The rule of thumb for a free society should be that it infringes liberties rarely, but when it does so it is for important reasons. Today, that thumb has been cast down, Caesar-like, pointing in the opposite direction. We have democratized the small assaults on freedom so that everyone must endure them, while we caterwaul about the tyranny of any real inconvenience that might fall “disproportionately” on the few. We ban using trans fats for millions but flinch at the idea that some kid might have to endure the Pledge of Allegiance or a moment of silence in school if it conflicts with his conscience. Everyone must surrender his shoes, his regular-sized toothpaste and shampoo at the airport, but we man the barricades to protect a few young Muslim men from being inconvenienced for an extra five minutes at the airport.
Free speech is most restricted where it is most important — in political contests near Election Day — while it is maximized to an absurd level at the fringes of culture and decency. Banning “hate speech” from everybody’s lips is a progressive priority, but electronic eavesdropping on a few terrorists is an impermissible leap down the slippery slope to the police state.
It’s important to remember, when we want to restrict freedom, what freedoms we are restricting, for how long we want to restrict them, and why we’re restricting them in the first place. A sense of proportion and the ability to think clearly about the “why” of what we want to do is critical.
Unfortunately, we do not seem to maintain that sense of proportion. As Goldberg notes, we seem very willing to restrict our own freedom to make choices that may or may not harm us at some point in the future while we recoil from restricting the freedom of a few, for a defined period of time, to hedge against an explicit threat.