Freedom Watch

What’s Your Metric?

How do you measure freedom?

By From the September 2009 issue

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HOW DO YOU WATCH FREEDOM? How do you watch it grow? How do you watch it shrink? What's the metric? What's your metric? What do you think the metrics of your fellow citizens are? If you have no idea what their metric is, how do you talk to them about freedom with any sense of urgency?

Milton Friedman's metric was the percentage of GDP spent by government.

Friedman said we could not be truly free in a country where the government at all levels took and spent 30 percent of GDP. In Obamaland in 2009 government at all levels will spend 40 percent of GDP (almost the level of World War II). That will go up, way up, if the programs Obama is pushing get enacted. Perhaps to 50 percent.

But is that a valid metric, at least for most people? It's true that government takes more of our wealth than it used to, but it's also true that we can buy a lot more than we used to with what's left over. As Bill Buckley used to note, you can buy all of Beethoven for 10 dollars. How much more do you need? How do you measure wealth anyway? To what extent is wealth a surrogate metric for freedom?

Another way to measure freedom, or lack of freedom, is by counting the pages in (or weighing?) the Federal Register or the Code of Federal Regulations, where the regulations that govern virtually everything we do every day are listed. It's an imperfect measure because a one-page rule can be as burdensome as a 500-page rule. Whatever the number, it will go up, and probably dramatically, under President Obama.

A better measure is the cost of regulations. Federal regulations impose a burden of more than a trillion dollars on the economy, almost as much as total federal income tax receipts. And of course, states regulate too. How free can you be when there are a trillion dollars' worth of instructions telling you what to do each day? Slow down. Stop smoking. Don't eat fat. Get off the couch. Put down that soft drink.

Freedom House defines freedom as "the opportunity to act spontaneously in a variety of fields outside the control of the government and other centers of potential domination." Quick: name a field that is outside the control of government?

How do Franklin Roosevelt's four freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear) fare on Freedom House's measure? Not well.

Congress and the Supreme Court have substantially curtailed freedom of speech where it counts most: in political campaigns. And the Supreme Court has greatly limited freedom of religion with decades of rulings that prohibit people from praying or displaying religious symbols in a variety of circumstances.

Roosevelt and the progressives, and their heirs-today we call them (cover the children's ears, please) liberals-schemed to free people from want and fear by creating welfare programs. Today that array of programs, not just Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, but their cousins, state and municipal pension programs, among others, have become unsustainable, and people, especially the "little people" who pay taxes, are afraid. They see an aging workforce and a depleted tax base, and contemplate the fiscal ruin of the state and personal want in their future.

Perhaps freedom is just a state of mind. In that case, we might measure how our public figures value freedom by seeing how often they talk about it.

In President Obama's February 24 quasi-state of the union speech to Congress, he mentioned freedom only once. In his inauguration speech, he mentioned freedom only three times. In his Election Night victory speech, he didn't mention freedom at all.

In Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address he mentioned freedom eight times. In his first official state of the union address in 1982 (1981 was a quasistate of the union address that was called in February and was about only economic recovery) he mentioned freedom six times. And in his acceptance speech in 1984 in Dallas he mentioned freedom six times.

In his D-Day address this year President Obama mentioned freedom only once. President Bush mentioned freedom four times in his 2004 speech marking the 60th anniversary of D-Day. President Reagan mentioned freedom four times on the 40th anniversary of D-Day.

Are those imperfect measures? Perhaps.

But then, what's your metric?

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.