Our year of lost liberty

Our year of lost liberty

Instead of top 10 books or movies for 2008, I’m inaugurating a new way to evaluate the past year: The Liberty Meter. Are we more or less free as individual Americans than we were 12 months ago?
The answer is unfortunately no; we are not more free; we do not enjoy more liberty in December 2008 than we did in January. Let me count the ways.
We could begin with the $700 million behemoth known as the government bailout, which has resulted in Washington nationalizing parts of the financial industry (just for starters). The result: individual liberty has been limited. The government now controls certain functions of business, which means private enterprise is curtailed. But let’s start with something a bit simpler, what we eat.
Since January, the free right to choose what you put in your mouth has been restricted across the country.
In January, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on trans fats in cooking came into effect. Whether at Mickey D’s or at a four-star eatery, it is no longer up to you, as a chef, or owner, or customer, what oil is used to make your french fries or what goes into your cannoli.
Better for people’s health you say? This is only meant to prevent heart disease, it’s healthier. Yes, yes and yes. But in a free society the individual is supposed to take care of themselves, not the mayor. I’m supposed to decide whether to make a healthy choice, or not. The government shouldn’t be involved. And Mayor Bloomberg isn’t done. Recently he brought together health experts to discuss ways to force people to eat less salt. Perhaps he’d like to legislate how many pieces of birthday cake New Yorkers can consume on an annual basis as well?
In July, the Los Angeles City Council decided that a discrete segment of that city’s population couldn’t decide for themselves where to eat, so they enacted a law to make up citizens’ minds for them. South Central Los Angeles has a lot of fast food restaurants, not a lot of supermarkets and a lot of obesity. The city council voted unanimously that no more fast food restaurants would be allowed to open within a designated 32-square-mile area.
As The Los Angeles Times reported, some people think the ban is a good idea others don’t. Catalina Ayala grew up in South Central L.A., now lives three blocks from a McDonald’s and a slew of other fast-food restaurants, and eats fast food about four times a week. “By the time I go home, it’s already too late to cook food,” Ayala told the Times. But her husband, a 23-year-old construction worker, says he doesn’t eat the stuff and doesn’t want their 3-year-old son to eat it either. “It’s not for me,” he said. “Later on sometimes, your son is too fat, he eats too much.” And this is really the point. It is up to everyone to make the right choices for themselves and their kids. It isn’t part of the city council’s job description.
In Pennsylvania, in September, we got the statewide smoking ban and lots of people complained: too many exemptions and too many loopholes. It isn’t tough enough people said. Tell that to employees at the 14 state-owned universities, who according to the ban can’t smoke outside. Not on a sidewalk, not in the middle of a football field, not beside their cars in the parking lot. Again, you say, banning smoking is healthier, it works, people quit. And again, I say yes it is unhealthy, yes it can kill you and yes smokers should quit. But it should be up to each and every person on their own whether to quit or not. It should be the decision of the bar, restaurant or nail salon whether to allow patrons and employees to smoke or not. It is not up to Gov. Ed Rendell or any other state lawmaker to legislate the air.
In 2009, we have a new administration coming to Washington, and perhaps the atmosphere of change that comes with it will include the embrace of liberty, freedom and the protection of individual rights over groups or government. Perhaps, perhaps not. Meantime, have a joyous, healthy and free New Year.

(Abby Wisse Schachter, a Pittsbugh-based political columnist, can be reached at awschachter@aol.com.)