Make liberty a first priority

Government employs literally millions of people whose everyday job is to restrict the personal liberty of Americans. Employed at all levels of government, these millions of enforcement workers include not just the obvious (like police, prosecutors and prison guards) but also the legions of bureaucrats of a thousand different kinds who are assigned to enforce the expanding multitude of federal, state and local laws and regulations.

What all of these government enforcers have in common is this: Liberty is not their first priority. Instead, their primary job responsibility is putting limitations on American liberty. Because limiting liberty is their everyday job, they naturally come to see taking away other people’s freedom, not as something extraordinary, but as a “normal” thing to do.

Sometimes, of course, we are happy to see these government enforcers do their work, like when they get dangerous and harmful people off the streets. The problem is that there is little to stop them from going overboard, taking enforcement actions and creating rules which, though perhaps technically “legal,” go further than necessary in their impingements on liberty.

This problem is intrinsic to the system in which these career government enforcers operate. In their millions these employees represent a huge workforce that is systematically rewarded for taking away people's liberty but rarely if ever offered any incentives to preserve it. Given the jobs that they have, taking away people’s liberty is what counts as good job performance, and so it naturally becomes their goal.

Again, we are happy to see efficient enforcer performance when it actually does good things, but the enforcers are not always a position to distingush “good” destructions of liberty from bad ones. They just push the rules, which the legislatures have already made in excess. Thus, for example, prosecutors are rewarded for their numbers of convictions and the police for their numbers of arrests. It virtually never happens that either is rewarded for letting people alone who don’t deserve to be punished. Even when prosecutors themselves violate the rules or obtain false convictions (as happens a lot more than we realize), they are almost never seriously sanctioned or even investigated. But those who convict too few are denied promotion or fired. Do you think people in this position are likely to err on the side of liberty?

Once the employees who act for government came to see depriving people of their liberty as a normal thing, as essentially their job description, it became almost impossible for them to see liberty as a first priority. The two views of liberty are simply incompatible. And if a force having the size and power of government is run day-to-day by people who do not see preserving freedom as a first priority, or even an affirmative official concern, then liberty is doomed.

The solution to this problem lies first and foremost at the legislative level. Liberty for Americans will never be secure if it is left as an afterthought or not considered at all in the legislative process. It must be a first priority in making laws as well as in their enforcement, something that is only grudglingly put aside--as a last resort--in the pursuit of other important goals. This means (among other things) that there should be never be an impingement on liberty without a compelling reason to do so. Even then, the cause of liberty requires that precautionary steps should be in place to assure that the law and its enforcement go no further than is actually necessary to the purpose.

More laws = Less liberty

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