The Conflict of the Ages

The year 2020 was a dreadful year as it relates to individual liberty, free association, commercial freedom, and private property, and 2021 isn’t looking much better.

The main reason, of course, is not the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), but the government response to it. Volumes could be written about the government-mandated restrictions on peaceful activity  that have been instituted during this manufactured crisis: curfews, lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, shelter-in-place orders; the closing of “unessential” businesses, public beaches, parks, swimming pools, basketball courts, and playgrounds; the canceling of concerts and sporting events; church closures, school closures, “social distancing,” mask requirements, indoor dining bans, alcohol bans, and store and restaurant capacity limits. A skateboard park in Southern California was filled in with 37 tons of sand by city government workers after skateboarders refused to stop using it.

During the holiday season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued “guidelines” for holiday celebrations and gatherings. Americans were told not to travel for Thanksgiving. However, many Americas apparently didn’t get the memo. More than a million air travelers passed through TSA checkpoints on the Friday, Sunday, and Wednesday before Thanksgiving. The CDC then insisted that Americans stay home for Christmas. For those who made up their mind to travel anyway, the CDC recommended that they get tested for COVID-19 one to three days before travel and three to five days after travel.

Americans who didn’t travel were told by the CDC not to get within six feet of anyone who didn’t live with them, not to go out in public or be around people who didn’t live with them without wearing a mask, not to have indoor gatherings, not to have long gatherings, not to have crowded gatherings, not to hug, not to shake hands, not to take their mask off unless eating or drinking, not to shout, not to sing, not to play loud music, not to drink alcohol, not to invite anyone over who had contact with people outside of their household for fourteen days prior to their gathering, not to let pets interact with anyone from outside of the household, not to have potluck-style gatherings, not to have more than one person serve food, not to have sharable items such as salad dressings and condiments, and not to touch their mask, eyes, nose, or mouth. The problem with these “guidelines” is that many Americans took them as law.

In some states, the draconian CDC holiday guidelines were adopted with a vengeance by governors and mayors. In California, gatherings were restricted to no more than three households, had to be outside, had to have enough space so that everyone could stay six feet apart, had to use single-serve disposable containers, and were restricted to two hours. In Oregon, the governor ordered a “freeze” in response to a surge in “cases” of COVID-19. No more than six people could gather in one home, and they could not represent more than two households. Church funeral services were limited to twenty-five people. Restaurants could offer only take-out. The city of Philadelphia banned all indoor dining at restaurants and indoor gatherings of any size, public or private, of people from different households.

Government restrictions on peaceful commercial or personal activity are nothing new.

Governments throughout history have attempted to prohibit peaceful activity, prevent peaceful activity from taking place, and prosecute people for engaging in peaceful activity. The conflict of the ages has always been individuals and businesses who want to do something and governments that tell them that they can’t. That doesn’t mean that people should be allowed to murder, rape, steal, or pillage without impunity. It doesn’t mean that businesses should be allowed to cheat, abuse, threaten, or endanger their customers or employees without being held accountable for their actions. When I talk about governments’ telling individuals and businesses that they cannot do something, I am referring only to private, consensual behavior or peaceful activity that doesn’t violate the personal or property rights of anyone else. Every civilized society in history has, with the consent and demand of its citizens, limited the ability of individuals and businesses to violate people’s right to be secure in their person or property.

Historical examples

History is full of examples of governments’ restricting peaceful personal activity by draconian laws. During the seventeenth century in England, as documented by B.S. Capp in England’s Culture Wars, Puritan magistrates and ministers “drew up a harsh penal code against blasphemers, sexual offenders,
and other deviants.” They “enforced church attendance, suppressed unlawful sports and disorderly alehouses, whipped fornicators, ducked scolds, and fined blasphemers.”

History is also full of examples of governments’ restricting peaceful commercial activity by engaging in wage and price controls. As economist Robert Schuettinger has written,

From the earliest times, from the very inception of organized government, rulers and their officials have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to “control” their economies. The notion that there is a “just” or “fair” price for a certain commodity, a price which can and ought to be enforced by government, is apparently coterminous with civilization. For the past forty-six centuries (at least) governments all over the world have tried to fix wages and prices from time to time. When their efforts failed, as they usually did, governments then put the blame on the wickedness and dishonesty of their subjects, rather than upon the ineffectiveness of the official policy. The same tendencies remain today.

Even in the United States, with its supposed free-market system, wage and price controls were instituted by the Nixon administration from August 1971 through April 1974.

