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What’s All This Now?
Yes, another essay with a funky word in the title. Desuetude is a word, with its main application in law, that means “a state of disuse”. In law it has an application in that property can become so unused and maintained that the owner’s rights lapse and the property can be forfeit. This can even be applied to statutes, that can lapse and be unenforceable.
The other word in the title is “freedom”. I am happy to go with the dictionary definition: “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. I will further accept the definition of “hindrance” and “restraint” that are in the links included in this definition. Notable is that this definition properly conceives of freedom as entailing so-called “negative” rights. That is, the right to be free from, undue hindrance and restraint. This does not entail to freedom to things, like a certain level of income or particular goods and services. I have written about the distinction between negative and positive rights previously. Positive rights erroneously involve hindering and coercing others to do things for you, which places them outside the rights of what is morally acceptable (and practically prudent). It also necessarily involves the increase in the amount of governmental force that exists in society, which I wrote about recently. So with our terms defined let us examine the proposition that freedom (so defined) is going unused.
Proof of Disuse
There are numerous examples of people failing to use their freedom, and allowing said freedom to lapse into desuetude. For this essay we will focus on three areas: economic freedom, freedom from war, and its associated costs, and freedom of speech.
First, as far as economic freedom is concerned a recent Pew Research Center poll showed that 36% of US adults view socialism somewhat or very positively. This is down from 42% who gave the same answer in 2019. Also 60% do view socialism negatively, while 57% view capitalism favorably. Yet this does not capture the essence of the problem. These are somewhat vague terms, empty vessel words as I have described them. We need to get down to specific policies to fully grasp what is going on.
The two drivers of a loss of economic freedom, as measured by their impact on the amount of money the government expropriates are the entitlement programs Social Security and Medicare. I dealt with the whole “Social Security is my pension” fantasy awhile back. These programs are set to go broke in the early 2030s and will then require an even greater infusion of taxpayer money.
For all the actuarial problems of these programs they remain immensely popular. 60+% of US adults favor Social Security and Medicare. Also, the older the age cohort the stronger the support. 57% say that Social Security should be given more funding. The numbers are slightly lower for Medicare, yet still a clear majority.
All this points to a real phenomenon; that people are for less government spending in the abstract, but in favor of spending they perceive helps them specifically. A good proxy to establish this is to look at the job approval ratings of Congress in general, which is at 20%. Then compare it with job approval ratings of respondent’s individual representative and Senator. Substantially higher numbers (a majority) think their House member does a good job:
This is reinforced by the reelection rates of House members, which has long been well into the 90% range. The same link shows Senate rates consistently over 80% and usually over 90%. The proof is in the pudding, citizens can complain all day about “Congress”, but their Congressman is just fine as long as they bring home the
As for other issues concerning the economy, the polling is a bit more mixed. A plurality thinks that regulations do more harm than good, yet some regulations have considerable support, such as environmental regulations.
While the somewhat tepid support for much of what government does, the thesis is freedom going unused. All that is needed to prove this thesis is that people are standing by and allowing this to happen. This look at the trajectory of government spending and revenue shows clearly that nobody is doing anything to slow down the trainwreck that is fast approaching:
The reason is simple really. The benefits accrue to specific groups that are highly motivated to increase their take from the government, and the costs are spread out over the rest of the population so that they do not really notice that they are being taken. The formula is “concentrated benefits and diffuse costs”. Again, nobody is using their freedom enough to stop any of this. In many ways the populace is actively helping to erode freedom, and in the rest of the cases, their apathy is doing the same thing. Like I said, Freedom Desuetude.
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This same phenomenon can be seen in the utter lack of anything resembling a peace movement. The polls cited in the previous links show a desire by the population for increased defense spending. While support for the US proxy war in Ukraine has slipped (mostly among Republicans) the ongoing slaughter and creeping escalation has not produced any kind of a backlash. Additionally the population strongly supports the increasingly tough stance the US is taking toward China. As for the rest of US foreign policy, 800+ bases around the world, support for various dictatorships, and all the rest…crickets from the populace. In this area, freedom has been sitting around so long it is getting rusty.
Then there is the area of free speech. In similar fashion to economic freedom people believe in the abstract in free speech as the polls show. Yet, when you get down to cases there is a disconcerting disconnect. Nearly half of Americans think that restricting “disinformation” is acceptable. To that end 56% of Americans want the government to regulate social media more tightly.
Then there are the increasing examples of universities (especially law schools) that have mobs enforcing a so-called “heckler’s veto”. You can see here, here, and here, that this is going on at the university level. The disturbing part of this trend is that, particularly with law schools, these will be the people who in the future will interpret the US constitution and its strong protections for freedom of speech. A constitution is only as good as its interpretation.
As in the other two areas, all that is needed is for apathy to take root and for people to watch as freedom becomes so unused as to be made moot, like the legal connotation of the term desuetude. In reality if freedom becomes so withered all that remains is for a strongman to come and take explicit authoritarian power.
Our Freedom is Our Security
Very often the case for limiting freedom is some sort of existential threat. At times the public has explicitly gone along with this, as after 9/11. Yet, time and again the public only really opposes a limitation on freedom after the fact. This has been true at least since the internment of Japanese American citizens, to the Vietnam War, to the Gulf War. Yet, the current “crisis” always seems to garner public support, the memory of the public being akin to a gnat. The result of this constant forgetting and relapsing into apathy at the erosion of freedom is that the power of the state is ever increasing. It usually comes by the ratchet method. Power is increased in an emergency then it falls back a bit, but never to the previous level. It waits at this new higher level until the next emergency, real or imagined. This was outlined in the fine history Crisis and Leviathan.
When you let freedom atrophy, like a muscle it weakens the basis of civilization, like atrophied muscles weaken the physical body. People think there is a tradeoff between freedom and security, that you must give up your freedom to be made safe. Yet, as Ben Franklin is famous for saying “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”. I would add, they will get neither. There is no tradeoff. Our security is in our liberty. This is not simply a moral stance it is also a practical one. Our physical safety from the vicissitudes of the Earth is in our ability to produce goods and services that protect us from cold, and heat, and storm, and starvation.
Our liberty, and our active use of it is also our defense from authoritarians who would seize that liberty to control our lives. A populace that is actively engaged in defending all areas of their freedom, their economic freedom, their peaceful interactions with anyone on the planet, and their freedom to express themselves, will dissuade any would be authoritarian from making the effort to enslave us. All these so-called “leaders” would be punished most heinously, by being compelled to go get an actual job.
If however we continue down the road of freedom desuetude, then wither away it shall, and we will be easy pickings for those who would grab and hold power over us. As followers of Jesus the Christ we should be made of sterner stuff than to let this happen. God has given us our faith, and our eternal salvation. That is what sets us free for all eternity. How we respond in the here and now is up to us. God created us to be free, so let’s get busy working those liberty muscles.
Praise Be to God