Past year shows backslide in fight for freedoms

Editorial

If there was a stock-market-like ticker that tracked the trajectory of freedom in 2006 — let’s just call it the “Freedom Index” — it would have been an off year. At home and abroad, personal political liberty, free markets, limited government and other quintessentially American values suffered setbacks, with a few notable exceptions. Here’s hoping that things take a turn for the better in 2007.

In the United States, the Freedom Index fluctuated wildly in 2006. On the plus side, a property rights revival seemed to be sweeping the land in the wake of 2005’s outrageous Supreme Court ruling in the Kelo case, which sanctioned the use of eminent domain powers by governments for revenue-raising purposes. The backlash was a beautiful thing to see.

The Kelo decision delighted professional planners, new urbanists and ambitious local politicians, who hate it when pesky property rights get in the way of their grand redevelopment schemes. But it alarmed average Americans, who realized that their most precious possessions were now up for auction to the highest bidder — that their homes and properties could be seized (with just compensation paid, of course) and handed over to private parties who could promise city officials a better revenue stream. That alarm resulted in many state legislatures narrowing the definition of a “public use” to what it was pre-Kelo.

The country still has a long way to go to fully restore property rights that have been whittled away over decades. But the property rights revival of 2006, if it doesn’t lose momentum, might help move the Freedom Index in the right direction in the future.

On the minus side, here at home, was the March renewal of the USA Patriot Act, with only minor modifications from the original, which granted excessive police powers to the state in the panicky aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Although there was a lot of talk in 2006 about what might be done to restore a semblance of due process and habeas corpus protections to those swept up in the terror war dragnet, and about what types of interrogation techniques constituted “torture,” the Bush administration got Congress to approve a law that did too little to address these problems.

Despite these disappointments, the nation in 2006 also seemed to be rebounding, in terms of recognizing the need to maintain constitutional protections even in a time of unconventional war. Whether the pendulum will swing back in the direction of sacrificing freedoms in pursuit of security in the wake of some future attack is up in the air, but Americans seemed to be regaining their sense of balance and perspective in 2006.

The Freedom Index was wavering in response to the November elections, and the shift of power toward Democrats in Congress. We’ll probably have to wait until mid-2007 to see the needle move one way or the other. Republicans, though once the party associated with limited government, low taxes, regulatory roll-back, free markets and fiscal restraint, in 2006 paid the price for abandoning those ideas. If Democrats use their newfound power to return to old ways, by growing government, jacking up taxes, regulating recklessly, spending with abandon, or to augment the power of the state at the expense of the individual, the Freedom Index will fall steeply in 2007.

Most index indicators were falling on the international front. Iraq’s fitful struggle toward freedom seemed to falter in 2006, as an insurgency drifted toward sectarian war. The promised democratization of the Mideast seems a beguiling mirage. Russia’s drift backward, toward Soviet-style repression, continued under former KGB man Vladimir Putin. Parts of Central and South America fell more deeply under the spell of neo-Castroites, even as Castro prepared for the big sleep. China managed to liberalize economically while keeping a lid on political liberties.

On balance, we believe the Freedom Index showed a marked erosion of political and economic liberties, at home and abroad in 2006. Let’s cross our fingers that all these trendlines turn upward in 2007. Better still, let’s all work to help make that happen.