Despite bans on smoking and trans-fats, we're not necessarily less free.
In the Washington Post, Anita Allen of the University of Pennsylvania reviews Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America into a Nation of Children by David Harsanyi. She makes a point that I've thought a lot about in discussions of our growing "nanny state":
But Americans were never as free as Harsanyi imagines... . It is true that in 1960 US automobile drivers did not have to wear seat belts. But overreaching rules of other sorts reigned supreme. Under "blue laws," most retail stores and virtually all liquor stores were closed on Sundays, presumably so everyone could stay sober and go to church. More profoundly, in 1960 married couples could not legally obtain birth control in Connecticut, mixed-race couples could not marry in Virginia, black kids in Georgia attended underfunded segregated public schools and homosexual sex was against the law.
No free-marketer, Allen leaves out a few other attributes of 1960, like 90% income tax rates and rigid regulation of transportation, communications and finance.
Open the newspaper on any random page, and you can find evidence of the growing tendency to meddle in our lives: seat-belt laws, smoking bans, trans-fat bans, potty parity and on and on. But are those things worse than the older laws that Allen cites? And if you go back further than she did, you can find worse indignities: established churches, slavery, married women denied property rights. So while we should deplore the deprivations of freedom that Harsanyi explores, we should not necessarily conclude that we're progressively less free.
Allen also complains that
Readers have to wait until the final pages of this book to learn exactly why Harsanyi thinks the nanny state is a bad thing. The nanny state creates a moral hazard, he claims. "People act more recklessly when (purported) risk is removed." Plus, "the rigidity of nanny regulations does not allow consumers to practice common sense and protect themselves."
That's a good consequentialist reason to oppose the nanny state, but it's not the best reason. The real reason that we should be free to make our own decisions about seat belts, smoking and fatty foods is that we're adults; that we're endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to be free is to have moral autonomy and personal responsibility.
Still, any author should be thrilled to have the Washington Post recommend that we "read Harsanyi as a 21st-century John Stuart Mill."
Vermont socialists are trying to revive socialism in formerly communist China
Marxism is a bore in China, but tie-dyed American socialists are trying to revive it. Apparently it's easier to believe in socialism if you haven't actually tried to live under it.
It isn't easy teaching Marxism in China these days.
"It's a big challenge," acknowledged Tao, a likable man who demonstrates remarkable patience in the face of students more interested in capitalism than "Das Kapital." The students say he isn't the problem.
"It's not the teacher," said sophomore Liu Di, a finance major whose shaggy auburn hair hangs, John Lennon-style, along either side of his wire-rim glasses. "No matter who teaches this class, it's always boring. Philosophy is useful and interesting, but I think that in philosophy education in China, they just teach the boring parts."
Classes in Marxist philosophy have been compulsory in Chinese schools since not long after the 1949 communist revolution. They remain enshrined in the national education law, Article 3 of which states: "In developing the socialist educational undertakings, the state shall uphold Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tse-tung Thought and the theories of constructing socialism with Chinese characteristics as directives and comply with the basic principles of the Constitution."
Chinese students are forced to learn the official ideology - or, I should say, they are forced to sit in classes where the official ideology is expounded - few of them seem to be listening any more. And yet, students say, it's still hard to find anyone who will openly criticize communism - partly because it's still very helpful to be a member of the Communist Party and partly because it's dangerous to criticize the official ideology of an authoritarian government.
Fortunately, just as China's Marxists begin to deal with their terminal despair at the decline of Mao's Good Old Cause, a couple of "veteran Vermont activists" are riding to the rescue. Ellen David-Friedman and Stuart Friedman--she's a self-described Marxist, an organizer for the Vermont teachers' union, and vice-chair of the Progressive Party, he's a clinical social worker at Central Vermont Hospital--are leaving their jobs in the People's Republic of Vermont to teach the Chinese about the horrors of capitalism. Communist Party apparatchiks and overseers at Guangzhou University have never attempted to censor her or Stuart's teaching, David-Friedman tells the Vermont weekly Seven Days. "We can say anything we want to in the classroom," she notes - perhaps because these radicals are in fact teaching the official ideology, and it's so hard to find people who want to do that these days!
Communism is always such a disappointment in practice. You'd think by now even romantic communists would have given up on it. But no--neither the activists nor the Seven Days reporter is ready for that:
China's communist revolution has gone off the rails, David-Friedman adds. The party "has divorced itself, tragically, from allowing itself to be led by the needs of workers," she adds. But maybe, in some small measure, these Vermont Progressives can help put the world's largest country back on the track toward socialism.
The LA Times concludes,
Talking over tea at the Education Ministry's modern offices in central Beijing, education official Zhou laughed a bit about today's students.
"They don't believe in God or communism," he said. "They're practical. They only worship the money."
That sounds a lot like the French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel's 1971 book Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun. Has the liberal-capitalist revolution begun in China?