I have a sneaking suspicion that David Brooks was being deliberately obtuse in his column today, but I still think one of his points deserves clarification. Brooks thinks that “the balance between freedom and restraint has been thrown out of whack” over the last 40 years, leading to a variety of social ills. Brooks is celebrating what he sees as a potential about-face in the previously irreversible march toward unlimited personal freedom:
But last week saw a setback for the forces of maximum freedom. A representative of millions of gays and lesbians went to the Supreme Court and asked the court to help put limits on their own freedom of choice. They asked for marriage.
Marriage is one of those institutions — along with religion and military service — that restricts freedom. Marriage is about making a commitment that binds you for decades to come. It narrows your options on how you will spend your time, money and attention…
I think Brooks is applauding what he sees as a move toward re-establishing social norms that promote personal responsibility (marriage being one of those norms). Unfortunately, he mangles his argument because the fundamental bedrock of freedom is choice. Though marriage may require sacrifice, marriage is also voluntary; marriage cannot restrict freedom because both parties in the marriage have the opportunity to leave and pursue their own interests if they so desire. The fact that gay couples cannot legally marry in some states, that gay couples cannot choose to become marries, is a restriction of freedom. So, though I applaud David Brooks’ support of gay marriage, gay marriage is not a setback to the forces of maximum freedom but rather an expansion of those forces to a long marginalized minority group that has never before had the opportunity (freedom) to pursue certain courses of action.
I realize that this is a somewhat trivial bone to pick with Brooks; on the other hand, as Matt Yglesias demonstrates, the concept of freedom resonates positively with a significant portion of the American population (with good reason), meaning it is very important that we be wary of groups looking to subvert the definition of freedom to advance ideological goals.
For example, in the study that Yglesias rips apart, the “libertarian” Mercatus center ranked the states on a spectrum of most free to least free, calculated by examining state regulations along a number of different dimensions. Unfortunately, the Mercatus center seemed to twist the definition of “freedom” arbitrarily to suit ideological goals: for example, the freedom for gays to marry is weighted less heavily than an individual’s ability to purchase a firearm with minimal hassle; the freedom for a woman to terminate a pregnancy isn’t given any weight at all, while permissive homeschooling laws are given weight. As Yglesias ironically notes, this means that a child, in the eyes of the state, is considered a fully autonomous agent whose rights must be safeguarded by the state from conception until birth, at which point the child no longer has autonomy (to choose where to attend school, for example) until graduation from high school. Granted, these issues are hard to sort out (especially when policy choices involve maximizing one group’s freedom at the expense of another), but that is the inevitable tension with public policy, so it seems to me that being very explicit about how one defines freedom and how one is making tradeoffs between the freedom of various groups would be an important prerequisite for informed policy discussion.