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?

  1. #1 by Josh on March 28, 2009 - 22:36

    Your right, Scott. It is the culture that creates problems and causes both citizens and leaders to act the way they do. It seems to me, however, that many of the problems you site are the results of a world-wide culture. Everyone, including myself, must work to change our behaviors and truly become free.

  2. #2 by henitsirk on March 29, 2009 - 01:15

    Well, we also have to realize that people have been suing each other quite happily and energetically for many years. One of my ancestors, Abel Blood, was involved in at least six legal actions in Kennebec County, Maine between 1801 and 1809! (He was the first settler in Dover-Foxcroft.)

    But yes, people then seemed to be more hardy in a sense, certainly pioneer families like the Ingallses. It never really occurred to me as a girl that they almost starved that winter, literally starved! And of course Laura and her mother both had infant babies that died.

    There seems to be a shift in some circles back to an older way, with a new sense of freedom: going back to growing our own food, allowing children to play freely outdoors, working with barter or other forms of local exchange, etc. I think people like to work locally; it’s easier to feel empowered and it fosters social support networks. Certainly Laura had that — at the end of that winter, Mrs. Boast gave them chicks to start a new flock, a literal new springtime beginning!

  3. #3 by Mike Lovell on March 29, 2009 - 15:48


    I guess you could put me into the category you throw out in your last paragraph. I like to feel productive, and I like to see others productive, but also on a local basis support each other when one of us may need something. While I would like to have my own house, I understand my past choices with finances early on, have left me with less than desirable credit, and I was raised with a sense of resonsibility to not get myself into some “too good to be true” mortgage deal that would have me turned upside down by now, if I had allowed myself to get suckered in. I want the space to have a dog, grow a garden, etc…but not for the short term reward I would’ve gotten versus the long term notice of having screwed by family over had I acted on selfish impulses.


    I found your post very well thought out. I guess we can blame society and culture (as much as I hate teh idea of blaming society for anything, as it is overused by excuse makers oftentimes), in addition to the government. I find myself in the odd position of being a guy my age who seems to be naturally more old-fashioned. I always, and I mean ALWAYS preferred the neighborhood pub over the clubs some of my buddies like to frequent. Guess I prefer to entertain myself at a venue where a decent conversation can be had, instead of risking getting punched out for bumping into the wrong drunk in a crowded, overly loud club

    As far as the government’s role in reducing that risk factor for the groups who push it, I blame them as well for the chance to grab power from those who prefer to keep their thin skin and refuse to accept any risks, or comments from others, that aren’t absolutely necessary. The litigiousness of society today now also makes for what I call “phony talk”. A professional can’t speak plainly and frankly, without worry of how it might be taken by the recipient of their words, or words being taken out of context, which could ultimately lead to a lawsuit in one lawyer’s eyes or another.

    I prefer to allow my children to take some risks, and prefer to choose what I do and don’t expose them too according to my personal view of whether or not the can understand the situation. But unfortunately, I have my representatives some 2000 miles away who tell me just what I can and can’t let my kids do.

    And I do understand, without having read the Ingalls’ story books (I think we read maybe one in late elementary or junior high), that it took a pretty hearty stock of people to survive many of the risks that awaited them on the frontier plains. I don’t know how my family would adapt to such an environment from what they have now. My kids have stockpiles of toys…mostly gifts from others, that get recycled back to Goodwill after a certain period of time, as new ones get filtered into their toybox. Growing up I had some toys, but for the most part I was left to creatively figure out how to entertain myself without toys. I was lucky enough to have a few ravines to explore, which opened up my own little world in the middle of town. As much as I remember wanting to grow up and get the hell out of there at the time, I find myself wanting to enjoy the relative freedom the rural area provided. This city life these days is limited due to the criss-crossing of major boulevards that my kids are not allowed to cross without myself or my wife present (Iowa drivers, especially in the city quite frankly suck at the art of driving a vehicle anywhere near the idea of safely). It’s hard for my oldest to get together with school mates because a lot of their parents believe in ‘playdates’ instead of randomly getting together, very unlike my days growing up when I had never even heard of the concept of the playdate.

    Maybe I’m just an anomaly in my generation of a fading mindset, or ideology.

  4. #4 by languagelover on March 30, 2009 - 03:07

    I never really associated the worries of risk with the loss of freedom. I don’t know why I didn’t, as your description certainly makes sense.

