How To Restrict Liberty

by | May 22, 1997

Let’s look at how pressure groups are able to impose their values and preferences on others in ways that restrict liberty. To make my case, I list several restrictions that have been, are, or are being sought such as bans: on handgun ownership, abortion, smoking in public and private places, school prayers, liquor sales, mandatory […]

Let’s look at how pressure groups are able to impose their values and preferences on others in ways that restrict liberty. To make my case, I list several restrictions that have been, are, or are being sought such as bans: on handgun ownership, abortion, smoking in public and private places, school prayers, liquor sales, mandatory seatbelt and air bag laws. At some level of government a majority of voters have given support to politicians, who’ve sought these restrictions on human liberty.

These restrictions pass legislative muster despite the fact they offend large numbers of people. After all, for example, there are 40 to 50 million smokers who don’t like smoking restrictions just as there were tens of millions of Americans who weren’t wild about Prohibition. Here’s the question: how is it that legislation passes that is offensive to large numbers of Americans?

The partial answer is that liberty-restricting laws are always advanced as a single issue. Most Americans would support one or more of the restrictions listed above, such as smoking restrictions or mandatory seatbelt laws. But let there be a different political process to restrict personal liberty. Let’s have an omnibus bill where legislators vote up or down as a single package: a ban on handgun ownership, abortion, smoking in public and private places, liquor sales, school prayers and mandatory seatbelt and air bag laws. My guess is that such a bill would never be passed. The why is simple, interesting and depressing.

In the political process, there’s no way for the ordinary voter to register the intensity of his preferences. A bare majority of anti-smokers may support smoking bans but smokers who intensely value their right to smoke have no way to politically register their intense objections. They have just one vote that is just as good as somebody else’s. It’s different in the marketplace. People can register preferences. If I intensely prefer a Rolls Royce, I can give up nice dinners, a nice house, retirement savings and spend lots of dollars (votes) and realize my preference.

The depressing side of why such an omnibus bill would not pass has to do with a broad contempt for liberty. For example, there are many pro-abortionists who’d support all manner of restrictions against cigarette smoking and handgun ownership but they’d never support the omnibus bill. The reason is there would be a restriction on the liberty they intensely care about. For their part, anti-abortionists wouldn’t support the bill because it would place a restriction on a liberty they highly value such as prayers in school or handgun ownership.

The particular examples I’ve chosen aren’t as important as the fact that we tend to value our freedoms and tend to trivialize and trample upon those of others. It’s the same with tyrants. All tyrants want freedom for themselves but they don’t want it for others.

What’s the solution? Somehow we must develop a set of rules that prevent democratic majorities from running roughshod over the liberties of others. The historical precedent for resistance to preference imposition is the use of violence. My own preference, for most voluntary human activities, is to live-and-let-live. I recognize that I do things that annoy others and they do things that annoy me. Greater tolerance and admonishment is far superior to the use of state power to force people to do what I think is wise. After all if I can use government to restrict your liberty, you can use that same government to restrict mine.

Walter Williams (March 31, 1936 – December 1, 2020) was an American economist, commentator, academic, and columnist at Capitalism Magazine. He was the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and a syndicated editorialist for Creator's Syndicate. He is author of Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?, and numerous other works.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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