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The Circle Bastiat

Germany loosens up about regulating store hours

Once strict laws about when shops can open and close are starting to be relaxed, much to the chagrin of labor unions and regulators

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This is why I found Ron Paul's answer on the drug question at an early Republican debate to be so incredibly brilliant. The questioner asked him if he would favor legalized heroin. The viewers are supposed to be horrified, and surely many were. He said the real issue is liberty, and then he asked the question: how many people here in this room would start using heroin if it were legal? How many people would say: oh, we have to have these laws to keep me from being an addict? Everyone cheered, because we knew the answer!

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There is a remarkable rationale behind what he said. He pointed out the simple truth that we are all what we make of ourselves, and the state isn't really making us better people. To be a good or bad person is a choice, and the state's laws don't really possess the magical power to influence that decision. This was an extremely rare moment in human history, when good sense actually emerged from a political debate.

It often happens that when societies adopt some constructivist rule, the inner contradictions eventually end up leading to its repeal. This is what happened in Germany. The closing laws couldn't really apply to gasoline, for example. After all, we can't have people pulling over on the Autobahn and sleeping while they wait for the gas stations to open. Then the bakers too pointed out that they have to be open earlier. Then there are shops for tourists, who don't have all the time in the world. So special zones of freedom were created for them.

Gradually, the laws were eroded to the point where human choice was permitted to prevail. Does this cause a race to the bottom? No, it causes a race to serve people through excellence. In other words, it makes everyone happier than they would otherwise be. It makes for a better society. Liberty works because it permits people to work out their problems through exchange and cooperation. No one is coercing anyone to do anything. Everything happens through consent; nothing happens through force.

In some ways, liberty is the craziest and most implausible idea anyone ever dreamed up. And yet only liberty really accomplishes that seemingly elusive dream of a prosperous, orderly, and peaceful society in which every member is permitted to have a role in its development. It takes some imagination to understand how.

We are fortunate to be living in times when the digital world of relative freedom is providing us a model of the ideal. Every day, there is improvement. Every day, we are served up better and better ways of doing things. Imagine if the physical world were just as free as the digital one, drawing on the creative powers of everyone in the world in the service of the common goal of finding ever-better ways to do things.

What would life be like? How much are we being held back by seemingly necessarily laws that actually make us all poorer and less civilized than we would otherwise be? It takes a certain kind of brilliance to imagine such counterfactuals. This is why we owe a particular debt of gratitude to the liberal tradition of thought for helping us make sense of how the truly implausible can become the only truly workable ideal.

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