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Per Capita Davis: Freedom isn’t free

By From page A4 | December 05, 2013

An oil company executive was asked why, if he agreed that burning fossil fuels is the major culprit in climate change, he opposed any legislation or regulation to limit that burning. His response, to summarize, was that he feared a loss of freedom, that new laws and regulations would restrict his personal choices, such as what kind of car he could own and drive.

The tension in how different people with different perspectives define “freedom” is arguably at the core of many issues, and climate change is one of them. This is not a new tension. Think back to Jimmy Carter in his cardigan sweater asking Americans, in the midst of an oil crisis, to use energy more efficiently and the outpouring of criticism in response to that modest request. To this day, he is mocked by some for that sensible and reasonable appeal to the nation.

Or remember the outrage when it was first suggested that SUVs be required to meet higher mpg standards and the shrill voices in Congress that cried foul, citing all the soccer moms who, so it was said, needed these behemoths to cart kids around. If I’m remembering correctly, the vice president at the time asserted Americans have a right to use as much energy as necessary to preserve their lifestyle.

Speaking of a cardigan, a recent article about the burgeoning electronic cigarette industry describes an ad (one of many that urge readers to “Take Back Your Freedom”) that appeals to “freedom-loving smokers who want to indulge their habit anywhere.” The ad “features a scowling granny in a cardigan saying ‘Dear Smoking Ban’ and brandishing her middle finger.”

This is a perfect illustration of the tension between “personal freedom” and regulation. Smoking, shown to cause cancer, creates huge social costs, costs that all of us absorb. Regulating the individual for the benefit of the community as a whole can make those being regulated unhappy.

In my view, there are (at least) three general principles of civil society that inform where to locate the balance point between personal freedom and the general welfare of the population as a whole.

One is that your freedom to swing your arms stops just short of the tip of my nose. More specifically, one person’s freedom does not extend to doing damage to others. This would not be so important if we were all angels, but we are not. The freedom to dump industrial waste into waterways is regulated to protect everyone’s right to clean water. The laws to protect the air and water were enacted not based on some abstract environmental theory but because the air and water were being treated as dumping grounds.

Second, freedom isn’t free. A friend of mine was a member of Up With People, a singing group of young people back in the ’60s that traveled around the country and the world extolling the virtues of democracy. One of their songs included the words: “Freedom isn’t free, you’ve got to pay the price, you’ve got to sacrifice, for your liberty.” At the time, this meant mostly that guarding freedom required a strong military and a willingness to go to war.

I think it’s safe to say no one thought of it as “freedom might require you to pay taxes to support clean air and water” or “freedom might require you, for the benefit of others, to not smoke in the workplace.” But, given the issues of today, these can certainly be viewed as reasonable extrapolations.

Third, in a world with constantly increasing population and the associated energy required to provide for the needs of that population, there are many laws and regulations that are necessary to promote the general welfare by reducing our per capita energy usage — for example, building standards for new homes, appliance efficiency standards, automobile mileage requirements, restrictions on the use of coal, a cap-and-trade system, and requirements for development of non-fossil fuel energy resources. Some might argue that these limit personal freedom, but consider the history of accomplishment of such laws and regulations.

According to a recent article by Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council, efforts to increase energy efficiency over the past 40 years resulted in the United States using less oil in 2012 than in 1973 and less total energy in 2012 than in 1999 even though the economy grew by 25 percent. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, these efficiencies (required by law and regulation) are saving consumers hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

Jimmy Carter was right.

Interestingly, on the other side of the political aisle, Sen. Mike Lee, a tea party favorite from Utah, has added his voice to defining what “freedom” means in America. Quoting from a recent speech: “For all America’s reputation for individualism and competition, our nation has from the beginning been built on a foundation of community and cooperation.”

Further, “Freedom means ‘we’re all in this together.’ The conservative vision for America is not an Ayn Rand novel. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting, or a Frank Capra movie: a nation of ‘plain, ordinary kindness, and a little looking out for the other fellow, too.’ ”

Mike Lee is right, too.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; his column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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