The Real Threat to American Freedom

spirit of 76
The Spirit of ’76 (Wikipedia)

There was a lot of wood smoke in the air in my neighborhood during the last couple of nights. This was in spite of the fact that the Maricopa County Air Quality Department had declared  No Burn days. (Phoenix metro residents are prohibited from burning wood in their fireplaces on No Burn days because the smoke, combined with certain weather conditions, creates dangerous levels of particulates in the air.)

People who burn wood in their fireplaces on these days can be fined but I knew that whoever was violating the ban in my neighborhood probably wouldn’t get caught because the county doesn’t have many inspectors. It’s highly unlikely that any of my neighbors needed to burn wood to heat their houses, so they were probably doing it because they thought it was romantic to use their fireplaces during the holidays. But that’s a poor excuse, because wood smoke, in addition to being annoying, is a serious health threat to people with respiratory problems. Furthermore, too much smoke in the air could cause Maricopa County to fall out of attainment with federal health standards, which could lead to more severe air quality regulations.

Violating a wood burning ban might seem like a minor problem in the greater scheme of things, but I think it illustrates a more serious problem in America today. I’m talking about the widespread anti-government sentiment in our society. It seems to me that there are more people than ever before who believe the biggest threats to our freedom come from government regulations. I think this attitude was legitimized during the Ronald Reagan presidency. For example, one of President Reagan’s most famous quotes was, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

I have a hard time believing my wood-burning neighbors weren’t aware of the No Burn days, because the county has done a great job of publicizing them. I suspect their attitude toward the wood burning ban was, “Screw the government, they can’t tell ME what to do.” But it wasn’t the government they were screwing, it was their fellow citizens.

Unfortunately, many Americans have come to believe that freedom means they should be able to do whatever they want. But that’s never been the case. Freedom doesn’t mean you have the freedom to do things that are socially irresponsible.

The corrosive belief that our government is the enemy these days is largely the result of the constant stream of clever talking points fed to sympathetic politicians and media personalities by the numerous, well-funded, Orwellian-named, right-wing think tanks. Take a look, for instance, at what happened after the 2008 financial crisis that produced the Great Recession. The crisis was primarily the result of a lack of government regulation in the financial sector. But it wasn’t long afterwards that many Americans were convinced they should instead be angry about how the government intervened in the economy to prevent an economic collapse and promote a recovery. Another example is the rise of the Tea Party, and how they focus their complaints solely on the federal government and ignore the problems caused by the private sector.

Some government regulations are can be irrational and onerous, but the vast majority of them provide a useful purpose – and they can always be changed by the politicians we elect. Effectively administered government regulations will become more and more important as private corporations continue to grow in size and power. But if the entire regulatory process is demonized, the government can’t do its job. I suspect that’s just what the people who fund the conservative think tanks want.

Update

In November of 2016 Republican candidate Donald Trump, a millionaire businessman, won the electoral vote. One of his campaign promises was to radically deregulate the U.S. economy. After taking office, Trump appointed many corporate executives to high level positions in the government, including Wall Street financier Steve Mnuchin to Secretary of Treasury.

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