Some of you are probably rolling your eyes after reading the title of this month’s column. Especially after I made a promise not to go political in this space.
Rest assured, I’m not going political today. Well, at least not in the sense you’d expect.
There’s been a lot of talk around our country the past few years about freedom. Freedom here, freedom in the Middle East, freedom in China, freedom in Cuba, freedom in other countries. There’s been a lot of talk about rights and freedom, whether we’re losing too many rights, or not, and so on.
A couple of weeks or so ago, I came across a discussion two people were having on the Internet. In a way, it’s kind of hard to take Internet discussions seriously, either because the screen names used by the participants sound ridiculous (examples: Ih8w8n [I hate waiting], Teddy Jo Kopechne [an allusion to Sen. Ted Kennedy] or Chimpy McFlightsuit [an allusion to President Bush]), or because the discussions oftentimes devolve into name-calling and just plain meanness (kind of like the screen names, I suppose).
But this particular discussion, at least I thought, was good. It was about freedom. One person advocated for absolute freedom, the other one said absolute freedom was impossible to achieve. I don’t recall the discussion getting into insults and the like, although I’m sure the screen names (I don’t remember them either) were probably funny.
That got me to thinking about absolute freedom and what life would be like under such a system. My conclusion is it would be impossible.
Imagine if someone wanted the house you lived in. With absolute freedom, they could move you out by sheer force, or they could even kill you for your house (of course, someone else could come by and do the same to them). Life would literally become survival of the fittest.
Imagine driving under such a system. Well, you probably don’t have to imagine it: all you have to do is actually go out on the streets of Miami to get a small taste of what it would be like. People running stop signs and red lights, yield signs meaning nothing; people making left turns from the right lane (and vice versa), people driving on the wrong side of the road, people making u-turns where they’re not allowed, etc. We’ve all seen these things happen on our roads. So imagine how much worse it would get if people had absolute freedom and could drive however they wanted to.
What about the cars themselves? No one would worry about pollution or safety. We already see plenty of rustbuckets spewing smoke on our roads; it would become worse. And if you were the only one on the road with a nice, shiny new car, lookout: someone might come by and try to take it from you.
Going back to houses, if no one cared about building codes, we’d have shantytowns all over. Just think of what that’d be like if a hurricane hit….
I could go on and on with examples, but I think you see my point. Heck, living in Miami, where we often see lax code enforcement, poor driving manners and the like, we already see how chaotic absolute freedom can be, in a small way.
What about the flip side of the coin, you’re probably wondering. Well, it’s not perfect. In an effort to create a society where we can balance the demands between reasonable freedom for all of us, and some sense of order so we can all live without fear of constant attack, we create laws and various levels of government. At the micro level, we even create homeowners’ and condo associations.
The latter have sometimes had the tendency to devolve into quasi-dictatorial entities. South Florida is pretty famous, for example, for its “condo commandos,” gung-ho residents who enforce even the most trivial-seeming condo regulations with a zeal that rivals that of a pit bull with a fresh bone.
At the municipal level, most of us are aware of the differences between cities right here in our own county. For example, who hasn’t joked about Coral Gables (the City Beautiful) and its tough code enforcement, or Hialeah (La Ciudad Del Progreso – the City of Progress) and its… apparent lack thereof?
At the state and federal levels, we see restrictive laws we don’t like, as well as restrictive laws we approve of, all the time. For instance, how many of us actually obey the speed limit? And how many of us applaud when we hear someone was arrested for polluting, or poaching (and no, I don’t mean eggs for breakfast)?
In times of war, our federal government tends to restrict certain liberties. The Patriot Act and the disclosure that some phone calls are being listened to in secret caused some controversy for the Bush administration. But then again, during previous wars, freedoms have been curtailed. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War and more recently, FDR had Japanese-Americans interned during World War II.
Of course, the flip side of those situations (and there always seems to be a flip side to every situation) is that the Civil War and World War II were better defined than the War on Terror. It was easier to understand who the enemy was, and the goal of going to war in each of those cases. Both wars were over within a few years (although in fairness, at the time, I’m sure it felt as though they would go on forever), while Bush has stated the War on Terror would go on for years. It remains to be seen how much freedom Americans will be willing to forgo, and for how long, in the quest to keep our country safe from terrorism.
And in the end, that is the trade-off we all face in order to live with others in a society. Trying to strike a balance between absolute freedom and total restriction is why we have government. Heck, after more than 200 years, we’re still trying to find the right balance here in America. But at least we’re free enough to be able to tilt the scale one way or the other whenever we want to.