The conclusion is inescapable: Government is the greatest aggressor against individual liberty, free association, commercial freedom, and private property. As former Foundation for Economic Education president Richard Ebeling has well said, “There has been no greater threat to life, liberty, and property throughout the ages than government. Even the most violent and brutal private individuals have been able to inflict only a mere fraction of the harm and destruction that have been caused by the use of power by political authorities.” But it is not just back in ancient history or during modern health “emergencies” that government violates individual liberty, free association, commercial freedom, and private property. These violations occur on a regular basis even in America — “the land of the free” — and have been prevalent since long before the COVID-19 “pandemic.”

Personal activity

Travel restrictions. It was only just a few years ago that the first commercial flight from the United States to Cuba in more than 55 years landed in Havana. But even now, there are still travel categories, travel restrictions, and spending limits that must be observed if an American wants to travel to Cuba. And travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by federal law. In a free society, any American would have the right to travel to any country by any means for any reason for any period of time and spend any amount of his money while he is there.

Occupational licensing. States require their residents to get permission from their governments to open businesses, engage in commerce, work in certain occupations, have particular vocations, or provide services to willing customers. But why should Americans need permission from the government to work? Government licensing is just as illegitimate as government decrees ordering businesses to shut down. It is never the proper role of government to forbid people from exercising what should be their natural right to make a living. It is illegitimate for government to prevent people from freely contracting with other people to provide them services.

Drugs. The federal government has waged war on drugs officially for fifty years and unofficially for many years before that. Under federal law, possession of marijuana is punishable by a maximum of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. It is even worse for hard drugs. Until recently, state laws were just as draconian. But even now, in states where recreational marijuana has been legalized, there are still numerous restrictions on how much pot one can grow, buy, sell, or possess. And of course, hard drugs are still illegal. In a free society, there would be no laws at any level for government for any reason to regard the buying, selling, growing, processing, transporting, manufacturing, advertising, using, or possessing of any drug for any reason. It is not the proper role of government to prohibit, regulate, restrict, or otherwise control what a man desires to eat, drink, smoke, inject, absorb, snort, sniff, inhale, swallow, or otherwise ingest into his mouth, nose, veins, or lungs.

Alcohol. Alcohol is legal in most areas of the country; however, in some jurisdictions hard liquor is illegal because thirty-three states allow localities to prohibit its sale. And even in places where alcohol is legal, there are a myriad of restrictions that governments put on it. For example, why is the drinking age 21, when 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds can vote, run for political office, join the military, be drafted into the military, sue and be sued, get married, engage in consensual sex with other adults, adopt children, and enter into legally binding contracts? In some states parents can serve alcoholic beverages to their adult children who are not yet 21; in other states they are breaking the law. It is not the job of government to prohibit people from drinking alcoholic beverages or limiting their consumption. It would be up to parents, friends, family, religious organizations, temperance unions, social-welfare groups, and medical professionals to warn people about the dangers of alcohol abuse.

Smoking. Just in time for Christmas, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved, by a vote of 10-1, a ban on smoking tobacco (but not marijuana) inside private dwellings in buildings with three or more units. Violators could have received fines of $1,000 maximum for smoking a cigarette in their own apartment if the measure had withstood a required second vote. It didn’t have a chance to. By a 6-5 vote, the proposal was sent back to committee. In some states, the minimum age to purchase tobacco products is 21 even though the age of majority is 18. But it is not the proper role of government to protect its citizens from bad habits, unhealthy actions, addictive behavior. In a free society, any legal adult would be able to buy, sell, possess, or use any substance.

Prostitution. Every state has laws against willing adults’ freely accepting money in exchange for sexual services, even if the services are performed on the private property of one of the participants. Yet, it is perfectly legal for people to be paid to have sex — in front of a director, camera, and crew, and then, after editing, production, and distribution, in front of hundreds, if not thousands, of strangers. In a free society, there would be no laws against paying for sex, or receiving money for it, because the government would not be concerned with any activity that takes place on private property between consenting adults that doesn’t violate the rights of others. And why should it be illegal to charge for a service that one can legally give away for free?

Ticket scalping. In some states, someone who wants to resell a ticket to a concert or sporting event must be licensed, must pay a fee to the government, may not sell tickets above face value without the event sponsor’s permission, and may not resell tickets for more than a certain amount or percentage over face value. Talk about a crime in search of a victim! What could possibly be wrong with an exchange of tickets for cash between a willing buyer and a willing seller, as long as their activity does not violate the property rights of the owner of the ground where they make their exchange?

