Walter E. Williams

Philosopher David Hume warned that, "It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once." That's why we should guard against any encroachment on liberty, no matter how small. Let's look at a couple of instances where, at our peril, we've failed to do so.

 The Christmas season reminds many Americans of the attack on religion. A number of stores have caved in to pressures to ban Christmas celebrations, greetings and symbols, among them: Target, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Sears, Costco, Kohl's, Barnes & Noble, Toys 'R' Us, and Walgreens. Cities have banned nativity scenes. Some schools have banned the singing of Christmas carols.

 Much of the attack on religion had its birth with the 1963 Supreme Court decision in Murray vs. Curlett, which banned organized school prayers. For a moment, let's ignore the debate on whether that decision was right or wrong and instead focus on tactics. Suppose, in 1963, America's atheists had revealed and demanded their complete agenda: elimination of religious Christmas symbols in public places, elimination of the words "under God" in our Pledge of Allegiance, elimination of "In God We Trust" from our currency and elimination of caroling in public schools. There would have been so much resistance that they wouldn't have achieved any of their agenda, including the ban on prayers in school. Given our weak resistance, you can bet the day will come when the attack on religion will include demands that crosses be removed from Arlington and Normandy cemeteries and bans on religious television or radio broadcasts.

 While many Americans are disturbed by the ongoing attack on religion, they applauded the identical strategy when it was the attack on cigarette smokers. In the 1960s, when the anti-tobacco zealots started out, they only demanded "reasonable" things like no smoking sections on airplanes. Suppose they started out revealing their complete agenda: no smoking in airports, restaurants, places of employment and parks, confiscatory taxes on tobacco products, and multibillion-dollar suits against tobacco companies. There would have been so much resistance that the anti-tobacco zealots wouldn't have succeeded with no smoking sections on airplanes.

 The institution of private property offers the liberty-oriented solutions to both the school prayer and the smoking issues. I believe it's a parental right to be able to decide whether one's child will, or will not, say a morning prayer. Conflict emerges because of government-produced education. While there might be an argument for government financing of education, there's absolutely no argument for government production of education. Therefore, if each parent were given an education voucher to pay for education, those parents wishing prayers, or those against prayers in school, could enroll their children in the school that meets their preference. Thus, conflict would be eliminated. Of course, a superior solution would be getting government entirely out of education.

 Private property would solve the smoking issue. Suppose you owned a restaurant, and you didn't wish to permit smoking. How would you like it if people used the political system to enact laws that forced you to permit smoking? I'm sure you'd consider it tyranny, and I'd agree. But there's symmetry. It's just as much tyranny to use the political system to enact laws to force a restaurant owner who wished to permit smoking to ban smoking. The liberty-oriented solution might be to post a sign saying you don't permit smoking, and customers wishing otherwise wouldn't enter. The same principle would apply to restaurant owners who wished to permit smoking.

 I fear that too many Americans have contempt for the principles of liberty and opt for solutions that employ the political arena to forcibly impose their wills on others. If that's the preferred game, then those Americans shouldn't whine when others employ the same tactic to impose their wills.


Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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