poly: How free are we? (was: secrecy & freedom)

From: Carl Feynman <carlf@alum.mit.edu>
Date: Fri May 22 1998 - 09:11:58 PDT

At 07:14 AM 5/22/98 -0700, Rich Schroppel wrote:

>I claim that a large component of our freedom is traceable to our wealth--
>I'm free to hop on a plane to London, and my grandfather wasn't. This is
>unrelated to our govts information colection policies.
>My grandfather was free to purchase any medicine that he thought useful;
>I must get permission from a govt licensed agent. Is this an example
>of my increased freedom?
>Trying to measure freedom is tough, but I question whether we are in fact
>freer than our parents or grandparents. If you somehow divide out for
>economic factors, the increased time we work and taxes we pay, and the
>extra freedom of smaller households, I think our parents had more freedom.

I've spent a while adding up the pros and cons of freedom now, versus in my
parents and grandparents time. Let's be specific and call those dates
1962, when I was born, and in 1928, the average of my parents' birthdates.

Economic freedom: A far larger share of our income goes to the government
now than in 1962, which was in turn far worse than in 1928. On the other
hand, the income left over is larger now than in 1962, and far larger than
in 1928. So on this one, I'll have to call it a wash. Another interesting
measurement would be the degree of economic mobility-- do people born poor
tend to stay poor, and people born rich tend to stay rich? I don't know if
this has changed. Does anyone on this list have any evidence? It seems as
though very poor people were better off in 1962 than in either 1928 or 1998.

Freedom from accidents of birth: In 1928, Jews, Chinese, Negroes, Mexicans
and Catholics were, by law and custom, kept out of positions of wealth,
power, or influence. In 1962, Jews and Catholics were allowed, and Negroes
were pounding on the doors. By 1998, all such ethnic restrictions were
publicly held to be reprehensible, and only anti-black prejudice still had
any major effect on society at all. Unfortunately, the freedom of white
men has been slightly reduced, thanks to affirmative action. But on
balance, this is *big* progress. The same goes for the progress of women
toward being able to do anything they want-- most of this progress occured
between 1962 and the present. This is an enormous increase in the options
available to half the population.

Sexual freedom: I don't have to go into details here. Suffice it to say
that 1962 was better than 1928, and 1998 is immensely better than 1962.

Political freedom: In 1962, the FBI was a secret police force, observing
and persecuting people with certain political opinions. This was far worse
than in either 1928 or 1998, both of which allow substantial degrees of
freedom for political speech and organizing.

Lifestyle freedom: This is a rather hard-to-define, but important kind of
freedom. I'm thinking about the extent to which one's actions are
conditioned by the expectations of others. I can sleep in the nude, I
don't mind telling people I read comic books, I can use crude language (not
that I do, now that I have kids, but I used to), I can stay up late and
sleep in, I can tell people I study the Talmud, I can make jokes about
marijuana-- all these are things that I wouldn't have been able to have
publicly known at work or among my friends in 1962 or 1928 without their
reflecting poorly on my character. This kind of freedom expanded a lot
during the '60s and '70s, and has contracted slightly since then. Some
things that were OK in 1928 and 1962 have become non-OK, like cigarettes,
ethnic humor, and drunk driving. But I think that on balance, the trend
here is very positive. Conservatives call this "defining deviancy down",
and think it's a bad thing.
Freedom from petty regulation: This is the kind of thing Rich decries--
having to get prescriptions to buy drugs, needing to file forms to start a
business, not being allowed to tune your car in certain ways, not being
able to drive a truck for 14 hours straight... There is clearly a lot more
of this than there was in 1928, but I think most of the damage was done
between 1928 and 1962.

So, here's the score card (bigger numbers = more freedom):
                      1928 1962 1998
Taxes: 4 1 0
Income: 0 2 4
Accidents of birth: 0 1 4
Sexual: 0 1 4
Political: 3 0 3
Lifestyle: 0 2 4
Regulation: 4 1 0

Total: 11 8 19

The relative weights I've applied to these different sorts of freedom are
of course arbitrary and subjective. But unless you weight taxes and
regulation far higher than the other sorts of freedom, we're much better
off than we were in our parents' or grandparents' days.

Received on Fri May 22 16:20:06 1998

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