Getting the Freedom Priorities Right

Sometimes, the daily flow of politics and public policy tends to remind us of what really matters in this world. Last week’s Supreme Court ruling that upheld the individual mandate in Obamacare as a tax is a good example. By defining the mandate as a tax, the Supreme Court dealt a serious blow to the economic freedom of the American people: the Court effectively opened for the federal government to remove what remains of our economic freedom by creating new entitlements – and tax us to pay for them.

The road is now open for the remaining parts of the European welfare state to come rolling ashore. If we allow that to happen, then the largest bastion of economic freedom in the world will be gone for the foreseeable future. It is absolutely imperative that all hands are on deck to protect our economic freedom – the fight for almost every other freedom issue must stand back. (Accountable government and freedom of speech excepted.) This means that those among the ranks of libertarians who prioritize social issues over economic issues better think again.

Yes: gay marriage is less important than economic freedom. Not in principle, but in priority.

In principle – in a truly free society – everyone is at liberty to follow his or her own path in life, so long as his or her actions do not inflict harm on others. Government is confined to protecting, not intruding on, people’s lives, liberty and property. By logical consequence, in a free society, built on libertarian principles, people can define themselves as whoever they want to be, whatever they want to be, without having to ask the government for permission to do so. There are no government rules to stipulate how you can and cannot live your life – if you want to drop out of school, you have the right to do so; if you want to never buy health insurance, you have the right to do so. Consenting adults can get married in whatever constellations they want to, and who is a man and who is a woman.

The personal freedoms associated with the most private aspects of our lives are crucial in a free society. Some libertarians join forces with liberals in advancing these issues, the best known being gay marriage. All other things equal I would suggest that this is a worthy cause to fight for,  but as economists put it, ceteris is not always paribus. All other things are not equal. Most of us live in the part of the world where government taxes away one third or more of our income and redistributes it among us private citizens. Most of us are stifled in our economic ambitions by highly progressive taxes (especially those here in America who live in a state with a progressive income tax). And if such laws as the Affordable Care Act survive the 2012 election results, our economic freedom will be infringed on even further. Worse still: if Obama wins a second term, he will advance the welfare state even further, thus removing even more of the economic freedom we still enjoy.

With a government that is increasingly intrusive on our liberty and property, it is a waste of valuable political capital – manpower and money – to fight for gay marriage or the rights of transgender persons to define themselves as whatever gender they want to be.

Every liberal from Sea to Shining Sea will cry foul at this statement, and frankly so will a fair amount of libertarians. In support of my priorities, consider Argentina, where they just used up valuable legislative resources to liberate a small group of citizens from the shackles of having to be either a man or a woman. The Associated Press reports:

Argentina’s president personally delivered the nation’s first identity cards on Monday to people who legally switched their genders under a law that sets a global precedent. President Cristina Fernandez said she’s proud of setting a new global standard with the gender identity law, which overwhelmingly passed congress, enabling anyone to change their gender without first having to win approval from judges or doctors. Argentina is showing the world that equality is just as important as liberty, she said. “What sets us apart is that we care not only about ourselves and our immediate circle, but about others as well,” she said. “Today we’re setting a new standard for equality and legality.” Fernandez handed out the new identity cards to a half-dozen people who were born one sex but now identify as another. She also gave new cards to several children of lesbian parents who couldn’t be properly identified before.

This is the same country that ranks 158th in the Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom:

Argentina’s economic freedom score is 48, making its economy the 158th freest in the 2012 Index. Its overall score has decreased by 3.7 points, the third worst decline in this year’s Index. With lower scores on six of the 10 economic freedoms, Argentina now ranks only 27th out of 29 countries in the South and Central America/Caribbean region, and its overall score is far below the regional and world averages. Argentina’s foundations of economic freedom have weakened in light of extensive government intrusion into free markets. Aggravated by corruption and political interference, the lack of judicial independence has severely eroded limits on government. Public spending by all levels of government now exceeds one-third of total domestic output. Regulatory encroachment on private businesses has continued to increase, undermining previous years’ structural reforms. Populist spending measures and price controls distort markets and undermine productivity growth, and the financial sector remains hobbled by government interference. Fading confidence in the government’s determination to promote or even sustain open markets has discouraged entrepreneurship and dynamic investment within the private sector.

Again, in a libertarian society all are equally free. But in order to attain such high levels of freedom we have to get our priorities right. Fundamentals such as an accountable government, freedom of speech and economic freedom must all be in place in order to provide an infrastructure of liberty, before we can advance to liberate other areas of society.

The freedom to marry five people of various genders is reduced to eclectic flea-killing if you cannot provide for yourself without asking government for a handout. The freedom of a lesbian couple to adopt is worth nothing if that lesbian couple are forced to rely on government-provided food, health care, education, clothes and housing. (For regular families, that is what the complete absence of economic freedom boils down to.) The freedom of Jack to become Jill, with or without gender surgery, is reduced to mere symbolism if Jill is just as unable to find a job and pay her own bills as Jack was.