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Handwringing over government intrusion rings false

By Michael M. Bates
web posted January 30, 2006

The debate over wiretapping U.S. citizens has joined critics from both the Left and the Right. There are not yet many details known about the surveillance and until there are I think reserving judgment is prudent. What I wonder is where some of these commentators who now seem so troubled about encroachments on citizens' liberties have been the last several decades.

In ways large and small, government at every level has been curbing our freedoms for a long time.

We aren't free to decide our own retirement plans. Government mandates participation in the actuarially unsound Social Security system.

We aren't free to protect the most vulnerable among us, unborn children. Government has decided the Constitution protects the taking of innocent human life.

We aren't free to do with our own property as we see fit. Government sets up zoning laws dictating what we can do and, if government deems it necessary for any reason, our property can be seized.

We aren't free, as employers, to pay whatever wage an employee might be willing to work for. We aren't free, as employees, to accept any wage we might find satisfactory.

We aren't free to decide how much water our toilets use. Government requires that toilets manufactured in the U.S. use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush.

We aren't free to send our children to any school we'd like. Government enforces rules pertaining to education and only government-approved schooling is permitted.

We aren't free to exercise our rights under the Second Amendment. Governments at various levels have infringed on those rights in numerous ways.

We aren't free to choose our cable television provider. Many government municipalities have granted monopolies in exchange for franchise fees.

We aren't free to work in the occupation we want. Government regulates scores of professions, sometimes enforcing licensing rules that have little to do with a person's competence to enter a particular field.

We aren't free to pay the genuine price for milk and other foods. Government operates farm supports that artificially drive up the cost to consumers.

We aren't free to avoid having our tax dollars used for purposes that run far afield of government's legitimate functions. Government funds almost everything from abortion to zoos, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the National Cowgirl Museum.

And these are just a few examples of how our liberties have been eroded. Why has that happened?

Part of the answer was provided by the late Barry Goldwater in his book "With No Apologies." He noted:

"The root of the problem lies in the Congress of the United States – 535 men and women who have been taught to believe that they are competent to control every aspect of our complicated, inventive society. Congress assumes it knows more about banking than bankers and has written millions of words of regulation. Congress believes it is competent to run every service station, barbershop, library, bus company, construction crew, airline, manufacturing plant, extractive operation, pharmaceutical house, dairy and dog kennel. Common sense condemns this assumption as ludicrous, yet we do nothing about it."

Not that Congress is the only difficulty. Courts that create laws rather than interpret them have limited our freedoms. State and local governments have shown a willingness to restrict rights in ways that Congress hasn't tried. Yet.

Many of us are part of the problem. Viewing the president as the national problem-solver isn't consistent with a belief in individual rights and responsibilities. Neither is looking to government for solutions. It's much better at creating problems than providing results.

Yes, it's true that Americans enjoy freedoms that for most of history others have not. It's also true, however, that decades of laws, rules, regulations, mandates, red tape and poorly reasoned court decisions have taken their toll.

Ultimately, it'll be determined if President Bush exceeded his authority by eavesdropping on calls made between the U.S. and overseas. That's as it should be. But will the same critics who caution that government has gotten too big in this situation then be willing to do something about other instances of governmental intrusion?

Don't hold your breath.

Mike Bates is the author of Right Angles and Other Obstinate Truths. This essay originally appeared in the January 26, 2006 Oak Lawn Reporter.

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