It’s a Free Country

You don’t hear it very often these days, but there used to be an extremely common expression, which seemed to have been coined mainly to get up other people’s noses.

That expression was, “It’s a free country”.

It could be used permissively:

Me: Do you mind if I smoke in here?
You: Go ahead. It’s a free country.

Or dismissively:

You: Could you please extinguish that smelly cigarette?
Me: Get stuffed, it’s a free country.

In either usage, it’s a rather feeble act of passive-aggression.

And what does it really mean? What the hell is a free country? It brings to mind some imaginary Third World country which isn’t “free” and people are forced by the State to have manners and be decent to one another.

Substituting “country” for “world” in the age of the Internet and generously overlooking the fact that we don’t live in a free country and one cannot always do what one likes, “It’s a free country” refers to the fact that we have a broadly Libertarian moral system. Few would disagree with the idea that “So long as your actions do not harm another, you’re free to do what you like”.

But there lies the problem. The entire problem with a Libertarian system is inherent in the expression “It’s a free country”. We too often forget the “So long as your actions do not harm another” proviso. Somewhere along the way, we’ve abandoned that important part of it and Libertarianism, now tried up with strong forces like the free market, has become equal to the statement “I’ll have my fun and that’s all that matters, woe betide anyone who tries to stop me”.

Which isn’t really on is it?

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Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

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