Monday, January 28, 2013


Freedom is not without cost.

This truism is more apparent than ever, in the wake of the school shootings at Newtown, and in the reports being issued by some scientific groups. I don't want to enter the debate about gun control in this post. Instead, I want to try to develop some perspective to think about this and other contentious issues.

As Americans, we take for granted that we have individual freedom as an unalienable right. If we extend this idea, we see ourselves as having national freedom to go our own way, even in the face of opposition from other nations. This notion of personal and national sovereignty is fundamental to who we are as Americans. Some would say it's become too entrenched in who we are as Americans.

When we think of the cost of freedom, we normally think about the sacrifices that have been made by our military personnel in the wars we have fought over the years. We reflect upon the dead and wounded and express gratitude for their dedication to fighting for and preserving our freedoms, whatever the challenge. They are our heroes, and are honored as such.

The costs of freedom that I'm referring to are more in the vein of unintended consequences of the exercise of that freedom, in an assortment of spheres. I'm talking about the undesirable things that our freedom sometimes brings with it, and the actions we have to take to make them right.

Let's begin with the freedom to keep and bear arms.

We have this freedom enunciated in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. It's part and parcel of the original Bill of Rights that was essential to getting the Constitution adopted to replace the Articles of Confederation. We take this very seriously, as the intensity of the gun control debate indicates.

What is the cost of this freedom as we exercise it?

Gun control advocates would say that the cost is the lives of thousands of people killed each year by gun-using murderers. The regulation of this vast armory along rational principles is a priority for these people. For gun-control opponents, on the other hand, the very notion of restricting their freedom is anathema. As adults, they see themselves as being able to use guns responsibly. They resent the very idea of government infringing on a constitutionally guaranteed right. And so the battle lines are drawn.

But in the meanwhile, people still die by the thousands because of the ready availability of guns. Is this cost too heavy to bear?

Most gun-rights advocates would be fine with better reporting and a more accurate and widely available database for background checks. Keeping the mentally unstable from acquiring guns is not something most people find oppressive. How to pay for this, what the exact regulations would be like, all these details are something that legislatures could address. But as that waits to be done, people still die. This is the cost of our freedom to keep and bear arms. This is the cost that is too heavy for some, and not a burden for others.

This cost, though, is a matter of law, and might be affected one way or another by what laws are passed and enforced. This is a matter of the rule of man.

There are other costs that are more demanding of payment. Let's look at one of them, one that is just now beginning to get some attention.

This past week, a report was issued that essentially said that the era of antibiotic usage may be coming to an end. The wonder drugs that have made so much of modern life disease-free are beginning to lose their efficacy. The bugs they controlled are now resistant to them. The easy cures are in many cases no longer possible. Some diseases, in fact, are no longer treatable with antibiotic therapies.

This is a cost of a freedom as surely as the death toll from gun violence is.

In this case, the freedom that has brought this cost upon us has been the freedom to prescribe these antibiotics widely and, some would say, carelessly.

The days are over when a person sick from a cold would go to her doctor and get a prescription, as a matter of course, for an antibiotic. Colds and many other diseases are caused by viruses. Viruses are not affected by antibiotics. Only bacteria and similar organisms have been vulnerable to antibiotics. That is no longer the case for many bacteria and a growing reality for most of the other pathogens.

The report indicated that bacteria have been developing drug resistance even as we have introduced new and more powerful antibiotics into the market. So, the diseases that once were cured and controlled by those antibiotics are no longer so easily managed. In some cases there is no therapy for a given disease.

Within fifteen or twenty years, it's estimated, we will have returned to a time like that our ancestors lived in, a time when there was no therapy for common diseases. And more to the point, it doesn't appear that new antibiotics will be available - the avenues for controlling pathogens have already been exhausted, and there are no new ones to discover.

There may be new therapies available at some point, of course. They just won't involve the use of new antibiotics, but something like gene therapy or another attack vector. In the meantime, if this report is accurate, the death toll from formerly curable diseases may well dwarf that from gun-related murders in our country.

This is a cost of a freedom that we didn't even think about.

Our physicians and practitioners had the freedom to use antibiotics with hesitation. Instead, as we human beings are prone to do, we used them with abandon. There was little if any thought given to possible effects that the wide use of miracle drugs might cause. Perhaps we should have thought about the realities of the theory of evolution, because it's the basic mechanism of evolution that's at work here.

Mutations occur naturally in all organisms. Often they're caused by some sort of stress in the creature's environment. If you think about a bacterium, and what sort of stress the use of an antibiotic in its environment might cause, you can see that mutations would occur that might, occasionally, produce a drug-resistant strain of that bacterial species. In this case, survival of the fittest kicks in, and the drug-resistant bug is able to live in this otherwise toxic world. And as other, less drug-resistant varieties of this bug die off, it becomes the predominant variety. And then you have a disease that doesn't respond to the usual effective therapies. That's what's been happening across the board in the world of bacterial borne infectious diseases. And the cost of that could be staggering.

We're beginning to see another cost rise, one that may have consequences just as far-reaching or even more so.

Chemical resistant weeds are beginning to show up in farmers' fields. For years farmers have used certain herbicides to keep their fields free of weeds, even as the manufacturers of those herbicides were also making available chemical-resistant crop seeds. You'd plant the seeds, treat the field with the herbicide from the same manufacturer, and the weeds would die, leaving you with a good crop at harvest time.

Now, the weeds aren't dying. They, too, have developed resistance to the chemicals that used to control them. And they're spreading.

What will this do to our agricultural productivity? We don't know. This is all new stuff. But this is also an unintended consequence of what looks to be too-wide use of powerful chemicals that now are beginning to lose their power.

Freedom always has costs. Freedom always demands a sense of responsibility from those who are subject to that freedom. Freedom's costs are sometimes more expensive than the free people are willing to bear. This reality is being borne out in the present day. I have no doubt that we will encounter other situations where being free to do as we please produces a harvest that we weren't expecting.

We can't know all the consequences of the exercise of the freedoms we take for granted. Perhaps we should be more willing to take some of our freedoms more seriously, and use them less often. We will be debating these situations and others like them in the years ahead. What will all that debate produce? One thing I know is that freedom is not really free unless it contains the freedom to say "No!" to its indulgences.

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