A Pity Society Can’t Offer The Ideal: More Rules For You, Fewer For Me

Even while relishing freedom, Americans used to distinguish it from mere license. The phrase “within limits” was accepted as a tacit amendment to the liberty to do as one pleases. A glance at people’s behavior (to say nothing of movies, TV shows, music, etc.) might suggest such thinking has died out. When you ask people about the topic, though, many have misgivings about the consequences of unrestrained freedom.

A survey conducted for Adweek by Alden & Associates Marketing Research of Palos Verdes/ Redondo Beach, Calif., got at the issue by asking, Which do you think causes more trouble in our society: too much freedom or too many rules? Responses split nearly down the middle, with 51.3 percent saying “too many rules” and 48.7 percent “too much freedom.” Men were more likely than women (59 percent vs. 45.5 percent) to say an excess of rules is the more troublesome. The overall numbers are little changed from those of early 2001, when polling on the same question found 51.5 percent of respondents identifying too much freedom as the greater problem. While this may look like stasis, it actually indicates some evolution in attitudes. After all, the numbers have held almost steady even as the number of rules people face has continued its inexorable growth. Smoking bans have become much more pervasive, to take one obvious example, as have limits on the use of cell phones. And travelers (in subways as well as airplanes) have encountered various security restrictions in the wake of Sept. 11. As such, one might have expected to see a surge in the “too many rules” vote. The fact it didn’t happen suggests such limitations don’t chafe so much. One likely factor in this is the aging of the U.S. population. Predictably, young adults were more apt than their elders (especially those in the 50-64 bracket) to find an excess of rules the bigger problem. With teenage kids of their own, baby boomers have finally outgrown the anti-authority stance of their younger days. Given the sheer number of boomers moving into their 50s and 60s, demography now weighs against growth of the anti-rules constituency.

Anyhow, the whole “question authority” shtick has aged a good deal in its own right. Thanks in part to its appropriation by numerous marketers, rebelliousness long ago lost its aura of youthful spontaneity. (Think, for instance, of Outback Steakhouse’s literal-minded “No rules, just right” motto.) At the same time, people of all ages have had ample opportunity to see just how annoying other people’s exercise of uninhibited freedom can be. That’s the best advertisement there is for the utility of rules, and lots of them.