“Tell Me, Just What Liberties Have You Lost?”

People who bemoan the loss of freedom have this cliche hurled at them repeatedly, not only by devotees of omnipotent government but by many so-called conservatives who think they are faring all right under the status quo.

Anyone sensitive to what’s going on politically in this and other countries is aware of lost freedom. Indeed, it is axiomatic that freedom is lost in direct ratio to the imposition of governmental restraints on productive and creative efforts; the more political controls, the less freedom. But to proclaim this conviction is to invite the question, “Tell me, just what liberties have you lost?” Unless one can respond intelligently, he only lends credence to the fatal fallacy that we are suffering no loss of freedom.

Why is the question so difficult to answer? Because, for one thing, it is impossible to describe erosion in precise terms. It is like asking a sexagenarian, “Just what abilities have you lost?” “Well,” he reflects, “I can see, hear, smell, taste, feel, remember, think, walk, run, play golf — why, there are no lost abilities. I can do everything I could do in my youth.” Yet, further reflection will reveal an erosion of most abilities. He has to wear glasses; his false teeth aren’t quite as efficient as the teeth he once had; his walk isn’t as spry; if he runs, he runs out of breath; his golf swing takes more out of him but puts less on the ball; and, frankly, his memory has lost some of its keenness. But how to be precise in describing these erosions?

A rough — not precise — measure of eroded freedom may be observed in the growing take of the people’s earned income by government. It has now reached the all-time high of 42 per cent, and grows apace!

However innocently asked, “Just what liberties have you lost?” is a trick question. To devise a trick answer would only make this a contest in cleverness — no help in advancing an understanding of freedom. A logical and sensible response would be in the form of a rebuttal question, “Do you happen to have at the tip of your tongue a list of all the restraints to productive and creative action imposed by the Federal government, the fifty state governments, and the more than 200,000 other units of government during the last thirty years? If you will recite these restraints, you will accurately answer your own question.” The list, of course, is enormous.

While most of our lost freedom is in the form of a gradual and indefinable erosion, there are instances where the loss is already completed and, thus, can be specifically named. These instances, however, are not at all impressive or persuasive except to the few individuals to whom a specific instance applies. Suppose, for example, one were to reply, “I have lost the freedom to plant all the tobacco I please on my own land.” Who cares, except that infinitesimal part of the population who might want to grow tobacco? Or, “I have lost the freedom to work for anyone at less than $1.45 per hour.” Again, who cares, except those unfortunate individuals whose services aren’t worth this much? Or, “I have lost the freedom to pick up a passenger at the Greater Cincinnati Airport in my own taxicab.” Who cares, except Cincinnati taxicab operators? Or, “I have lost the freedom to competitively price services rendered by my own railroad.” Who cares, except the few owners of railroads? Or, “I have lost the freedom to raise whatever grain I please to feed my own chickens.” Most voters don’t raise chickens and, thus, have little concern for the plight of these few.

For more bits of lost freedom see next page, bearing in mind that no one in a lifetime could possibly put all the bits between covers. However, what is most important to any individual is not the freedom he personally has lost but the freedom someone else may need to do things beneficial for him and for others. This freedom we can assure to the unknown person only by giving it to everyone.


For a full explanation of this important idea, read point 5 (pp. 30-32) in F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, i960).


• You have lost the freedom of choice over that part of your property taken to:

— pay farmers for not growing wheat, cotton, peanuts, corn, rice, tobacco;

— support prices of cheese, butter, and countless other items at levels beyond the reach of willing customers so that costly surpluses accumulate in storage;

— pay for urban renewal and other rehabilitation projects in communities across the nation;

— provide power and light at less than market rates to residents of the Tennessee Valley;

— subsidize socialistic foreign governments and beam socialistic propaganda all over the world;

— cover the costs of other government gifts and “loans” to politically selected beneficiaries at home and abroad. For these and many other welfare state projects, you have no choice but to help pay.

• If your wealth is in cash, you may decide to whom it will be loaned and at what price, but, if you are among certain manufacturers with your wealth in goods, you have lost your freedom to give customers quantity discounts.

• If you run a railroad, you have lost your freedom to refuse to pay for work not done. (Featherbedding)

• If your newspaper carries advertising and if the ads come in mats readied for press, you have lost your freedom to refuse to pay for useless setting and knocking down of duplicate type.

• If you are among the large producers of packaged tobaccos, you have lost your freedom to become a member of the tobacco manufacturers’ trade association. You are compelled not to belong!

• If you are an employee, you have, in millions of instances, lost your freedom not to join a labor union. You are compelled to belong!

• Whoever you are, you have lost your freedom to deliver first class mail for pay.

• While foreign governments may obtain U.S.A. gold in exchange for their goods, you, as a citizen of the U.S.A., have lost your freedom to do so and, with it, a measurable loss of control over governmental inflationary practices.

• If you wish to set yourself up in the business of extracting teeth, prescribing for sore throats, gout, and other physical ailments, designing houses or bridges and so on, cutting hair and a host of other activities, you have lost your freedom to do so. You must first get a license from the government.

• Ownership without control is an empty term. Thus, you have lost the freedom to own property to the extent that government forbids the sale of your business to certain others. (Prohibited mergers)

• Most adult Americans have lost the freedom not to have government take their property for such hazards as unemployment and old age.

• Millions of employees have not only lost their freedom to bargain individually with their employer but also have lost their freedom to select their own bargaining unit.

• Thousands of employers have lost their freedom to hire or fire their own workers.

• Thousands of employers have lost their freedom to deal directly with their own employees.

• Thousands of employers have lost their freedom to sub-contract their work, even though they can get it done at a price lower than by their own employees.

• Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera — ad infinitum.