Deval Patrick v. Freedom

By Harvey Silverglate

When Massachusetts residents elected Deval Patrick governor just over a year ago, it was a sign that this state had finally become fed up with sixteen years of Republican pols who treated the office as part plaything, part stepping stone to higher electoral office. For some of us, a liberal administration in the State House – who had previously been an Assistant Attorney General for civil rights in the Clinton administration – was a sign that Patrick would act as a “freedom governor” as well as a “compassionate liberal.”

From the beginning of his administraion, there were inklings that Patrick might not harken to the civil libertarian mold, and that his background in civil rights might lead him to embrace a role as a benevolent (liberal) dictator of sorts, fostering the so-called “nanny state” without any compensating benefits counterbalancing the loss of freedom. Within the last week, three news stories have reinforced such questions about how committed Patrick is to protecting liberty.

As we blogged about Tuesday, Patrick has supported establishing three casinos in Massachusetts. (Note also that The Phoenix has offered its support for the casinos.) Setting aside my personal concerns about the onerous effects of casino gambling on the most vulnerable populations in society – a concern that might be assuaged by certain restrictions on the locations and rules under which the casinos are required to operate – I found it difficult to oppose Patrick’s casino proposal precisely because it’s a fundamentally libertarian position. Liberty should be the default position, deviation from which is justified only for compelling reasons.

But after the recent news that Patrick has sought to ban online gambling – it’s unclear how this would even be enforced in practice – I’ve found it necessary to revise this initial assessment of his support for organized casino gambling. Far from taking a pro-liberty position, it appears that Patrick’s support for casino development in this state is premised entirely on the real or imagined economic benefits – and specifically the taxes and other revenue the state would be pocketing, at least at the start, from introducing casinos. Thus the attempt to punish online gamblers – against whom the federal government, let alone the state, would have a hard time collecting taxes – is really just an attempt to shore up the windfall that supposedly would accompany brick-and-mortar casinos.

This kind of unprincipled pragmatism – which rejects the necessity of certain liberties, like the liberty to engage in private gambling even in the shadow of glitzy, state-sponsored public gambling – gives the committed civil libertarian pause about how extensive Governor Patrick’s commitment to freedom is.

The November 14th Boston Globe also details Patrick’s support for a new bill that expands the “buffer zone” around the entrances to abortion clinics – the minimum distance that anti-abortion protesters must maintain from the entrance to the clinic. After citing how the bill “strikes an appropriate balance between the freedom of choice and the freedom of expression,” Patrick essentially undercut that platitude by privileging “freedom of choice” over “the reasonable right to express themselves of people who have a different view.” As I explained to the Globe’s reporter, this is a poor rationale for increasing the “buffer zone” to 35 feet. Freedom of speech is a right guaranteed to all citizens – including those dissenters “who have a different view” about reproductive freedoms. Moreover, it protects all kinds of speech, from the popular speech of The Daily Show to the unpopular (in this state), offensive, and often visually gory anti-abortion advocacy of groups like Operation Rescue. If we want to create an atmosphere where the liberty of a woman to control her own body is elevated, then we well should maintain the attendant liberty of those who find the procedure to be murder to make their point. Can it be that we have not yet learned, as a society, that liberty is seamless?

Finally, in an issue not heavily covered in the Boston or other local media, State Representative Ruth Balser (D-Newton) has spearheaded an initiative to decriminalize marijuana. In response to the hearings (see video of the hearings here) her legislative committee has held on decriminalization measures, an editorial syndicated in local newspapers such as the Milford Daily News and the Daily News Tribune reports that “a spokeswoman for Gov. Deval Patrick reiterated his campaign pledge to veto any decriminalization measure.” While this is not strictly an issue of Massachusetts civil libertarians being misled by a man who we thought would be a “freedom governor” – as his opposition to decriminalization appears to have been known from the start – it does support the broader argument that Patrick is uninterested in increasing Bay Staters’ personal freedoms. It will be interesting to see what position Patrick takes on medicinal marijuana, if such an initiative gains prominence locally. Meanwhile, this purportedly “liberal” and “progressive” governor blinds himself to the enormous social, legal, economic, and spiritual damage that the War on Drugs has caused the commonwealth and the nation.

Surely it is possible to be a liberal, supporting a society that does not allow its most vulnerable members to sink into an abyss, while advocating at the same time the maximum individual liberty consistent with what the Supreme Court has called “an ordered society.” Thus far it does not appear that Deval Patrick is that kind of liberal. But maybe it’s still too early to give up hope on this score.

(Special thanks and a tip of the hat to James Tierney on this one.)

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