Liberty and License

December 11, 2018

With this Administration demolishing the regulatory state, we need to talk about the underlying claim of liberty. Conservatives once distinguished between liberty and license. Liberty was morally and socially responsible; license was not. That distinction seems to have disappeared from the conservative vocabulary. And with it the moral order in the country.

“Liberty” is now invoked whenever business confronts regulation. Citing “liberty,” business fought the exposure of Thalidomide even as it monstrously disfigured and eventually killed the child of one of my students. Citing “liberty,” some claim the right to waste energy and sell energy wasting products no matter the impact on the climate. Citing “liberty,” some claim the right to pollute with mercury, arsenic and an alphabet of poisons, to put anything into products, into or onto our bodies, earth, air and water unless and until someone else can prove it’s harmful. We don=t treat medicine that way but the claim is that it violates the “liberty” of supplement producers for us to ask for tests of whatever they don=t want to have to get FDA approval for. Some might think it also violates buyers= liberty to lead healthy lives B but perish the thought; that’s not economic “liberty.”

Because people Atook the risk@ B they called it Aliberty@ B financial institutions claimed the “liberty” to construct mortgage terms that made it virtually impossible for buyers to come out above water, destroying their savings, credit, health, homes, livelihood, families and future. In the Great Recession of 2008, those terms took the whole economy down as major companies, banks and markets failed in a cesspool of bizarre financial arrangements, subprime mortgages, mortgage backed securities, credit default swaps, and similar misbegotten deals. And it was OK to bail out those who were too big to fail because they just exercised their “liberty.”

To the free marketeers, the President and CEOs, regulation is generalized and undifferentiated. All restrictions are regulation and they are all bad unless and until regulators spend decades jumping through hoops. Meanwhile producers bear no responsibility to check whether their products are harmful. They accept no liability when harms become obvious to science, but only when it becomes obvious to the very people who pour their poisons into our bodies and our world.

Put it another way. There is no single definition of liberty. There are different definitions of “liberty” for you and me, different definitions for farmers, cattle ranchers, factory workers, lumber workers, guys, gals, easterners, southerners, people who want to graze their animals on public lands without paying B everyone has their own definition of “liberty” and their definitions pay no attention to the impact on the rest of us or on anyone else. Which means that “liberty” no longer means anything.

Liberty for the founders was universal. “Liberty” now seems to be a sacred word applied to whatever is good for us personally but with no binding meaning. Otherwise why can=t I do what I want to do on public land whether or not it conflicts with public purposes or Cliven Bundy’s insistence that he has the right to graze his animals there. Why isn=t that the same “liberty” he insists on? “Liberty” is whatever a president chooses to do whether or not it is good for the country. “Liberty” is what conservatives think we all should respect when it pertains to their clients. Their “liberty” is meaningless, a signal that we=re talking about selfishness, not rights. They’re talking about what used to be called license to do whatever they want regardless of whom it hurts.

Real liberty regards us equally. We all have the same rights. It makes no sense if you can do to me what I can=t do to you. True liberty is freedom to act short of injuring others. We all count. And that, equality, is as American as apple pie.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 11, 2018.

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Mankind’s Suicide Pact – The Sixth Mass Extinction

April 24, 2018

Last time we talked about how influencing our politicians to do the right thing can be fun. So this time let’s talk about some very serious issues with an eye toward enjoying the process of moving our politics to do the right things, even though the issues, like climate change, sometimes feel out of our control. But we do have power. We live in a democracy and can demand that our representatives deal with these problems first and foremost. Motivating them is our job. So let’s look and then return to our responsibility. Two issues involve the likely suicide of humanity: what has been termed the sixth mass extinction, this time of us.

We know about major extinctions that killed some 86% of existing species approximately 444 million years ago; killed some 75% of existing species, about 70 million years later; killed some 96% of existing species, approximately 251 million years ago. killed some 80% of existing species about 200 million years ago. And the fifth, about 66 million years ago, killed some 76% of all species including the dinosaurs. Extinctions have been recurrent, catastrophic, and resulted from climate changes, including changes in temperature, and levels of oxygen and other gasses. Biologists are suggesting we are headed for a sixth and this one is aimed at mankind, at us.

Mankind’s actions are changing the climate. Climate change doesn’t just drive the waters higher, create extreme weather events and disrupt the climate worldwide. Changing biodiversity affects the fundamental cycles of nature. The Atlantic described mass extinctions as “global die-offs that killed the majority of animal life on earth” and it explained that they were not simply the result of external shocks, but were ultimately caused by “the internal dynamics of food webs that faltered and failed catastrophically in unexpected ways.”[1] We know environmental changes are heating up the globe and interfering with the food chain in the oceans. So we have to control ourselves before our environment is totally out of control.

Another form of impending mass suicide comes from the nuclear power plants. That’s not just about rogue nations like North Korea, but lots of companies, corporations, workers and others have access to nuclear fuel and could do great damage with it. If you haven’t seen the pictures or stories of the so-called “survivors” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is worth doing to understand the seriousness of what we should be trying to protect our loved ones from. We have to stop that process before it destroys us all.

We should know by now that mankind is doing many things that are causing great damage to our world and our survival in it. Plastic bags and chemical run off are destroying sea life. Endocrine disrupters are all around us in the things we buy, eat and use and they affect our health, our ability to have children, and their growth without agonizing birth defects. Excess antibiotics are inviting super-resistant diseases and leaving us vulnerable to enormously destructive epidemics.

The over-arching issue seems to be the too widespread belief that civilization depends on allowing any of us to dump whatever we please into products, onto the ground and into the air and water until such time as someone is able to determine what damage it has been doing. There is a point when liberty becomes license.

As we talked about last time, influencing our politicians to do the right things can be fun. Enjoy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 24, 2018.

[1] Peter Brannen, “Earth Is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction,” The Atlantic,  June 13, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/06/the-ends-of-the-world/529545/.


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