eating lots of salt-encrusted trans fat-laden foods and sitting for hour upon endless hour watching television will likely shorten his life.

I can try to persuade him to make more healthful choices. But that’s it. In a free society, if my neighbor chooses to trade off longer life expectancy for greater gustatory or decadent pleasures, so be it. He is a free man.

And if I want to remain a free man (as I most certainly do), I must accord my neighbor his own freedoms. I must accord him his freedoms as a practical matter, for if I coerce him to live as I think he should live, I unleash forces that likely will one day coerce me to live as someone else thinks I should live.

I should also accord my neighbor his freedoms as a matter of proper ethics. True equality — the equality celebrated by America’s founding generation — means that no one has the right to play God with the lives of others.

If I assert that I have a right to order my neighbor about for his own good, I thereby also assert that I am better than he is — that I have more knowledge than he does about his life, or that I occupy a higher social rank that affords me the privilege of dictating his choices. Any such assertion is ethically anathema to a society of free and equal individuals.

If the above seems obvious or even trite, look about you. Consider, for example, that busybodies at the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently made headline news with their demand that the Food and Drug Administration regulate the amount of salt that food preparers put in their foods.

None of the news reports that I heard or read about this would-be assault on our freedoms mentioned freedom or consumer sovereignty. Instead, pundits and reporters alike treated as unquestionable the presumption that some persons have the moral right to tell other persons how to eat.

Because scientists determine that eating more than 1,500 milligrams of salt each day is bad for the average American adult, I’m supposed to take for granted that the FDA should make it more difficult for me to consume more salt than these scientists presume to tell me is the “correct” amount.

I refuse, for I am a free man.

Modern “progressives” will decry my refusal as being at odds with the “public good.” In my next column I will argue that this “progressive” claim is baseless.

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Don Boudreaux
He is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Previously, he was president of the Foundation for Economic Education.

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