Losing Locke

Review: Timothy Sandefur, 'The Permission Society'

January 8, 2017

One of the most fundamental philosophical questions of the past few hundred years is whether our rights exist naturally or whether they are granted to us by the state.

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan, in which he argued that all men have the 'right' to everything—even the property or person of others. Because anyone can do anything, he suggested that political leaders are granted absolute power over everything they can control.

A few decades later, in 1689, John Locke published his Two Treatises of Government, which offers a very different take on rights. Locke wrote that all men have natural rights to life, liberty, and property that the state has no authority to violate.

Locke's understanding of natural rights was adopted by our founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, however imperfectly it was adopted in practice. However, Timothy Sandefur argues in his new book, The Permission Societythat the United States increasingly does not respect natural rights. Instead, the government gets to decide what we can and cannot do.

Sandefur points out toward the beginning of the book that we can differentiate rights from permissions very easily. A right is something we can do because we are free. If we are given permission to do something, however, it means that the state has decided it is not a right. People have rights in free societies, he explains; they are granted permissions in tyrannies.

The United States is slowly becoming a permission-based, tyrannical society, Sandehur argues. The book cites a multitude of examples to show how unelected bureaucrats have exerted control over peoples' lives, pressuring them to conform to the state's vision for their lives.

As has been well-documented, bureaucrats impose regulations and licensing requirements as they see fit, even when they harm civil society associations like businesses and churches. Over time, bureaucrats have been granted power to pick and choose who can operate certain services or open certain businesses. This power has led to corruption like rent-seeking, where lobbyists try to influence the law to promote their clients and harm their competitors.

The book documents times where the government has used permitting policies to prevent—or worse, compel—the promotion of specific ideas. The problem transcends partisanship. Some on the left have tried to force non-union members to pay union dues to help fund Democrats in elections. On the right, some have tried to force students to salute the American flag. All such abuses of power, Sandefur points out, reject an individual's right to speak or not speak.

The Permission Society discusses the history of film and other media of free expression. Originally, the state did not respect movies as a legitimate form of free expression. As a result, they heavily regulated the industry for content and message. Similarly, the government forced news shows to give airtime to both sides of an issue. (There have been occasional, concerning pushes to bring this policy back.) More recently, many Democrats and some Republicans have tried to stifle speech under the guise of campaign finance reform.

Both parties also seem to be fine with occupational licensing laws when it suits them, Sandefur points out. These laws prevent individuals from working certain jobs—floral arrangement, for example, or hair braiding—unless they've obtained a permit from the government.

Similarly, Certificate of Need laws prevent certain businesses from opening until they can demonstrate that the business is "necessary" (however defined), while zoning laws prevent people from doing what they want on their own property.

Sandefur points out that, historically, the state has exerted control over those it deemed inferior—slaves, minorities, women—by making them ask permission to do simple, necessary things. These requirements, intended to humiliate and coerce, had the second-order effect of preventing innovation in many areas of life.

This book gives many examples of legislators, lobbyists, and bureaucrats treating American citizens as inferior. It is a useful handbook for those who want to reclaim their rights—and stop asking permission from government.

Published under: Book reviews