Monday, May 27, 2024

Freedom To Do or Freedom From or Both? 

When I looked back at my blog posts I realized that I have not written a Memorial Day essay every year since MauledAgain came into existence. Considering that I have posted something for (almost) every Thanksgiving and Halloween, I let myself ponder why the difference. I concluded that my posting for various events and holidays are episodic and that every year something has happened for Halloween and Thanksgiving, but that it hasn’t happened for other holidays. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of what catches my attention.

Three years ago, in The Price of Freedom Is Much More Than Taxes. I addressed the connection between the payment of taxes and the things people take for granted as part of their “freedom.” More than a decade ago, 2011, I had written, in Free, Freedom, Fees, and Taxes, that “In order for a person to have something for free, someone else must pay.”

Last year, in Indeed, Freedom Is Not Free, I explained why freedom is not the same thing as unregulated behavior, pointing out that people who think they are free to drive 90 miles per hour on a 55-mile-per-hour highway, free to run red lights, free to shoplift, free to do whatever they want no matter what have a warped sense of the meaning of freedom. I wrote this about unregulated freedom:

Too often, those who claim that this unregulated “freedom” is sacrosanct point to the arrival of Puritans in what is now Massachusetts. They are idolized as seekers of freedom, trying to escape religious and political persecution. Yet when they arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they immediately started acting in the same manner as had their tormenters, in turn suppressing those whose religious beliefs or political positions conflicted with those set down by the Puritans. The contrast with Pennsylvania, also settled by victims of religious persecution, but where those of diverse origins and religions were welcomed, is startling. I didn’t learn this in school because it isn’t taught in this manner, nor is this lesson noted. I learned this when I did the research to write the biography of Thomas Maule of Salem, reading not only his works and those of others, both in his day and thereafter, but also studying the social and cultural environment in which his fellow citizens, of a different religious persuasion, acquitted him of the seditious libel charges brought by Puritan authorities who resented being tagged as hypocrites. And they truly were. Seem familiar? Today the nation is being tormented by “freedom lovers” who are trying to prevent Americans from learning the truth about the hypocritical Puritans whom they not only worship but whose hypocrisy they emulate and imitate.
I then asked a question, specifically, “What sort of ‘freedom’ will this nation embrace?” I contrasted two models. One is the “freedom” to escape torment and persecution only to torment and persecute others. The other is the “freedom” to welcome those with different perspectives while refusing to adopt the methods of those from whom freedom was sought.

It is the first model that I want to consider. It requires a contrast between “freedom to do” and “freedom from.” In some respects those two phrases express the same concept. “Freedom to do” is, after all, simply “freedom from” regulation and “freedom from” authority. Yet there is a conflict, because one person’s “freedom to do” whatever they want conflicts with another person’s “freedom from” whatever it is the first person is doing. In realistic terms, “freedom to do” 90 miles per hour on the highway conflicts with another person’s “freedom from” injury and death while driving.

What makes the analysis particularly difficult on Memorial Day is a troubling tension between “freedom from” and “freedom to do.” On Memorial Day we remember and honor those who died to give this nation “freedom from” authoritarianism, dictatorship, repression, and ethnocentrism. Yet we also seem increasingly complacent when those who benefitted from the sacrifice of those we honor claim to have the “freedom to do” the very same behaviors the suppression of which was the purpose for which those we honor fought and died. It is particularly disturbing when people who profess a deep admiration for those who gave their lives to protect the nation from those enumerated evils are at the same time supporting people and policies that nurture and enlarge those same evils in this nation. What was the point of so many sacrifices to eliminate authoritarianism, dictatorship, repression, and ethnocentrism when there are people who want those same attributes to become the linchpin of this nation’s existence?

