Too Much Freedom or Too Many Rules?

It’s easy to love freedom when your compatriots aren’t exercising it too vigorously. By the same token, anarchic times foster a preference for the benefits of social order. Where does that leave us? We live in a peculiar era in which freedom (in some respects) and constraint (in other respects) are both at a high pitch. (Have sex in public if you like, but don’t dare light up that post-coital cigarette!) As such, Americans are prone to conflicted attitudes on the tension between a love of personal liberty and a distaste for other people’s self-expressive excesses. In a survey conducted for Adweek by Alden & Associates Marketing Research of Hermosa Beach, Calif., we approached the issue by asking: Which causes more trouble in our society—too much freedom or too many rules? Respondents were closely divided on the issue, with a slight majority (51.5 percent) saying too much freedom is the worse culprit. There was a wide gender gap, with 59.1 percent of women looking askance at freedom while 61.6 percent of men put the onus on rules. But if men weren’t so unruly, would fewer women blame society’s problems on a surfeit of freedom? So onesuspects. At any rate, this seems like an instance in which the ebbing of traditional self-restraint has undermined the prestige of freedom. The idea that “hell is other people” becomes especially vivid when those people feel free to impose their sovereign selves on everyone around them. Diminished freedom may look like a good bargain if it would keep those louts in line. Elsewhere in the data, age was also a dividing line. While majorities of 18-24-year-olds (61.1 percent) and 25-34s (57.7 percent) pointed a finger at rules, all of the older cohorts blamed excessive freedom. That’s consistent with the gap between married and unmarried respondents: 58.2 percent of marrieds answered “too much freedom,” and 56 percent of singles answered “too many rules.” This ought to challenge the notion that married people are all secretly chafing against bourgeois convention.