Were Americans more free half a century ago? Many conservatives would instinctively answer that they were. But the question is really not so easy. In some ways, many Americans have less freedom than they used to. In other ways, some of the same people have gained opportunities to make their own choices. Kevin Drum offers a preliminary comparison:

Ways in which you were less free 50 years ago:

  • Most shops were closed on Sunday, thanks to blue laws.
  • You stood a good chance of being drafted into the military.
  • X-rated movies were illegal, and movies in general were more heavily censored.
  • Travel to foreign countries was more onerous (getting visas and other travel documents was a huge pain).
  • It was harder to procure birth control, and abortion was illegal.
  • Owning gold was illegal.
  • Casino gambling was banned nearly everywhere.
  • It was harder to buy and smoke marijuana.
  • You could not bank across state lines or get more than 5¼ percent interest on your savings.

Ways in which you are less free today:

  • There are lots of places where you can’t smoke a cigarette.
  • Boarding an airplane is more hassle, and just generally, there are more security-related restrictions on our daily lives.
  • You can’t dump hazardous crap anywhere you want.
  • The permitting process for building on your property is generally harder. (If you live on the coast in California, it’s way harder.)
  • Buying a gun requires a background check and, sometimes, a waiting period.
  • You have to wear a seat belt when you drive.
  • Your taxes are higher.
  • It’s harder to buy raw milk.
  • As of next January, you will be required to buy health insurance.

Both lists could be expanded without much trouble. I encourage readers to post their suggestions. For example, I’d add pervasive datamining and electronic surveillance to the “less free” column. On the other hand, as Matt Yglesias points out, now you can buy your own telephone.

But the most important part of Drum’s post is his preliminary observation that, by any reasonable standard, blacks, women, and the disabled enjoy considerably more control over their lives than they did in 1963. Although Drum doesn’t draw the conclusion, I’d argue that this is the most important reason that the rhetoric of the end of freedom, which pervades the Right, falls flat with most Americans.

No one likes burdensome regulations, stifling bureaucracy, or high taxes. But let’s be honest: the claim that we are slouching toward tyranny just doesn’t make sense to groups who make up, after all, a majority of the population. So conservatives might have more political success if we dropped the apocalyptic language. We can oppose threats to freedom without ignoring the ways in which it has been advanced for many of our family members, friends, and fellow citizens.