Independence Day is recognized across America as the day to celebrate freedom. As the popular song says, “I’m proud to be an American/ Where at least I know I’m free.” Yet many people don’t feel terribly free. Some think the traditional American way of life is under attack. Others think that hard-won freedoms are being rolled back. Just how free are we?
For many Americans, there is no doubt we are living more freely now than ever before. Freedom is no longer restricted to straight, White men. Gay Americans, for example, are free to participate in society more completely than in the past. Women were once restricted in their ability to work outside the home, consigned to follow only certain careers, or limited in the careers they did have; but now they make up the majority of college graduates (and the gap over men is growing). We should celebrate these achievements.
But by some crucial measures, we are all less free: the economic sphere.
What was previously thought of as private matters like how to power your home or what to do when you need a loan are increasingly subject to supervision and interference by bureaucrats. The code of federal regulations has been growing steadily and inexorably for decades now, despite a brief respite during the Trump years. On top of that, regulatory “guidance” — bureaucratic circulars, opinions and even blog posts — adds real but less accountable restrictions on our freedom.
Public health regulators, in particular, have ramped up restrictions. The various vaccine mandates stemming from the coronavirus pandemic stopped many Americans from participating fully in society and lost some of them their jobs. More recently, the Food and Drug Administration has unjustifiably banned a popular e-cigarette brand, despite significant evidence that vaping saves smoker lives.
Free speech is also under attack by the government and in the private sector. Social media platforms have sometimes taken a heavy-handed approach to ban users for promoting alleged “disinformation,” for expressing skepticism over the pandemic’s causes, or for simply being politically incorrect, fomenting a public backlash against various media companies. (Hence, Elon Musk’s bid to take over Twitter and change its content moderation policies.)
Meanwhile, not everyone celebrates the recent Supreme Court decisions on religious speech as victories for freedom of expression. Others regard them as potentially chilling dissent and imposing a tyranny of the majority on people who might think differently. The high school coach is now free to celebrate victory with a prayer. Yet what about his young areligious player who might feel coerced into joining in the prayer or losing his spot on the team?
The common thread in these concerns that the restrictions on freedom are imposed without real accountability. Appealing bureaucratic decisions is difficult and expensive. Trying to prevail against corporate speech restrictions leads to referencing impenetrable, seemingly arbitrary terms of service legalese. And who is the high school football player who wants to sit out the team prayer to turn to for help? It shouldn’t be the coach leading the prayer.
Bureaucratic rules and restrictions can also unfairly erode the significant gains of social liberalization. Minorities and the poor are disproportionately targeted for breach of traffic regulations, for example. When they can’t pay, they get fined more and maybe even jailed for what started as a trivial offense. People selling loose cigarettes on the streets end up in violent confrontations with the police. These are ways that ostensibly minor regulations have disastrous effects.
What can be done to right these wrongs and make our country more free?
We have too many burdensome yet unneeded regulations on the books. Lawmakers in Congress should make it a priority to clear those away. State and local policymakers should do more to minimize the horrific effect of minor regulations. For instance, a broken window may warrant a fine, but that shouldn’t turn into an arrest and jail time, or worse. Government agencies and corporations should make their rules easier to understand and devise proper, fairer avenues of appeal. Public bodies and courts need to find new ways of balancing dissent and free expression.
The foundation of America is freedom. Independence Day is a time for celebrating and cherishing our freedoms. But it’s also an occasion to consider the reality that we could do better.