Readers of T. H. White's Once and Future King will recognize the title of this entry from the visit to the ant colony. The rule always struck me as both humorous and chilling.
I believe that Americans are coming to accept what one might call a close cousin of the rule that everything that is not forbidden is compulsory. Support for this conjecture comes from the entry Bill Luse posted about ABC's show concerning a (fake) pharmacist who did not want to prescribe birth control pills for a minor girl. The ABC announcer makes a special point of interjecting a comment when the "pharmacist" and some of the people agree that the girl should not be having sexual intercourse without the knowledge of her parents. "But in most states," intones the announcer, "she doesn't have to tell her parents anything."
Notice the sweeping implication: If she is not required by law to tell her parents anything, she "doesn't have to" tell them anything in any sense whatsoever.
Well, that settles it! If she is not forbidden to have sex without her parents knowledge, then the rest of the world is compelled to aid and abet her in doing so insofar as it falls within their scope, and particularly within the scope of their public and commercial activities.
In this view of the world, there is no space between legal and social penalties. If the law says that you are not forbidden to do something, that is the only thing that matters. It is only the "opinion" implied by the law that ought to have any power over you. Others are not permitted to engage in shunning or refusal to associate with you. Only the State has a right to express disapproval--in the form of making your activity illegal. No other effective form of social discouragement ought to exist.
Thus the power of the State is increased many-fold. On the one hand, this view encourages us to outlaw anything we disapprove of, with obvious implications for the increase of government power. On the other hand, this view encourages an absolute uniformity of thought, opinion, behavior, and association, dictated by the common denominator of what is legal. If it isn't illegal, it is wrong for you to try to discourage it even by the passive means of refusing your cooperation or approval. Such disapproval and non-cooperation is wrong-thought and wrong-act; it is, in fact, discrimination, than which nothing worse can be conceived.
The State giveth, and the State taketh away, and don't you forget it.
I do not know whether liberals will be the long-term beneficiaries of the resultant soft totalitarianism. In the short-term, since they are currently in a position to make the rules, the benefits to them and to the spread of their view of the world are considerable. And perhaps I should not try to warn them to be careful what they wish for lest they get it. Maybe all such pragmatic considerations tend to favor their side of the culture war anyway.
Conservatives, however, would do well to consider the benefits of greater freedom and, in particular, of a public space in which purely social penalties can exist. When our overlords really have everyone convinced that whatever is not forbidden is compulsory, it will not be a pretty sight from our perspective.