Ed Philp: Quo Vadis Small Freedoms?

[Hello everyone. I’m off for a vacation for about two weeks or so. The posting will become intermittent. In the meantime, here’s valued guest-blogger Ed Philp, expounding on his theory of the Small Freedoms. I hope he’ll contribute even more while I’m gone, but he’s got important things to do, so we can only hope… Take it away, Ed!]

In the past short while, Germany’s coalition government has sought to strike at some of the “small freedoms” in Germany I noted here (somewhat in jest) almost two years ago.

These initiatives relate to the liberal attitude to smoking in Germany, which Andrew revisits here, the lack of maximum speed limits (G) on the autobahn and the age of legal beer and wine consumption (16), which may now be raised (G) to 18 (although technically, this isn’t a coalition proposal, coming from the CDU and the Greens). In the past few months as well, we have also seen efforts to ban or further restrict the sale of violent video games. In my comment from 2005, I commented that Germany’s small freedoms seem to counterbalance limitations to ‘big’ freedoms, in contrast to the United States, which takes the opposite approach.

I’m now in agreement with Andrew on the proposed restrictions regarding smoking here and regard these as timely and legitimate. I suppose my reaction to speed limits is knee-jerk and resentful – powering a German sports car at 160 down a stretch of scenic German highway is still a visceral thrill for me that is somewhere on my Top 29 list of reasons to enjoy living in this country.

As for an increase in the legal age of alcohol consumption, I’m not in favor of this at all. First, the age of 16 strikes me as largely natural. That age is spent testing one’s limits anyway, and alcohol will play a part in this, whether legal or not. Take a look at the large numbers of alcohol consumption and possession offences in the USA or Canada for proof that 16 year olds will always find a way to beg, borrow or steal a six pack.

Second, by raising the age of legal consumption, this younger consumption is simply criminalized and driven underground and German 16 and 17 year olds will start drinking under bridges or at unsupervised house parties. Making alcohol consumption illegal increases its mystery factor and for many teens, will render it that much more attractive. The societal framework that can help to assist teenagers who consume too much alcohol evaporates. My German high school class spent most Saturday evenings at a bar called K5, which was filled with other sixteen year olds. Bartenders, bouncers and police were all watchful and intervened where someone couldn’t control themselves, and parents were well aware of what their kids were up to. By the time these people reached the age of 18 or so, they had learned about the effects of alcohol in a generally healthy social environment with lots of checks and balances and they used it in a largely responsible manner. The guy who couldn’t hold his beer at 16 had a gross story to tell; the one who was still ‘blowing his groceries’ every Friday a year later was a bit of a freak. Contrast this with an American high school graduation dance or university ‘orientation week’, where surreptitious alcohol consumption is common, and often results in vomiting, fights and – in the worst case – criminal convictions. The attraction of the illicit makes it that much cooler to promiscuously indulge.

Finally, perhaps most crucially, in Germany the driving age is also 18. Right now, this means that young people have two years to consume alcohol and find out how much it dulls your reflexes and generally turns you into a reckless fool before they ever sit behind the wheel of a vehicle. That seems to make good common sense. Offering an 18 year old both car keys and a beer bottle on her birthday, is, well, like offering money and power to government.

And how is Germany ever going to convince North American exchange students to spend a year over here without dangling the lure of legal access to liquor in front of them?

I’m going to speculate and say that in these initiatives, apart from smoking, the government is seeking regulatory solutions to ‘problems’ that were never defined as such before. Thorough and careful German driver training, as well as broad driver compliance with rigid rules (overtake on the left, get out of the way of faster vehicles, etc) made unrestricted highway driving safe enough for most. Open environments in which to experiment with alcohol, coupled with the expectation that teenage drinking is a fact of life, made for a generally safe environment for teens to consume alcohol. One of my classmates managed to ride his bike into a parked boat after excessive drinking fifteen years ago. Binge drinking occurred well before alcopops and ‘Koma-Saufen’ parties. Have these things really changed? I don’t think so.

As well, I think it is worth asking whether, in trading away some of these small freedoms, larger ones are at least being proportionately increased in turn. I haven’t seen a lot of this happening in the past two years, but maybe I am missing a coalition forest for the trees. Any comments here?

* I note that I can still ride on the streetcar here with an open bottle of beer (I am over 18), and can still expect gratuitous second-rate prime-time nudity (G – the link is to a site about a German show called "The Student and the Post-Woman"!) on television (even in sterile documentary format – warning – contains lots of nude Germans (mpg) frolicking in surf on the island resort of Rügen). Even if these particular aspects don’t interest me, that level of liberalism toward social freedoms does.

9 thoughts on “Ed Philp: Quo Vadis Small Freedoms?

