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What Do We Do About Our “Permission Society”?

October 25, 2019

October 25, 2019
By Timothy Sandefur

In my 2016 book, The Permission Society, I argued that the United States is increasingly transforming itself from a free society—in which people are presumed free, and the government can limit their freedom only when it has good reason to—into a Permission Society, in which we are presumed not to be free, unless and until the government gives us permission to act. Consider the many ways in which we are today forced to get the government’s permission—everything from building a house, to owning a gun, to getting a job, or owning medicine, or donating money to a political candidate, requires some form of government permission. And the result is to empower government bureaucracies at the expense of individual freedom.

Last week, the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy hosted a day-long symposium on the Permission Society, at which I was privileged to give the keynote address. It’s now available online—you can view the video of my address above.

In my talk, I explain the competing philosophies of the free society and the Permission Society, examining the ideas of John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Cass Sunstein, and, yes, even Dr. Seuss. And I offer some ideas on how we can begin to fix the problem of the Permission Society—with three simple procedural protections that we call “Permit Freedom.” First, any time the government requires you to get a permit, the criteria for the permit should be clear, not vague terms like “good cause.” Second, the applicant should get a specific deadline when he or she will have a yes or no answer on a permit application. Third, the applicant should have the right to appeal a permit denial and have that hearing before a real judge in a real court—not a biased administrative agency hearing. You can read more about this proposal here.

Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.



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