    It seems to me, though, that another part of it is population growth. Many more freedoms can be enjoyed in smaller population centers. From a classroom management point of view, I can allow much more flexibility in a class of ten than I can in a class of thirty five. More rules have to be enforced in the big class to keep order. Safety is of more concern, too. I would feel safer leaving the class of ten unsupervised than the class of thirty five.

  5. #5 by healingmagichands on March 30, 2009 - 15:38

    First of all, I have to say I enjoyed this essay and thought it was well thought out. As Henitsirk pointed out, people have been “enjoying” litigiousness for a very long time. It is only recently that juries have been rewarding that activity with huge amounts of money that encourages more people to try to feather their nest that way.

    The off-hand comment that wasn’t necessary — last year in my blog I wrote a post after I returned from a family “vacation” in which I took off all my kid gloves and mentioned that my sister in law is a passive aggressive control freak. Rather than send me an email that said they thought this was hurtful and perhaps I could modify my post, they left me a comment full of legal garbage that basically threatened to sue me for defamation of character if I did not recant. You will not find that post on my blog any more. The ultimate result is I don’t like her any better, and now I don’t trust her either. Of course, I realize that the feelings are mutual!

    I would like to see you write a post about “Why” people feel like they need the plastic toys, the huge houses, the consumer life style. Why is is that Laura and Mary were thrilled to play with the pig bladder ball and kids nowadays are thrilled to play with a Wii ball? Why are we so sure that if our children play together in a park that they will be molested or kidnapped? Actually, those sorts of things are fairly rare, but parents are scared to death of them. Why is that?

  6. #6 by henitsirk on March 30, 2009 - 16:56

    HMH, I’d say that it’s tied up very closely with marketing and mass production. Once upon a time, plastics were invented and came to be seen rather quickly as an inexpensive (with inexpensive petroleum products) and easier/safer material to make items from. It was easier for factories to mass-produce plastic toys, and it was easier for parents to clean them, than it was to produce and clean wooden or cloth toys. This has been going on for long enough that most people don’t even think to question it any more.

    And if parents have been convinced through clever marketing that they can show their love by buying 25 Christmas presents every year, then that is also what children come to expect. If parents are bombarded by the news media with sensational tales of molestation and kidnapping, they come to believe that these events are more common than they are. The media feed off of the sensational and the negative — the ordinary happiness of life does not make news.

    My belief is that we are so divorced from reality in many ways — both in being unconscious about our choices in the objects we possess and the dangers we are subject to — that we feel powerless. If the average parent wants to give their child a gift, they must go to a store and be content with what is offered there, instead of being able to create something according to their own will and desire. We are hounded by images of danger, and so we become fearful and feel that we are powerless in the face of danger. And so we also lash out with litigation, both assuaging our fears and perpetuating the cycle of self-victimization.

  7. #7 by Scott Erb on March 30, 2009 - 17:28

    Mike, kudos to you for not being suckered into the housing boom deals — being ‘old fashioned’ has its advantages! Your boys may like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and you could discover them as well. I think sometimes people think girls will like them better because it is the story about girls (Laura only had sisters, except for one brother who died as an infant), but really it’s the story of family life in the American west. I never liked the TV show though — it veered too far from the book. And I definitely am with you on enjoying conversation and interaction compared to some wild club scene.

    As for “blaming” society or culture…I don’t know if I like the word blame, but this gets me to Henitsirk’s comment and ‘Magichealinghands’ question. I think she’s right that we are often divorced from reality and are manipulated by advertising and the media. Also the statement “the ordinary happiness of life does not make the news” may not be strong enough. I think that people stop being able to truly enjoy the “ordinary happiness of life” if the messages strongly tell us that “ordinary is not happy.”

    Right now advertising is being focused on children as young as two. Adults and children both start thinking they need something shiny and new to be happy. Mortgage brokers would tell people like Mike that he needs to buy his family a house or else he’s failing his family. If he were less secure, he’d fall for it. And so much of what gets down makes people less secure about their own place in the world that buying stuff is a kind of therapy, albeit one that only briefly covers the symptoms. But yeah, I’m going to think about that and do some future blog entry on it…this directly relates to my research project.

    Finally, I think Magichealinghands’ story about the run in with her sister in law is sad, but too common. I suspect that if she had replied with a personal outreach to you, you both could have talked it over and maybe even become closer by having a more honest relationship. As it was, her threat simply pushed both of you into retreat (though I doubt she could win a real legal case). It’s part of how our way of doing things seems to push us to do things that pull us apart from each other.