  1. Rest assured, the legal drinking age will definitely not be raised. There is no support for such a proposal and it would definitely not solve the problem of “flat rate” binge drinking.

    What exactly do you mean by large freedoms? I’m well aware that this question can set off an avalanche of a discussion, but just a simple answer, with bullet points listing five to ten of these large freedoms, would do.


  2. Hello Norbert,

    The ‘big freedoms’ that immediately come to mind are the following – just a few thoughts off the top of my head, and I’m sure more will come to me in time…


    – The ability to open up a limited liability company with a minimum of expense, time, delay, and administrative hassle. This has gotten somewhat better in Germany recently with the introduction of the English Limited (which has its own minefields), but that wasn’t a German reform. Instead, it was mandated through the European Court in the Inspire Art and related decisions.

    – The ability to go into business in many fields without requiring a lengthy traineeship and state- or quasi-state-sanctioned qualification.

    – Much greater freedom to hire, compensate individually and fire workers, which I believe is healthier for business generally, promotes flexibility and assists in rewarding merit.

    – A generally more liberal attitude toward the regulation of business as a whole. I can report from the legal field that this has improved somewhat – lawyers may now advertise beyond a small metal plate on the door with their name in 5 centimeter high letters, and you can actually have offices of the same law firm in different German Länder. Believe it or not, but this wasn’t the case only a decade or so ago. Shopping hours have also become somewhat less restricted – I’m in favor of a totally laissez faire attitude to this here. I think many parts of Germany would decide on their own to keep the hours that suit them, just as in small towns, where even today most stores have a generous Mittagspause. But I want the freedom for a retailer to say “I’m prepared to sell you groceries at 9 pm on a Sunday”. The 8 pm rush at the cash register is one of the more unpleasant aspects of German retail for all involved.

    – A less restrictive attitude toward privatization, innovation, and independent and original endeavors, particularly in many areas which are entwined with the public sector (universities, health care, Versorgung, etc.) I agree with Andrew that the social welfare concept in Germany has many advantages, and I like living in a country that provides affordable education and state health care to its citizens. But… that mandate shouldn’t preclude, for example, a university being able to take initiatives that cater to a specific clientele (i.e. medical students) even if this poses a risk that the sociology faculty is neglected or closed. Nothing against sociology, but the ‘one size fits all’ attitude to higher education here stifles innovative responses to needs and flexibility. Add to that the interlocking co-dependency of many entities and administrations in even a single such institution, and change becomes incredibly difficult. Just one example – there are many more.

    Social / Economic:

    – I would call it a ‘big freedom’ not to be required by law to carry an identity card in North America, or even to identify myself to police if stopped (on foot). It remains to be seen whether this one can be kept in the post 9/11 environment.

    – I consider it a freedom to be able to pack up and move house, state or city without having to formally notify state authorities (Ummeldung).

    – Workers in the US and Canada generally have much more expanded rights to be able to determine their pension and retirement savings contributions. I’m not in favor of the US free-for-all, where a few imprudent decisions or corporate malfeasance can lead to utter destitution (see: Bre-X, Enron), but I would prefer a system that openly acknowledged my own capacity to prudently manage my own affairs. The Riester Rente is a step in that direction; I would prefer more of a 401k system such as the US offers.

    – The ability to hold multiple passports.

    – Another simple one – in the US or Canada, I can name my child whatever I like, provided it is not a numeral or insulting. Why should the state care what I call myself?

    – On death, the general freedom to leave your estate to whoever or whatever you see fit (typically, in the US and Canada, there is no Pflichtanteil; immediate family members and other relatives may still have limited rights to challenge a bequest, but these are rarely exercised outside of spousal support obligations, which are modeled on divorce arrangements).

    As I’ve argued, there is a reversal in the ‘small’ freedoms in the US and Canada, where the state interests itself more for social regulatory and safety issues that Germany leaves up to the individual. Witness the recent trans-fat ban in New York, or the discussion on banning aluminum bats at high school baseball games, or the prohibition on firecrackers in many North American jurisdictions…

    Yours, Ed.


  3. I just noticed Martin’s comments. I would still call gun ownership a ‘small freedom’. Homeschooling is, on the other hand, a good example of what I think is a big freedom.

    Yes, local politics, lower taxes, coupled with far lower obligations on the state to ensure the wellbeing, health, education and dignity of its members, especially those who are vulnerable or in need. That’s not a ‘big freedom’ I see as worthwhile.


  4. Good points. Business 2, 3 are certainly the worst. Business 4 was to abstract for me to fully comprehend. I fully agree with all social/economic ones, especially 3. The problem is: you would need an FDP government with an absolute majority to combat these (or an immediate surrender to become the 51st state of the US – they would not want us though). And that leads me to believe that it is not the bad state that imposes restrictions on us, it’s ourselves who voted for governments advocating and safeguarding the “status quo”.