Gambling. Although the federal government has a number of laws that relate to gambling, it is the states that generally prohibit or regulate various forms of gambling. Although many states permit commercial casinos in some form
(licensed and heavily regulated), private gambling is generally illegal in any form. In some states, hosting poker games or blackjack tournaments with friends in your home on a Saturday night can get you arrested if you break the state’s rules and regulations. But why should the government be concerned with how people choose to spend or waste their money? And if gambling is so addictive, immoral, and financially ruinous that governments must prohibit or regulate it, then why do most states have lotteries and advertise them with slick commercials to entice people to buy lottery tickets? In a free society, there would be no laws that regulated, restricted, or prohibited any form of gambling.

Gun control. Even though the Second Amendment says that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed,” the federal government requires background checks before a gun can be purchased, and bans certain types of guns, ammunition, and accessories. State governments have instituted waiting periods on gun purchases, limits on gun purchases, gun licensing, gun registration, and gun regulations. But guns don’t kill; people do. Every American has the natural right to possess any weapon on his own property or the property of anyone else who allows such weapons. There should be no gun-control laws whatsoever.

Commercial activity

Minimum wage. The federal government has decreed that employers may not pay employees less than a minimum wage. Many states have instituted minimum wages higher than the federal minimum. But the minimum wage is an assault on freedom. It forbids employers to freely contract with employees. It prevents people from selling their labor for whatever compensation they choose. The minimum wage is simply a government price control and has no place in a free society.

Price gouging. Every state has laws against price gouging; that is, every state fixes maximum prices that a business may charge its customers for commodities at certain times. But the ability of a business to raise or lower its prices on a particular good or on all the goods it sells is one of the essential marks that distinguish a free market from government central planning. Free and unfettered interaction between producers and consumers, buyers and sellers, and businesses and customers is always to be preferred to government intervention. Once it is accepted that the government has the authority, knowledge, and competence to establish arbitrary price ceilings during a “state of emergency,” no reasonable or logical argument can be made against the government’s setting prices during ordinary times.

Interest rates. Every state has laws that limit the rate of interest that can be charged on loans. But that does violence to free exchange, free contract, and free markets. And just as the government should not interfere in any way with any transaction between a willing seller and a willing buyer, so the government should not interfere in any way with any agreement between a willing lender and a willing borrower.

Blue laws. Some states restrict the days and hours that businesses are allowed to open or sell certain products. In some states no alcohol may be sold on Sunday or on Christmas Day. In other states no alcohol may be sold until a certain time on Sunday. Bars are required to close at certain times in just about every city in the country. It is illegal for dealerships to sell cars on a Sunday in certain states. Some states restrict the kind of work that may be performed and the type of establishment that may open on certain holidays. It is not the job of government to regulate the days and hours that businesses desire to be open to the public. In a free society, businesses alone determine the days and hours they will be open.

Calorie restrictions. About ten years ago, the city of San Francisco established nutritional guidelines that must be followed if companies want to use toys as a promotional tool. Children’s meals — if promoted using toys — must contain no more than 600 calories, have less than 650 milligrams of salt, contain less than 10 percent fat, and have at least half a cup of fruit or three-quarters of a cup of vegetables. A few years later, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to ban the sale of sugary drinks that are more than 16 ounces, until a New York court ruled against the idea. But does the government know what’s best for children or do parents know what’s best? And if the government may regulate the size of your drink, then no reasonable or logical argument can be made against the government’s regulating the size of your steaks, hamburgers, or portions of any food at a restaurant.

Smoking. Another way that governments seek to curb smoking is by prohibiting smoking in bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues by force of law instead of letting businesses decide for themselves whether smoking is permitted in their establishments.

Alcohol. There are seventeen “alcoholic beverage control” states where the state government controls the wholesaling, and often the retailing, of distilled spirits, and in some cases, beer and wine. In every state, no business may sell or serve alcoholic beverages without first getting a government license. In a free society, alcohol would not be treated as different from any other commodity and all liquor stores would be privately owned.

Discrimination. The federal and state governments all have laws that criminalize discrimination in employment, housing, and service provision. But since discrimination — against anyone, on any basis, and for any reason — is not aggression, force, coercion, threat, or violence, the government should never prohibit it, seek to prevent it, or punish anyone for doing it. To outlaw discrimination is to outlaw freedom of association, property rights, and freedom of thought.

The conflict of the ages has always been instituted by government. Its solution is a simple one: As long as people don’t violate the personal or property rights of others, and as long as their actions are peaceful, their associations are voluntary, and their interactions are consensual — the government should just leave them alone.

This article was originally published in the March 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.

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