So there is both a freedom to do and a freedom from, but both freedoms are, as I pointed out, two sides to the same coin. And whether considered as one or two, freedom not only is not free, but it also is not unlimited. One person’s freedom exists within the boundary created by the freedoms of other persons. Removing that boundary invites and fuels chaos, catastrophe, and ultimately freedom for no one because no one will be left. This time around the end of civilization is the end of the species. All the parades, picnics, hot dogs, beach trips, ceremonies, and social meme posting will mean nothing if the meaning and scope of freedom is misunderstood by increasing numbers of people. It’s time to remember that rights only exist if responsibilities thrive.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

A Public-Private Partnership Highway Toll Fiasco Narrowly Averted  

As readers of this blog know, I am not a fan of these public-private partnerships. I have explained my objections to public-private partnerships and privatization of public functions in posts such as Are Private Tolls More Efficient Than Public Tolls?, When Privatization Fails: Yet Another Example, How Privatization Works: It Fails the Taxpayers and Benefits the Private Sector, Privatization is Not the Answer to Toll Bridge Problems, When Potholes Meet Privatization, Will Private Ownership of Public Necessities Work?, and So Who Decides If Tolls Can Be Imposed on Pennsylvania Bridges?. These public-private partnerships don’t work out well. They are the product of legislative attempts to find funding without raising taxes, tolls, or other fees while generating revenue for their private sector donors, with hopes that the outcry against tolls and similar charges will be directed against the private entity involved in the project. Of course, voters can’t control, vote out, or do much of anything with respect to the private entity, whereas legislators see themselves at risk of losing the next election, something on which they focus too much. As I pointed out in So Who Decides If Tolls Can Be Imposed on Pennsylvania Bridges?, legislatures rush into these arrangements only to figure out that they made a big mistake.

Today, reader Morris directed my attention to yet another very big mistake made by the legislature in Texas. In a story about an increase in the number of toll roads in Texas,** a former Texas state representative admitted that “Texas made a mistake.” According to the story, in 2007 Cintra, a private toll company, won its bid to build part of a new toll road in Collin County. The road would cost $500 million to build. The company, based in Spain, offered $2.7 million to take over the project, in exchange for its right to receive the next 52 years of tolls. Eventually someone figured out that the expected revenue stream from only the first 40 years of tolls flowing to the Spanish company would amount to $34 billion. In other words, Texas would be giving up $34 billion of revenue in exchange for $2.7 billion up front. Even taking into account the costs of operating, maintaining, and repairing the road would cut into the net revenue from the project, this clearly was a “private sector wins, state of Texas and its residents lose” deal. Worse, the contract prohibited Texas from increasing the capacity of free roads that connected to the toll road, and also prohibited the state from buying back toll roads from the private companies. Fortunately, these problems were caught in time by the administrative agency that handles transportation in Texas and it rescinded the contract.

Why are these deals bad? The reason is simple. The public-private deal creates profits for the private sector, and to fund those profits taxpayers and toll payers are required to pay more than they would if the public function remained public. Why do legislatures fall for these deals? Because they want to be re-elected and that requires support from the private sector, specifically the segment of the private sector that controls the huge amounts of money involved in these deals.

There’s another lesson lurking in this story. It was the administrative agency, not the legislature, that listened to people who understand the complexity of these deals and saved Texas residents. It’s no surprise, therefore, that certain legislators across the country, including some in the nation’s capital, are trying to eliminate, disempower, and curtail administrative agencies. Those agencies are where the expertise resides. It doesn’t reside in legislatures, in part because legislators need to allocate time among thousands of issues which leaves them no time to get into details, and in part because far too many legislators invest increasing amounts of time to re-election attempts and distracting political theater.

** The entire article (and its scheduled follow-up) is worth reading for an examination of what happens when the refusal to impose or increase taxes coupled with handing over government functions to private domestic and foreign companies causes a variety of problems extending beyond the question of who pockets toll revenues. Highway fatalities, erroneous loss of vehicle registrations, criminal prosecutions controlled by toll companies, and a long list of other problems plague the state.

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