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American Freedom?

I’ve lived in the USA and been often on holiday there and attended many a meeting and conference there and the idea that it is the “land of the free” has always left me chortling with a mixture of scorn and indignation and demanding rhetorically, “What exactly is it that you are free to do?” It always seems to me more like the land of the repressed and over-regulated. I walk a lot, including some long distance walking and I’ve walked all over the world, but the USA is the only country where I’ve ever been threatened with arrest just for walking. This has happened twice, once in Nevada where we had apparently strayed from a state park onto a private ranch and once in New York City where I successfully made my way on foot via dozens of offices and some fire escapes to the viewing area at the top of the Empire State Building only to be escorted rather unpleasantly off the premises. There are lots of places in the US where the state designates that you can walk, but it’s completely different from Central England where I live which is laced with rights of way and where in the vast majority of cases anyway you have a residual right to go where you want to because nobody has a right to stop you.

I’m also a cyclist, usually on a daily basis, and I like the wind in my hair, operating my own risk assessment and eschewing sweaty helmets. I can do that where I live, but it would be illegal in twenty two US states and 201 other localities. (Even if they made riding without a helmet illegal in England it wouldn’t bother me too much in Warwickshire because the police force is miniscule by US standards and there wouldn’t be anyone to enforce it.) Similarly, as a swimmer, I can report that only a tiny percentage of British beaches are patrolled whereas in the USA I have only rarely avoided the muscular, bronzed types who instruct you as to where you can and can’t swim, the permitted area usually being fairly limited. And then there’s gambling; all my life I’ve gained satisfaction and excitement (and some income) from betting on the wide range of sports I’m interested in and this practice is still illegal in twenty seven states. I’m also a drinker and even though I know Prohibition is long gone I would point out that the freedom to drink is fairly limited in the USA. This is firstly because you have to get in a car to go anywhere and there are stern laws against drinking and driving (whereas we have an excellent range of pubs within walking distance), but also because of laws restricting drinking age to twenty one. If there had been such laws in my youth and I’d obeyed them I would have missed out on most of the great moments. I won’t dwell on what is the absurdity (for a libertarian or utilitarian) of the “war on drugs” because most states make the same mistake. But I do think the American fear of nudity is worth a mention: in cinema, for example, can there be anything more risible than American films and TV dramas where there are “sex scenes” in which the female participants wear bras throughout?

Admittedly, in the USA you are more free to own and carry a gun or to get divorced than you are in most places, but I don’t much value the freedom to shoot, let alone the freedom to be shot at and I also think people should keep their promises. And it could be argued that my considerations about walking and gambling and so on are relatively trivial compared with intellectual and sexual freedom, though there is also an important argument that no freedom is trivial, that states and other authorities arrogance in seeking to determine what people do tends to be seamless. This leads us necessarily to an acknowledgment of the immense complexity of the concept of freedom which must begin with an understanding of the different kinds of entities which can constrain our freedom. Obviously, coercive laws enforced by the state is the first category, though I would always argue that the importance of these can be exaggerated and are by many libertarians because they depend on implementation which can vary greatly. For instance, most US states have had, often until recently, a bizarre range of laws against sexual practices, but the enforcement of these varied widely and was rarely effective. The second category is social and economic constraints, the questions not of what is against the law, but of what is likely to lead (for example) to your ostracism or job loss. This is a question, it could be said, from the individual’s point of view, of how much other people’s freedoms impinge on your own. And thirdly there are inhibitions, the forms of reserve, of guilt and of identity which stop you doing many things you might otherwise have chosen to do. This is the territory, it could be said, of the Jesuit argument about what might be achieved by control of a child to the age of seven and it suggests that parents are the ultimate agents of unfreedom. But by suggesting this I am already acknowledging the core complexity of freedom which is that what counts as part of the individual from some standpoints from others counts as a constraint upon freedom. Should I be free to take the drugs I choose or does it make sense to talk of liberating me from addiction? Should parents be free to bring up children their own way or should we liberate children from the malign authority of parents?

Liberty or freedom is complex as a concept and controversial as an issue. But however you look at it the difficulty of portraying the United States as the land of the free seems immense. At the level of coercive law it is a highly policed society with its 18,000 police forces and the bottom line is that it has, per capita, more people imprisoned than anywhere else on the planet; the rate of imprisonment being more than five times that of England and Wales (which is the state I live in for the purposes of criminal law). It’s much vaguer when you talk about social sanctions, but I vividly remember when I first went to an American university (Stanford, in 1975) being acutely aware that people did not speak with the same freedom as they did in England, especially about such things as class and politics – though I would immediately admit that England has changed for the worst since then. American conformity is much satirised in fiction, John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas being a favourite example of mine. (A cousin of mine in County Durham insisted on skipping Christmas and received only expressions of envious admiration in response.) But the most conformist thing Americans do is to work – far harder and for far longer hours than the rest of the world. The figures are both well known and astonishing and their relevance to freedom is undeniable. Hard work may be necessary, satisfying and/or virtuous, but working for someone else is the opposite of being free. (I speak as someone who made serious and generally successful efforts to confine work to five hours a day for forty weeks a year and who retired eighteen years ago at the age of fifty seven.) American freedom looks like that of the “liberal” educationalist who wants his or her pupils to develop freely their minds and personalities, but whose test of whether they have done so successfully is whether they resemble the educationalist in being hard-working, sober, ideologically conformist &c. So the only people who could believe that there was a high level of freedom in the United States are those who have never been outside its borders.

Looked at in a broad perspective the USA is simply not the kind of place where real freedom could thrive. It’s too new and prescriptive: to an outsider American society looks more like an ideological project than an organic entity. It is too democratic: remember the worries about the “intensity problem in The Federalist Papers! Those wanting to pass regulations are always going to be more motivated than opponents so democracies generate excessive regulation. And there is a belief in law, the very opposite of the Southern European capacity to treat the legal aspects of life with a shrug which creates such an attractively relaxed atmosphere in some countries. Federalism doesn’t help because there are too many alternative sources of legislation and regulation; at least where I live post-Brexit the Westminster parliament is the sole source of legislation and there are a lot of issues it never gets round to doing anything about. And finally, I do believe in what Tibor Scitovsky called the “puritan ghost” in the USA, that for many people, even most, political purpose is more about prescribing the good life than it is about laissez-faire.

So where are people free? David Hume remarked in the first half of the eighteenth century that whatever you thought about the system of government in Britain “the system of liberty” was unparalleled in the history of the world. Voltaire concurred during his English exile of 1726-28. The reason was that all the seventeenth century disputes about the divine right of kings and the sovereignty of the people had been abandoned. They had not been resolved, but were now to be ignored in favour of getting on with life and commerce. We had a king who was by previous standards not really a king at all and a parliament which was far from democratic but did represent a wide range of those who had economic power. Liberty requires division and decadence and an absence of orthodoxy.. It thrived in Vienna in 1900 despite the existence of a machinery of repression. It even thrived in the USSR in its later stages: I remember a flight across Central Asia in the 1980s which was closer to a party atmosphere than any flight I have ever been on. For obvious reasons it cannot thrive in a relatively efficient federal and democratic state.

(This was – sort of – commissioned by a US outlet. Perhaps not surprisingly some of the editorial staff involved didn’t like it when they read it.)

Lincoln Allison August 2021