Book Review: The Permission Society

Not having to ask permission is one of the most essential parts of freedom. Is opening sentence of the ‘Permission Society: How the ruling class turns our freedoms into Privileges and what we can do about it’ written by Timothy Sandefur. The book explores how our freedoms are gradually being turned into privileges granted by the state and the ruling elite.

Sandefur the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute and is an Adjunct Scholar with the Cato Institute. He brings his considerable legal knowledge to this book and explores how the courts have interpreted traditional freedoms in the United States. In the book’s first chapter, Charters of Liberty granted by power he compares the the inalienable rights envisions by the America’s founding fathers with charters of liberty that were granted by Kings or the State that existed elsewhere.

The first chapter makes clear that James Madison clearly felt that the liberties granted by power, were a poor substitute actual freedom because such charters were no more than pledges by those in power that could be revoked by the same power. Unlike Britain, America was founded on principle of natural rights as outlined by John Locke and that the people had the overthrow tyrannical rulers. This view of rights is fundamentally different from what had existed in any previous country and is different from views of rights that exists in Australia today. In Australia the prevailing view is that rights are granted by parliament – often through ratification of international treaties. This is view is clear when one looks at Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibility or the Australian Human Rights Commission’s attitude towards free speech.

In the book’s later chapters Sandefur discusses how in the 20th century the Supreme Court had reinterpreted traditional rights away from being freedoms and instead are privileges granted by the State. The book explores free speech and censorship, property rights and planning permissions, Competitor’s Vetoes and gun laws. The later chapters are very specific to the legal situation in the United States and may not be of interest to an Australian reader unless they are particularly interested in American law. Sadly, the book indicates that America is moving towards an Australian/European attitude toward liberties where liberties are granted by the state and given to the people.

Specific examples in the book were how the First amendment doesn’t apply to film due to their commercial nature, properties owners having to surrender part of their property to the local government in order to gain permission to build on their property and pervasive role of the competitor’s veto in what should be free markets. The overall impression one gets is that traditional freedoms are being eroded and being replaced with government granted privileges. 

The book provides a concise and easy to understand reference for anyone interested in traditional freedoms. It is particularly useful for any classical liberal who wants to defend free speech and property rights. The modern left often understands rights as being privileges granted by the state and international law. By understanding the critique of those arguments the reader will be better placed to win any future arguments. Overall, The Permission Society is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in liberty and freedom.

The Permission Society is available for sale at the Book Depository

This work by Cato Institute is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Justin Campbell
Follow me