What does it mean to live in a free country? It means individuals are free from coercion to choose the conduct of their lives provided their choices do not diminish the equal rights of fellow citizens.
There are only two threats to freedom, criminals and governments. When a criminal denies our right to life it's called murder, our right to liberty it's called kidnapping and our right to property it's called theft. When government uses its powers to secure these rights against criminals it acts nobly, but when it uses its power to diminish these rights it becomes the criminal - Zimbabwe comes to mind.
It's reasonable for well-intentioned citizens to encourage others to make wise choices but the difference between liberty and tyranny rests in the ability to accept or reject advice without fear of coercion. People don't learn financial responsibility from a welfare state that indemnifies them against destructive economic decisions, nor moral character when the self-righteous use the power of the state to deny them the option of destructive personal behavior. By definition, a free people cannot be prohibited from making "bad" choices. Government cannot instill honesty, self-reliance, dignity or respect for the property of others, but it can destroy them when it legislates the consequences of freedom into grounds for liability and incarceration. When fast food becomes responsible for obesity and bar owners for DUIs, the link between personal choice and consequence is broken and we are all reduced to professional victims.
How is it that a nation founded on the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is allowing its most basic liberties to be eclipsed by the growing shadow of government? I believe the answer is that behind every justification for more regulation lies a paternalistic distrust of freedom in the hands of those deemed incapable of taking responsibility for it. While liberal elites remain fascinated by their own brilliance, they detest the intellectual inferiority of the rest of us knuckle-draggers whose struggle they claim to be "fighting" for. On the other hand, evangelical conservatives want to use the power of the state to stamp out sin.
I submit that the cause of many of America's "social problems" is nothing more than the unnecessary injection of public policy into questions that have no need for regulatory intervention because the solutions already rest soundly in the prerogatives of personal freedom. This argument drives liberals crazy because it negates the need for them to protect us (which destroys their political base) and right-wing hard-liners fear that freedom's indiscretions will threaten the almighty's view of our nation and our salvation.
Should smoking be allowed in public? If public means City Hall, fine, but if public means a private restaurant open to the public, then in a free country the decision is the proprietor's. So why did we vote to ban smoking and transfer the proprietor's property rights to the state? Was it distrust of freedom in the hands of those incapable of taking responsibility for the air they breathe or was it just for our own good?
Thomas Jefferson warned, "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground."
Rich Shields of Scottsdale teaches economics at the Keller Graduate School of Management.