There is a famous saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. For politicians, bureaucrats, and many activists when the only tool they have is coercion the cause of every problem looks like too much freedom. And make no mistake; if you are committed to accomplishing your social goals by using government power, then, by definition, your only tool is the hammer of coercion.

As George Washington pointed out in his second inaugural address: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force.” And when people choose to use government to accomplish their goals they are choosing to use force, not reason and certainly not eloquence.

Even in America, a country founded on the principle of freedom, when peaceful means fail people have always turned to the coercive powers of the state to get others to change their behavior. Slavery and later Jim Crow laws had their roots in just such a mentality. So did the military draft, compulsory school attendance laws, prohibition, anti-smoking and anti-drug laws, minimum wage laws, price control laws, anti-sodomy laws, and anti-cohabitation laws. In each of these cases a social or economic “problem” of some kind was defined, often erroneously, which is probably why reason failed, and the root cause of the problem was identified as too much freedom.

True to form, governments at all levels in North Carolina are affirming George Washington’s observation. The latest example is the city of Raleigh’s approach to solving its water shortage problems. If a local grocery store’s produce department runs out of oranges or its deli experiences a shortage of roast beef, it doesn’t blame its customer for having too much freedom to purchase fruit and meat. It simply finds a way to accommodate that freedom and to meet the demand.

The city of Raleigh, because of a complete government failure to plan for the needs of its citizens, finds itself running short of water, one of only a handful of goods, relative to a grocery store, that it is charged with supplying to its customers. Its response is to blame its customers for having too much freedom — freedom to water their lawns, freedom to wash their cars, freedom to power-wash their homes, and now the freedom to enjoy the conveniences of a garbage disposal. Instead of city politicians asking themselves “how can we accommodate our citizens’ free choices,” as the grocery store would, they immediately blame the problem on those freedoms. This is their nail, and their solution is the hammer of force. No surprise to our first president.

City and local transportation planners have for years been faced with having to deal with traffic congestion problems in and around North Carolina’s larger cities. Traffic congestion is very much like the water shortage problem. In this case it is a shortage of road space. And like Raleigh’s water shortage problem, this is an example of massive government failure in its ability to service adequately the free choices made by citizens with regard to their transportation needs. And, like the water shortage, the cause of the problem is, of course, too much freedom. With respect to traffic congestion, the wielders of force are convinced that people are exercising too much freedom in using their cars. And, instead of better managing the supply of roads, they have adopted a policy known as “transportation demand management,” which is a euphemism for managing what would otherwise be people’s freely made choices. According to the North Carolina Department of Transportation:

“Transportation demand management (TDM) is…intended to encourage the use of alternatives to driving alone, increasing the efficiency of the transportation system by focusing on travel demand instead of supply. Most TDM strategies deal with the modification of travel behaviors…” (Emphasis added.) (pdf link)

This primarily means forcing people out of their cars, either directly or through artificial incentives, and onto public transportation. But this is feasible only when living densities are high, so not only does freedom to make transportation decisions need to be “modified,” but so also does freedom to choose living arrangements. Along with transportation demand management comes “housing demand management” and “land use demand management.”

In order to accommodate public transportation systems and to discourage driving, the plans include new zoning laws that attempt to cram people into congested living arrangements, with dozens of housing units per acre, in order to solve a problem of congested roads. As the DOT bureaucrats in Raleigh candidly acknowledge, the “vision extends far beyond public transportation. It embraces notions of how we want to live in the 21st Century and what we want our neighborhoods and communities to become.” (Emphasis added.) It is quite clear that the “we” being referred to is not individual citizens and families. It is instead the paternalistic “we” of bureaucrats and government planners.

In terms of the current public policy debate, probably the most pernicious example of George Washington’s dictum is the 56 policy proposals that have been offered up by North Carolina’s Climate Action Plan Advisory Group (CAPAG). The entire purpose of CAPAG was to find ways in which the citizens of the state could be forced to modify their behavior in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

While there are competing theories regarding the causes of global warming (for example see research by Duke physicist Niccola Scapatta and Bruce West), CAPAG was not allowed even to discuss any of them or to consult with the scientists advocating them. This would be important because other theories, such as those related to natural climate variation, would not imply coercive restrictions on people’s freedom.

In other words, the only theory of global warming they were willing to consider was the one that has freedom as the culprit. It is important to note that everything humans do, including breathing, emits carbon dioxide. The implication then was that all actions taken by North Carolina citizens were up for scrutiny and possible coercive control. The proposals are consistent with the mindset of coercion. They include, but are not limited to, restrictions on people’s freedom to choose the kinds of cars they can drive, the kind of fuel they can use to heat and light their homes, the kind of auto insurance they are allowed to buy, the lot size they can use to build a house, the size of the house they build, and the kinds of appliances they can purchase.

The interesting — and undisputed — fact is that these restrictions will not result in an overall reduction in global temperatures, even if the whole world adopts them. Yet CAPAG refused to take this into consideration during its deliberations. This fact was and is known to those who controlled the CAPAG process and devised all of the policy proposals.

The unfortunate implication is that these proposals are not really about global warming but are, instead, an exercise that could be called appropriately “lifestyle imperialism.” Like laws against homosexuality or gambling, they are, in fact, an attempt to legislate morality.

Given the principles behind the foundin
g of the United States, policymakers need to view individual freedom as a moral imperative. They should first realize that it is not the fundamental role of the state to solve all conceivable problems but to protect liberty. To the extent that the state takes on a problem-solving role or the role of providing certain goods and services, the question that decision makers should ask themselves continuously is “how can we conduct our business and solve collective problems, without limiting people’s freedom to live their lives the way they see fit?” Instead, it is quite clear that for many if not most bureaucrats and policymakers, the first question asked is not how can we accomplish our objective while accommodating freedom but what freedoms can we get away with limiting.