  8. #8 by Scott Erb on March 30, 2009 - 17:31

    Oh one more thing — I lived in Kennebec county for years (in Augusta), commuting to work. Now we live in Franklin county (no more commute!). It’s a small world. I now know that one of Henitsirk’s ancestors looked at the same Kennebec River, albeit with different scenery along the banks.

  9. #9 by henitsirk on March 30, 2009 - 19:58

    I thought you might be familiar with the area. Evidently my ancestor is now a famous local!

    I struggle with trying to understand why owning a home is so important. I’m not entirely wedded to the idea that owning is better than other ideas. I read an article the other day that pointed out that for some people, renting is superior — more flexibility, especially if you expect to move for new jobs often, and less responsibility both financial and otherwise (repairs).

    Our government and tax/investment structure is set up to reward home ownership, so there’s that incentive. And personally I like the idea of being a bit more rooted to a place, being about to make substantial changes (as HMH has done with her extensive gardens and landscaping).

    I think about Charles Ingalls, building many of their homes himself. (It’s always been awe-inspiring to me.) How did it feel for him to have to leave the one house he built in Indian Territory, right after they had planted new crops? At least until they settled permanently in DeSmet, it seems like part of their rootedness was in their crops and stock, the medium- to long-term investment in the land.

  10. #10 by Mike Lovell on March 31, 2009 - 14:34


    While renting has its fine points, like no maintenance, no replacing costly appliances out of pocket, snow removal or lawn mowing, no property taxes, and has options to allow for better mobility, in case of job changes, or whatever, I still like the idea of a house. I guess it goers back to my liking to do what I want to do. If the gutters need cleaned out, or replaced…or if some interior work needs to be done, I can do it without asking anyone’s permission (save for my wife of course). Pet restrictions would be only self imposed, the option to tear the yard up for a garden or other landscaping is always there.
    With renting, I’m not allowed to replace even simple things, like the shades that the cat, or my youngest kid ruined by playing with them, without having to tell the rental company who insist on having there cheap labor do it, and only then, when they get around to it. My five year old tore a whole in the screen to our deck….I reported it 6 months ago, and have yet to get anywhere with that.

    There are myriad little things that could be done to this place after 5+ years of living here that I could easily do, but to ask to have it taken care of…well there are some things that have been on my waiting list for about 4 years so far.

    I like the idea of owning something I can call my own, as opposed to putting thousands of dollars into someone else’s pockets, and when I decide to/am able to walk away, I shall have nothing to show for it. And that sort of bothers me to a certain degree.

  11. #11 by henitsirk on March 31, 2009 - 15:22

    Mike, it’s funny but I agree with you as well as being skeptical! I have been renting for most of my adult life, and it has all the down sides you mention, unless you are lucky enough to have an attentive landlord. I’ve often thought that it’s the “landlord” part that’s the problem — the relationship between owner and tenant is somehow unhealthy.

    For the three years prior to last summer, we lived on property owned by an education nonprofit foundation. They had a very small staff (two office people and two maintenance men) to handle a very large amount of land and numerous buildings including homes and businesses. However because 1) they were interested in maintaining/improving their property and 2) we were courteous tenants who promptly advised them of serious problems, we always had good response to our repair requests.

  12. #12 by henitsirk on March 31, 2009 - 15:26

    Oh, and also the aspect of being able to modify the property to suit your tastes and desires, both inside and with gardens, is a big draw to owning. I dislike that we can’t do any outside gardening at all where we are now. And the “nothing to show for it” argument is pretty strong when the other issues (mobility, less responsibility, etc.) aren’t as important. My husband and I quite handy enough to manage repairs and improvements even if it’s nice to not have to do (and pay for) them right now.

    I wonder what kind of owner/tenant relationship would be more healthy?

  13. #13 by kathy Lemke on September 12, 2009 - 13:21

    I agree with you about how this country at to a great extent has taken our freedoms. The main thing I have noticed is how the police and government has little respect for citizens when they are arrested. The treat people like animals and even beat on them sometimes for no reason just to relay their power. It has become scary to me and I have come across the movie by Alex Jones Called “Endgame” which does have some exaggeration I think as some say, but watch it and it may really make one think about how far can it go to taking away our freedom, and not only that but to the point where the rulers have no regard at all for the value of human life. As they surely seem to be getting that way. One link to view the complete video is here, but there are several on the internet on utube. I really makes you think!!!!

  1. what’s up with kbnky?
  2. The Flow of History « World in Motion

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