Sunday, August 31, 2008

Some Thoughts on the Nature and Importance of Freedom

I went out last night and had a truly grand evening in downtown Iowa City. While my friends and I were at a bar, one of my them tried to walk outside to talk to some people who were smoking there. However, the bouncers quickly rebuffed him because he tried to carry an alcoholic beverage out into that establishment's beer garden after it had been closed down for the evening.

These events sparked a conversation between another friend and me about our experiences in Beijing, China. I spent much of the summer there two years ago and she did the same this year. Despite many Americans' belief that China is a totalitarian state in which all behavior is highly regulated, the truth is that in many ways those living in Beijing enjoy more freedoms than we have here in Iowa City. It's true that the vast majority of China's citizens lack the ability to vote in meaningful elections and that attempts at organizing political dissent are quickly quashed. But in their daily lives Beijing's residents are free to do anything we can do here. That city's citizens can work and live where they please as well as spend the money they earn on a wide variety of consumer goods and services. And when it comes to certain types of recreational activities, those living in Beijing have much freer reign than those of us in Iowa City.

For one thing, Beijing either doesn't have or doesn't enforce laws against carrying open alcoholic beverages in public. During my time there I saw numerous university students walking around campus late at night with open beers in hand, talking, laughing, and having an all-around good time. I indulged as well, often sipping liter bottles of beer on the steps of my dorm and talking with my classmates. We would wave in a friendly fashion to any police or security guards who happened to walk buy and they'd generally smile and wave back.

Furthermore, Beijing has no smoking ban. Want to smoke on campus? No problem. Want to smoke in a bar? Go right ahead! Have an urge to light up in your dorm's lobby? Have at it--the security guards stationed in your building are likely to join in. Attempts to micromanage individuals' private activities are noticeably absent in China.

There's no question that I value my political rights in the United States to a great enough extent that I'd be quite unwilling to trade them for the simple individual freedoms enjoyed by Chinese citizens. However, there's no reason we can't have both. Tragically though, most Americans seem to have lost interest in preventing the government from engaging in whatever arbitrary nanny-state nonsense its bureaucrats choose to pursue at any given time. In the name of democracy and the alleged public good we allow our city government to forcibly detain people and lock them up for doing something as innocuous as sipping a beer or puffing on a cigarette in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Maintaining a reasonably safe environment for the city's residents is indeed the whole reason we have a city council and police for in the first place. But we've given them carte blanche to regulate almost anything they see fit in virtually any manner they see deem appropriate. This is madness. We must push back against this encroachment of our basic liberties and demand that the government justify all its actions thoroughly and reasonably.

Ultimately, people have to take responsibility for themselves. Engaging in risky behavior ought not be grounds for getting drug off the street and locked up in a cage for the night unless that behavior puts other, non-consenting people in danger. Strolling through the Ped Mall with a beer can in one's hand a a cigarette hanging from one's lips just doesn't rise to that level.

Because the government has proven itself so thoroughly incapable of restraining itself, we must organize and push back against it ourselves. Remember, local-level elections are notorious for their low voter turnout. It is well within the power of the freedom-loving denizens of Iowa City to reverse the alarming trend towards group control of people's lives and reestablish liberty as the highest value and ultimate goal of our polity.

1 comment:

Kay Bratt said...

I lived in China almost five years. While freedom is to be desired, I thought it sad that almost every man (Chinese) I met in those five years, except for one, smoked a crapload of cigs a day. At least the states are making an attemp to save their children from a death of black lung.

In reference to the alcohol freedom, it goes too far in China. I saw many, many individuals at company parties and weddings, so drunk they had to be carried out. I also saw a small child no more than 12 years of age, joining in the drinking binge/celebration. That is not cool.

However, I can respect your perspective. Perhaps you didn't see their "freedom" abused to the extent that I did.