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Making personal decisions: the bedrock of freedom

Written By | May 25, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS, May 25, 2015 – Rational economists of most schools agree that an economy can grow, that peoples’ lives can become better, all without disadvantaging others. In such a society, everyone is free to exchange with others – labor for money, goods for services, location for convenience. To the extent that these exchanges are voluntary, those who engage in them consider themselves better off.

That is not to say that people can’t make what turn out to be poor decisions or that fraud can’t gum up the works. The first option is definitely costly (sometimes to both parties), and the second is illegal among private citizens. (We’ll keep the political class exempt from this discussion, lest we provoke a revolution.)

But, while economic expansion is ultimately limited only by the amount of resources available and the efficiency with which they are employed and converted, the same is not true of freedom.

Memorial Day: Remembering those who fought, and why

Freedom is not available from an ever-expanding pie. It is a zero-sum game.

Its corollary, power, may be easier to illustrate. If you decide you will have more decision-making power, that power must come from the relinquishing of such power by others. The boss sets the work hours and duties; the employees do not. The camp commander has enormous power in his camp, to the precise degree that the inmates have little.

In general, governments have only the power that the people yield to them. Every bit of power a government gains over the lives, industry, and wealth of its people, comes from the people’s power. Historically, that power, once ceded to the government, however, is never regained by the people.

Today, choices once made by the people are now decided by government. Whether the choice was to smoke in a restaurant where the owner of the restaurant didn’t mind, or to drive fast (or slowly), or to own a cow in the city or go the country and buy milk from someone else’ cow, or to marry whomever we wish to marry, or to say what we want about our politicians, or to start a business or put up a sign, or to smoke weed – all these choices are made by our rulers today, and can no longer be made by us.

We, the peasantry, are disorganized. We are kept distracted by the nation’s rulers as they create controversies and then maneuver us into demanding that they solve them. They offer us a vote – on one of their solutions or the other. Either solution, of course, is binding. From that point, we are not allowed to disagree, and to associate with those among us with whom we agree. The vote has decided.

In truth, such a vote decided only one thing of provable merit: it decided that we no longer have a choice, and that the ruling class now has an additional way to toss people into prison, to fine them, or to threaten them into obedience. Whether an individual agreed with the “voters’ choice” or not is irrelevant. A vote won’t always go their way. Someone who wins on gun control may later lose on abortion.

Either way, the choice – the freedom – disappears altogether.

Memorial Day: Honor sacrifices of the dead with progress for the living

As opposed to our disorganization and distraction (precisely why we need the freedom to make out own choices, as issues arise), the ruling class is monolithic. They know that, regardless the “issue” on the table, they will win the power to remove that issue from the table and then control it. Ultimately, for all their posturing, they do not care which way the issue is decided – no matter what, adjudication of it becomes their power.

Non-compliance among the rabble is a source of coercive power. Beyond that, it is a source of taxation and fines, two more mechanisms designed to keep the population from exercising its choices. Ultimately, it is another way the ruling class can scoop up, imprison, and ultimately execute whoever is out of compliance.

Any action or undertaking that gets one arrested can ultimately result in their death. Resistance to arrest, escape, or unapproved conduct in jail or prison – all these can lead to death at the hands of the ruling class.

The people?

It is no longer within the power of the people to decide. Every law, every bureaucratic rule or ruling, every action of government short of its very limited and necessary (enumerated, constitutional) powers, diminishes the freedom of the people. Regardless the decisions made, every governmental ruling reduces the power of the people. Rather than applauding such actions, we should categorically denounce them and oppose them.

The Constitution is only 4500 words long; the Bill of Rights adds another ten sentences; and all the subsequent Amendments (including two that cancel each other) add but a few pages more. We don’t need another 90,000 pages of federal laws, millions of pages of ambiguous bureaucratically-written regulations and thousands of pages of court rulings each year to decide every facet of our lives.

Reflecting on the shot heard ’round the world and the birth of Freedom

Does that sound like a lot? Too much for us to keep track of? Well, you forgot to add all the troubles your State, County, and City are also adding to the legal and regulatory burden.

The Babylonian King Hammurabi (1792 BC-1750 BC) is credited with setting up the first properly codified, universally applicable laws. His people had an advantage in that his scribes had to use stone tablets and record everything by hand, and were physically limited to recording very few laws, most of which spelled out taxation, anyway. A few others laws were common-sensical. For example, if a man built a house for someone else and the house fell down and killed the occupants, the builder was to be executed.

Simple and direct: you, Mr. Builder, don’t need no stinking codes or zoning. You don’t need no stinking permits or licenses. But you will be responsible, or else. A modern equivalent might permit you to drink all you want. But should you run someone over, you will be executed. (Don’t assume the same number of people would be driving under the influence, and then whine about all the people who would be dead. Wouldn’t happen!)

Even simpler are the ancient concepts underlying our own laws. Of the Ten Commandments, only a handful are necessary to make a non-religious society function smoothly: namely, no lying, no killing, obedience to parents. Staying out of adulterous situations is a peace-preserving policy, and not coveting also would help preserve harmony and reduce the tendency to create additional trouble.

As for attending church or worshipping a particular god in a particular way, that’s the individual’s business – the individual assumes whatever may be the individual risk of non-compliance!

Revolutionary? That depends on whether you enjoy freedom or prefer slavery. That, in turn, depends on whether you are part of the ruling class or the slave class. It doesn’t have to be that way. But if government continually grows, it cannot be any other way.


Tim Kern

Tim Kern taught economics for fifteen years, and discovered that understanding life is easy; it’s recognizing reality that takes practice. He holds a music degree, and later earned an MBA in finance from Northwestern University. He has lived across the US, and now makes his home in Anderson, Indiana.