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According to our civic folklore, Americans are more devoted to freedom than any other nationality on earth. But it is increasingly appears that this dogma is a relic of bygone times.
A Gallup poll last July asked a thousand Americans: “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what to do with your life?” Only twenty-one percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied.
Admittedly, the percentage of Americans who say they don’t have sufficient freedom has doubled since the previous Gallup poll on this question in 2006, when only 9% complained. That number was stunningly low, considering the controversies back then over the Patriot Act and repressive “free speech zones,” and the first round of explosive revelations of National Security Agency illegal wiretaps on thousands of Americans. Obama in 2008 exploited the Bush administration’s dreadful civil liberties record to portray himself as America’s constitutional savior.
Jon Clifton, the managing director of the Gallup World Poll, observed last summer that the 2006 freedom poll “ numbers make sense in terms of our classic self-perception. The recent numbers do not.” But has the “classic self-perception” been bogus for decades?
In reality, the biggest mystery from the Gallup poll is why 79% of Americans nowadays are content with how the government treats them on a daily basis. Do they like getting molested by the TSA, boarhawged by the IRS, and hounded by traffic cops every time they drive down the street? Do folks not recognize the perils of politicians plotting to seize their property, take away their guns, and commandeer them from womb to tomb?
Today’s Americans demonstrate little of their forefathers’ passion for freedom. How many college students would happily permit the government to copy all their e-mail and computer hard drives in return for unlimited free music downloads? How many Wal-Mart gift certificates would it require for a typical citizen to forfeit all his Fourth Amendment rights, entitling government agents to search his car, house, and himself whenever they chose without a warrant? How many McDonald’s gift certificates would it take to sway a person to pledge never to publicly criticize the president? How many senior citizens would agree to support the ruling party in perpetuity in return for a 20 percent boost in their Social Security benefits? How many Americans would agree to cease reading newspapers (and their pesky editorials) in return for free cable television?
Many Americans are more comfortable rattling a tin cup for more benefits than in standing up and denouncing political abuses. Dick Meyer, editorial director of CBSNews.com, observed that voters “see the government like a pharmaceutical company. They feel entitled to cheap if not free access to products and services, they want everything to be risk-free, and they want compensation if something goes wrong. Politicians of both parties have been perfectly willing to pretend the world can work that way.” But a democracy of caretakers and cage keepers is irreconcilable with self-government or permitting people to live in ways officialdom disapproves.
How many Americans want government to leave them alone compared to the number of people who value government primarily as a means to forcibly live at someone else’s expense? Almost half of Americans are now receiving some type of benefit from the government. Federal programs create legions of political pawns that rulers can mobilize to perpetuate their own power. When people see voting as a meal ticket, then they will have no concern about limiting the power of their benefactors.
The Gallup poll results on freedom are difficult to reconcile with a separate Gallup survey last year found that only 19% of Americans “trust government in Washington to do what is right” most of the time. In other words, most of the 79% of Americans who said they have sufficient freedom also do not trust the government. Are folks so politically dense that they don’t recognize that ceding arbitrary power to untrustworthy folks is not the smartest way to preserve their “freedom to live as they choose?” Or are people’s political views simply a near-random selection of transient impressions?
Americans’ faltering devotion to freedom has made it easy for politicians to corral them with criminal penalties for a vast array of nonviolent offenses. Country singer Merle Haggard observed: “In 1960, when I came out of prison as an ex-convict, I had more freedom under parolee supervision than there’s available to an average citizen in America right now… God almighty, what have we done to each other?” Haggard might overstate the loss of liberty slightly; however, few politicians and pundits who assure Americans that they have ample freedom today experienced parole in the early 1960s. Some of the punitive laws (such as the drug war) have spurred controversy in the media. Yet, most citizens fail to recognize how the vast expansion of the prison population makes a mockery of the pretensions of American freedom.
Many citizens are apathetic about their freedom because most of the media continually assures them that Big Government is nothing to fear. This dogma has become more popular with the Washington media since Obama replaced George W. Bush in the Oval Office. And Americans are also encouraged to believe that there is practically a law of history that guarantees the triumph of democracy. The long record of hard facts voiding supposed “laws of history” is conveniently forgotten.
The latest variation of the “inevitable triumph of freedom” theme whoops up the fact that the word “libertarian” is no longer considered odious inside the Beltway. But invoking libertarian thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek has not stopped the Federal Reserve from torpedoing the value of the U.S. dollar. Invoking Milton Friedman does not prevent politicians of both parties from wrecking markets whenever they could reap campaign contributions. Ronald Reagan declaimed in his first inaugural address in 1981 that government was the problem, not the solution. Reagan often abandoned his limited government mantra and launched one moralistic crusade after another, including reviving a war on drugs that was the primary source of a fourfold increase in America’s prison population in the following decades. Reagan did little or nothing to curb Internal Revenue Service Agents’ abuse of American citizens. The Justice Department pioneered sweeping new interpretations of the racketeering law that criminalized new forms of white-collar behavior. It also swayed the Supreme Court to define down the Fourth Amendment to give federal agents far more leeway to invade private land without a warrant.
In 1994, the Republican Party captured control of Congress after promising to roll back federal power in numerous areas. The “Republican Revolution” was hailed as a sea change in the fight against Leviathan. But the Republicans championed new laws and mandates on a slew of issues at the same time that their efforts to repeal previous political and regulatory power grabs were largely toothless.
Likewise, the resurgence in popularity of libertarian buzzwords has done nothing to prevent Obama from proclaiming that he will rule America with his pen and phone, barraging the nation with executive orders of doubtful legality. As long as Obama does not explicitly announce that the Bill of Rights is null and void, his actions are portrayed as legitimate.
A mere change in fashionable political terms will not revive a constitutional system that has been going to hell since the New Deal. It is far easier to enact new government programs than to abolish old abuses. Anyone who doubts that truth should examine the sordid history of federal farm programs. Nor is there any reason to presume that the next president or the next gang of congressional leaders will have any more devotion to freedom than today’s power hungry rascals.
That Gallup poll on freedom proves that Americans are far more politically docile than we have been taught to believe. But it will take more than lustily reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to safeguard our liberties. We may learn too soon how many people will happily surrender all their remaining rights in return for bogus promises to keep them safe.
James Bovard, a policy advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation, is the author of Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, Terrorism and Tyranny, and other books. More info at www.jimbovard.com; on Twitter @jimbovard