Charles Petzold

My Idiotic Concept of Freedom

July 17, 2011
Roscoe, N.Y.

Recently I met someone who, upon learning that I lived in New York, promptly told me about a study that concluded that New York was the "least free state" in the country.

Obviously I found this quite disturbing, and I immediately considered moving to a much freer state like New Hampshire or South Dakota, but then I started thinking some more. Perhaps I'm simply being naive, but as a resident of New York City (during most of the year, anyway), I find that we New Yorkers have an enormous amount of freedom to grow, to learn, and to fulfill ourselves by contributing to (in John Stuart Mill's words) "the permanent interests of man as a progressive being."

Consider museums, for example. As a New Yorker I have the freedom to go to many different types of museums and galleries, starting at the top with the monumental Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History. New Yorkers begin going to these museums as children, and never stop. Many cities don't even have a museum of natural history (although I must admit that New York City is definitely missing a museum of "creation science").

Or consider libraries. No one comes close to the New York City library system. Peppered around the city are numerous local libraries, but the system also includes four interconnected research libraries. Most people in other cities and states don't even know what a research library is!

New Yorkers have an enormous amount of freedom to pursue culture interests. We are home to a major opera company, a major symphony orchestra, two major ballet companies, a concert hall that is synonymous with fine music ("How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"), and an unfathomable number of smaller musical and performance ensembles and venues. If that's not your thing, New Yorkers also have the freedom to check out a multitude of jazz and rock clubs throughout the city.

New York City has many, many movie theaters, not only to see current releases, but also sample more unusual fare, such as movie theaters devoted to cinema classics and independent films. Aside from university towns, many places in the United States don't even have theaters that show movies with subtitles.

The freedom to see live theater is also very much a part of New York City. The area known as "Broadway" is most famous, of course, but if you'd rather avoid the big shows for quirkier fare, there is also "Off Broadway" and "Off Off Broadway."

To many Americans, the freedom to watch sports is important. New York City and its surrounding areas have numerous sports teams and venues in which to see them. I am told that Madison Square Garden is the most famous arena in the world, but I suspect Yankee Stadium ranks up there as well.

New York is also a strong contender in the freedom to learn, with several major colleges and universities, many of them also providing continuing education facilities for adults. New York City has several major newspapers, which is many more than most large cities these days, and a bunch of smaller newspapers and periodicals.

New York City also provides what is perhaps the crowning glory of the free-enterprise system: the freedom to shop. People visit New York City just for the shopping. New York City still has a bunch of independent bookstores, and one of the most famous used-book stores in the world (Strand Books).

Many people like to combine the freedom to shop with the freedom to eat, and the city has many restaurants worth exploring. The freedom to simply "hang out" is also provided, with numerous public spaces including what is widely regarded as the largest urban park in the world.

The freedom to travel is also important, and New York City has an extensive public transportation system. One exceptionally unusual aspect of New York City's subway system is that it operates 24 hours a day, giving New Yorkers the freedom to travel regardless of such arbitrary criteria as the position of the Sun.

New York City also provides an enormous amount of freedom to travel outside the city, including three major airports, a large Amtrak train hub, at least two extensive commuter rail systems (Long Island Railroad and Metro North) and numerous busses.

Outsiders might suspect that New York City ranks a little low regarding places of worship, but one source indicates that New York City has over 6000 churches, 1000 synagogues, and 100 mosques. The churches include St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Church of St John the Divine.

As one of the most ethnically diverse places on the globe, New York City also provides the freedom to interact with people who come from all over the world. New York City is one of the primary places where the future of America begins.

When a place is ranked as the "least free state" in the country, it might be assumed that its inhabitants live in mortal fear of the government. But that's not my experience. What New Yorkers seem to fear most of all is not the government, but landlords, banks, insurance companies, and health-care providers.

Still, I was obviously missing something. If New York had indeed been ranked the "least free state" in the country, I was probably just not bright enough to conceptualize freedom in the correct and modern manner. So I checked the web site of the organization that determines this incontrovertible ranking to see what the problem was.

I must admit that this site clearly revealed me to be a complete moron. I was thinking about things like museums, and libraries, and concert halls, but I was ignoring the really important stuff, such as firearms; drug, alcohol, and tobacco laws; and taxes. To be sure, New Yorkers don't have the freedom to shoot their guns in a bar, drink a can of beer while driving a pickup truck, marry a 12-year old, or urinate in public places, and I suppose we suffer grievously for these horrible restrictions on our freedoms.

It also became obvious that this entire study and ranking is done from a Libertarian perspective, and there I must confess a basic inability to think on such exalted planes. But I assume it must be correct because Libertarians are very intelligent people, as they never tire of reminding us.