Archive for March 28th, 2009

Freedom and Risk

Carrie, Mary and Laura Ingalls

Carrie, Mary and Laura Ingalls

Recent posts in “What’s Going On” and “The Mind of Mookie” brought up the question of whether or not America in 2009 is the America they grew up with, or is our emphasis on liberty being abandoned as government, litigation, and rules expand.

The argument, in a nutshell, is that there is not as much freedom.   As I thought about that, my eyes wandered to the top shelf of my bookcase here, where I keep my Laura Ingalls Wilder books, purchased starting when I was 9 years old, saving up my allowance.   My name is written on the inside cover with the date of purchase.   Talk about freedom!  No taxes, no government intrusion in every day life.

Not that freedom was complete.  They get kicked off their land at the end of Little House on the Prairie, the second book.   They had moved down to Kansas and settled so far from any town that the girls (Laura and her sister Mary) only saw the few others who lived nearby.  Ultimately relations with the natives led the US government to make them leave, but other than that any government or rules that mattered seemed to be local, and voluntary.

To be sure, they were poor.  They almost didn’t survive one winter in De Smet, South Dakota, as high snows kept the supply train from making it from Tracy, Minnesota.  They lived for awhile in southwestern Minnesota in a dug out, and only by the time when Laura was getting ready to leave home did the family seem to be relatively well off (though Pa had to held back from moving to Montana, since South Dakota was getting too settled.)    In the first book, living in more civilized Wisconsin, they slaughtered a pig, and the thrill for Laura and Mary was to use the bladder as a balloon.

These books always held a special place in my heart, in part because I grew up in South Dakota, about sixty miles south of De Smet in Sioux Falls.  South Dakotans to this day value freedom.   We (at heart I’m still a South Dakotan, even though I moved out a quarter century ago) were the last state to implement the 18 year old drinking limit imposed by the Reagan Administration, and one of the last to make seat belt use mandatory.    But, even if less restrictive than other states, obviously over the years rules and regulations have expanded.  Besides the drinking and seat belt laws, there are now child seat laws.  I remember when a child seat was a luxury, as a kid my sister and I would play in the back of the station wagon as my did drove on highway 60 at 80 MPH towards Madelia and Mankato to see my grandparents.

Part of the loss of freedom seems to be the inevitable expanse of governmental power as society remains stable and prosperous.  Things become more complex, people form groups that are more effective at making demands, and laws grow.  Rare is it that taxes or the number of laws on the books actually go down.  Moreover, this has been going on for a long time.

Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 and died ninety years later.  In her life she saw the country go from one where they could head from Wisconsin to Kansas in a covered wagon, with no rules or roads, Pa with his gun and they would hunt and farm to survive, to one with interstates being built to connect the country, and income taxes collected every April 15th.

At the same time, few children by 1957 would play with pig bladder balloons, and today children are deprived if they don’t have a stockpile of plastic toys and electronic games.   Back then living was a struggle; people died more often, diseases were hard to avoid (Laura’s sister went blind from scarlet fever, the whole family suffered malaria in Kansas), and the toys kids had were what nature would provide.  To survive, people relied on each other and their communities.

Yet complexity brought ills other than government.  Corporations became powerful actors and pseudo-governments in many places — factory towns would really be run by rule of law from the company, and their goal was profit and exploitation.  One reason government grew was because as society became more densely popualted and prosperous, the ability of some to use their power to control others grew.  Civilization, it seems, breeds both governance and powerful non-governmental actors, willing to exploit and use others.  To avoid rebellion, regulations and ultimately social welfare programs are necessary; otherwise, there was a risk of political instability.

Still, I don’t think that completely explains the changes in the country.   Freedom entails risk; the Ingalls were most free when their lives were more at risk.  We have decided to minimize risk, and as a father I am very glad I don’t have to worry each winter if we’ll make it through.   But at some point minimizing risk became an obsession.

Kids now have to be strapped into car seats all of the time. Seat belts are mandatory.  If nine people get sick from bad peanut butter the country goes into an uproar — how could government have let something like this happen?   Not only that, but if conditions are at all dangerous, we’re wont to sue and demand that nobody put us at risk.   A woman spills hot coffee after going through a drive thru — a rational person might say, gee, coffee is hot and drive thrus really aren’t the place to deal with that.  The modern American sues.

We need to protect kids from cigarettes, so make it illegal for parents to smoke in their car if a child is there.   Rather than expecting people to assess risk with their own eyes and judgement, they can sue if they slip on some water, or stumble because a concrete stairway is a bit worn down.  Ultimately, I think we’ve become a society so risk averse that we welcome rules.  Students on campus here recently pushed for rules limiting what could be sold at the snack bar or in vending machines, tearing down posters telling people to take the stairs because they might offend those with disabilities, or on both the left and right urging at various times that the administration limit student speech.  Rather than worrying about having self-esteem to remain confident despite words other say, we want to protect people from offense and insensitive comments.

In short, as a culture we tend to turn to authorities to reduce risk and harm to ourselves.  Moreover, our litigious nature makes people afraid of anything that might cause legal liability.  Thus we reduce our own freedom.  You can’t just “blame government.”  It’s our culture.  It’s not just the politicians, it’s how we behave.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe we’re spoiled.  Maybe our prosperity has caused us to be afraid of loss.   Maybe the more we have, the more we fear losing it.   And what where does thath leave us as a culture?  What is the way forward?