Jonah Goldberg

This is a typically penetrating insight, and one with new relevance these days. This country seems to have inverted de Tocqueville's hierarchy. On countless fronts, the natural pastures of daily liberty have become circumscribed by dull-witted but well-meaning bureaucrats slapping down the paving stones of good intentions on the road to Hell.

The rule of thumb for a free society should be that it infringes liberties rarely, but when it does so it is for important reasons. Today, that thumb has been cast down, Caesar-like, pointing in the opposite direction. We have democratized the small assaults on freedom so that everyone must endure them, while we caterwaul about the tyranny of any real inconvenience that might fall "disproportionately" on the few. We ban using trans fats for millions but flinch at the idea that some kid might have to endure the Pledge of Allegiance or a moment of silence in school if it conflicts with his conscience. Everyone must surrender his shoes, his regular-sized toothpaste and shampoo at the airport, but we man the barricades to protect a few young Muslim men from being inconvenienced for an extra five minutes at the airport.

Free speech is most restricted where it is most important - in political contests near Election Day - while it is maximized to an absurd level at the fringes of culture and decency. Banning "hate speech" from everybody's lips is a progressive priority, but electronic eavesdropping on a few terrorists is an impermissible leap down the slippery slope to the police state.

Of course, there are legitimate objections to infringements of liberty or principle on what de Tocqueville would call the "great things." What is so disturbing is how few legitimate objections are raised about the "little things." And I can't help but shake the feeling that civilizations fall apart, or get plowed under by the wheels of history, when they fail to understand these distinctions. One of my favorite sayings is that America can choke on a gnat, but it swallows tigers whole. These days, we seem to be choking on the tigers while our bellies fill with gnats.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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