Whither freedom, whither liberty

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Robert Higgs is an author and senior fellow for The Independent Institute, an Oakland, Calif., nonpartisan organization that sponsors studies on key social and economic issues. Higgs spoke to the Trib about the current condition of freedom in America.

Q: How would you describe the state of our freedoms today?

A: Dwindling.

Q: Why do you say that?

A: Many reasons. The impact of the 9/11 attacks has been quite severe on American freedoms. The government's powers under the Patriot Act and other legislation have increased greatly. The other side of that increase has been a diminution in individuals' protection from government intrusion. Certainly, Fourth Amendment rights have taken a beating and any rights to privacy that people might believe they should have respected have more or less evaporated.

Q: So you think the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of attempting to provide national security at the expense of individual freedom?

A: Absolutely. What we've had since 9/11 is the same general kind of experience we had in previous perceived national emergencies. The state authorities use the occasion to expand their powers. They are, in general, always wishing to expand their powers, (so) they leap at such opportunities. People let down their guard when they are afraid and, in the case of the threat of terrorism, (9/11) was tailor-made. It was visible, horrible, striking — all the things that made (most people) soften up and not resist the expansion of government power.

Q: Do you believe a more recent example of that would be the ongoing and often emotional debate over expanded gun control legislation?

A: We are seeing a similar kind of political dynamic there. Look at just the general rate of violent crime in this country; it's been declining for about 20 years. But (then) some extreme event such as the school massacre in Connecticut takes place. Plenty of opportunists who have wanted stronger gun controls for a very long time (are using) this event as a lever now, because the public is less inclined to resist an expansion of government gun controls.

Q: If the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of providing security for the masses at the expense of individual freedoms, how do you think the pendulum swings back?

A: I don't think it will happen organically. Unfortunately, there is a coalescence of interests at work that helps to sustain such expansions of government power. If you look at the security-industrial complex, you find that a gigantic industry of private contractors and consultants has arisen. All of these people have the financial ability to hire experts and publicists to keep people stirred up about the threats that they pretend to be diminishing somehow by the work that they do at taxpayer expense.

Q: What do you think represents the greatest danger in failing to recognize that freedoms are dwindling?

A: The danger is that this is part of a slippery slope on which we proceed toward the loss of virtually all our liberties. The risk we bear whenever we allow government to become bigger, stronger, more powerful is a very serious matter. Yet because it tends to take place in small, partial, discrete changes, people don't see that adding up all such changes, we can produce a huge change in the balance between government and its citizens.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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