  5. On homeschooling and name-giving:

    The fundamental difference in the approaches here, it seems, is that from the German perspective, it is the PARENTS’ “freedom” to homeschool and to name that is to be restricted. The rationale behind this is the thought that the child needs to be protected, to a certain extent, from their own parents’ choices. Thus, could it be that the concept is that the CHILD’S freedom needs protection (parents don’t “own” their children and they can’t decide for their children whatever they want to?)? Thus, the child’s own freedom to be left alone “from” their parents? I think I read some statements to the extent that the Schulpflicht in Germany is also there because parents “don’t own their children”.

    A flawed concept, I believe, which only does make sense in extremis when the parents have gone nuts, e.g. naming their child “bunghole” or teaching them nonsense or nothing at home. Such mistakes are not irreversible, though sometimes they might be.


  6. It is beyond my experience to comment directly on Leben mit Stempel as the Viennese call it, but for the small minute freedoms, I can say that is one of the great pluses of living in a German city. It displays a rather unamerican degree of confidence in your self-control and it acknowledges that these social restrictions are guidelines. A good example would be the outdoor market at Kottbusser Tor underground stop. Post 5 pm the farthest sections of the platforms are filled with Turks drinking beer or selling hash, the middle is filled with commuters and locals drinking beer and smoking a cigarette, waiting for the train and watching all the above transpiring are at least 2 cops and CCTV. The Turks only get hasseled in my experience, if they (a) dont walk downstairs to exchange money and goods or (b) get get too rowdy. Even with a stern talking-to, the cop is only saying calm down, or dont do that anymore or I will arrest you. Smoking in the underground is another example. Never had a cop ever say a word. Once, when there was a 30 minute delay, a transit employee came out and reminded my very happy party that the station was not a smoking room. He could have written tickets, asked for identifications, or both; but, he simply reminded us that we were enjoying a public space and to reconsider the potential unpleasant effects our actions might have on the general public.

    I think it’s lovely. It reminds me of NYC in the late 80s and early 90s–albeit without the pervasive violent crime. This attitude speaks highly, in my opinion, of the Germans appreciation of the small pleasures, which they might not partake in but which they recognize others enjoy. I had been living in Germany for about a year and I had to go to Strassburg. As the train stopped, I got out and lit a cigarette and proceded to walk through the station. I was immediately stopped by a cop/transit employee who berated me for not seeing the signs forbiding smoking within the station. My given answer was that I thought they were advertisements, but my initial thought was: yeah, I saw your signs–what has that got to do with me? I am walking through the station; nobody has complained or seems to mind; I am enjoying myself: is there really a problem here?


  7. Second-hand smoke, racers on the Autobahn and trans-fats all have significant death tolls associated with them. In what corner of the world is killing people a “small freedom”.


  8. Actually, if I recall rightly, the German autobahns are responsible for proportionately less fatalities than US highways. The much more intensive drivers education here may well be responsible. Granted, when an accident happens here, it is pretty serious – I remember once seeing a 70 car pileup on the way to Frankfurt.

    As for death tolls and small freedoms: I don’t think that is an appropriate argument to hold against them per se. It has to be qualified. Hang gliding is a dangerous sport, unsupervised swimming much more so; a state prohibition would be entirely out of line. How many people does alcohol kill / incapacitate each year? No-one advocates banning it.

    I see a regulatory justification for smoking indoors or in public spaces because the danger of injuring others is high. It’s the same argument I think applies to gun ownership. The chances of someone else being injured are simply too high, against potential benefits. Trans fats? Require labelling. Eventually the public decides. Pretty serious penalties attach to racing on the Autobahn – similar to those ones which apply anywhere else in the world. License gone. What else do you want to do? I suspect that drag racing occurs in the US with the same frequency as in Germany.

    TITLE: Germany’s Small Freedoms
    URL: http://atlanticreview.org/archives/631-Germanys-Small-Freedoms.html
    BLOG NAME: Atlantic Review
    DATE: 03/21/2007 10:52:31 PM
    Writing for German Joys, Ed Philp looks at initiatives against small freedoms in Germany, i.e. against the relatively liberal attitudes towards smoking, maximum speed limits on the autobahn, the age of legal beer and wine consumption, and the
    TITLE: Germany’s Small Freedoms
    URL: http://atlanticreview.org/archives/631-Germanys-Small-Freedoms.html
    BLOG NAME: Atlantic Review
    DATE: 03/21/2007 10:45:19 PM
    Writing for German Joys, Ed Philp looks at initiatives against small freedoms in Germany, i.e. against the relatively liberal attitudes towards smoking, maximum speed limits on the autobahn, the age of legal beer and wine consumption, and the


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