Item (a): Officials in Prince George’s County, Maryland, have proposed cracking down on truancy by strapping ankle bracelets on the truants. There are already fines and criminal penalties for parents who let their kids play hooky, but these punishments have been deemed ineffective.
Item (b): Health regulations in Fairfax County, Virginia, prohibit McDonald’s from swapping a toy in a Happy Meal for the one the kid wants. Over Christmas, Fairfax health officials shuttered several soup kitchens by trying to impose rigorous restaurant-style regulations on them.
Item (c): In December the Indianapolis Star reported on the life of a 93-year-old man who’d lived in a van on the lot of a towing company for the last seven years. The owner of the business had let the man use the washroom and run a power cord out to the van to heat it and cook meals there, but no dice. A health official declared the van not up to code and ordered him out.
Item (d): Lawmakers in the Vermont legislature are considering a ban on any distractions while one drives, including talking on a cell phone, eating, drinking, smoking, personal grooming, playing a musical instrument, or dealing with any "pets or cargo."
Item (e): Spurred on by smoking and trans fat bans, a New York state senator is introducing legislation that would ban people from talking on cell phones, listening to iPods, or fiddling with Blackberries when they cross intersections in New York City and Buffalo.
Q: How are these related?
A: Oh come on!
Americans make a big deal of the fact that ours is the freest country on earth and an example to the world. Historian Richard Brookhiser writes, "America is about liberty or it is about nothing." It wasn’t a coincidence that the second Gulf war named "Operation Iraqi Freedom" — or that then-Sen. Zell Miller blew his stack before the 2004 Republican convention insisting that the troops there were not "occupiers" but "liberators."
Brookhiser et al have half a point. Americans enjoy a remarkable degree of freedom, and we won’t let you forget it. This can take on almost Orwellian overtones at times, as when antismoking activists insist that their enterprise is all about expanding the "freedom from smoke" and liberating bartenders and waitresses from the tyranny of tobacco.
But the "America = freedom" mantra is not just wrong, it’s also dangerous to our actual freedoms. According to various surveys, Americans still view government suspiciously but rarely do anything about it. There is no organized political constituency to toss the bums out for legislating and regulating the sort of outrages that I describe above. We’re much more likely to gripe amongst ourselves, then shrug and make with the consolation: At least this is the freest country on earth.
At the rate things are going, not for long it isn’t. America may be exceptional but unless people are willing to dig in their heels, the government has no obligation to recognize this — and it shows. Rather than being pelted with tomatoes and empty beer cans every time he speaks, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is lionized for his neo-Savonarola routine. Some practical jokers are even encouraging him to run for President…of the United States.