What price freedom?

This was originally published on 5th August, 2021, and was republished here on 4th January, 2022.

“We live in a democracy and normally I am certainly one who supports people’s right to protest, but I actually think it [protesting against restrictions] is really silly.” — Brad Hazzard, Health Minister of New South Wales

Doublespeak is the way of modern government. Recognising that lockdowns upset people who quite like their rights and/or freedoms, every government minister and public servant is eager to assure us that they also love those things, but just not right now.


We’ve mentioned before that governments try to justify their actions by claiming that they’re dealing with circumstances that are ‘unprecedented’ or ‘extraordinary’. We see this in the above quote — Brad Hazzard is totally in favour of protests, but the current circumstances mean that he is actually not in favour of them.


But is this kind of doublespeak justified? Is the rejection of certain rights and/or freedoms reasonable in certain circumstances?


Mass protests have taken place in France over COVID ‘passports’. (AP Photo/Rafael Yagohbzadeh)

Previously, we’ve been critical of arguments built upon ‘rights’, for as any first-year political science major will learn, ‘rights’ have no consistent basis for existing. The western nations that use the concept of ‘rights’ have created them from a Christian worldview, understanding that the Bible’s conception of humans as all being made in God’s image means that every person has certain rights and privileges that cannot be taken from them (though it should be noted that other historical powers, especially large empires, have usually applied the same principles in accordance with their worldviews — a Roman citizen would be able to do many more things in the Empire than a non-citizen, for example).


But given these same western nations are now almost entirely non-Christian nations, abandoning the Bible and removing it from any significant place in society, there is no longer any widespread agreement on what the basis for ‘rights’ is. People like and appreciate having these ‘rights’, but cannot articulate where they come from and why that matters. As a result, governments have largely taken it upon themselves to be the master of ‘rights’, and so we have seen governments remove ‘rights’ from people at will. After all, if government is the conceiver of ‘rights’, then whatever the government thinks is true or best for the nation will determine which ‘rights’ they give, and to whom they give them.


While this turns ‘rights’ into little more than soft tissue paper, easily blown away, drowned out and torn into little pieces by any force powerful enough, the same cannot be said of freedoms. Freedoms — or ‘civil liberties’ as they may be traditionally called, (and if we go back far enough they are even called ‘rights’, such as in the Bill of Rights 1689), I simply use ‘freedoms’ to make the distinction clear — appear similar to rights, and in many ways achieve the same results regarding the same issues, such as free speech and free assembly.


Yet, there is a crucial difference between the two. In the case of rights, a higher power is the ultimate authority over the people, who depend on the higher power to determine what they can and cannot do. But in the case of freedoms, the responsibility is reversed: it is the people who determine what the power they place over themselves can and cannot do.


Understandably, this has been much rarer historically. After all, which government is going to choose to limit its own power over the people it governs? Thanks to certain quirks of history, the answer is ‘those with a vested interest in coming to power, even if that power is limited’. England, whose parliament established itself as the ultimate power in the land on behalf of the people they represented, invited William of Orange to become king, and passed the aforementioned Bill of Rights to limit his power, and those of his descendants. In doing so, the English parliament also limited its own power, as the monarch gives their power to the parliament to govern, so any limit on the monarch’s power likewise affects the parliament.


From this, England (and in turn, Great Britain), along with her children such as the United States and Australia, established what it looks like to govern while restrained by freedoms. It is no coincidence that these are the most free nations the world has ever seen, and with that liberty has come many other benefits. These societies have been models for the rest of the world to follow, because freedoms enable every part of life, from personal relationships to the economy to our institutions to function efficiently and effectively.


Freedoms enable societies to best forge an optimal path, for the individual and the collective, as they prevent governments of whatever stripe from stopping groups from meeting together, no matter how big or small they are, no matter if they agreed or disagreed with the government on some issue. Anyone who wishes to speak freely on any matter can now do so without the government interferences. And what is it that brings about change in societies? Speech and assembly. People being convinced over the importance of an issue and demanding change, collectively.


Bear in mind, governments are full of imperfect humans who, if given the chance, will readily misuse the power available to them. Preventing them from stopping the speech and assembly of the people allows those very people to encourage and demand changes in their society, which governments then must act on, else they lose their power and be replaced at the next election. Freedoms are a recognition that any well-functioning society needs to be able to hold governments to account, and are therefore absolute restrictions on the power of government, without fear or favour.


Well, mostly.


Historically, Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park has been a testament to freedom of speech. (Medium)

After all, if this freedom was truly absolute, it would take all of five seconds for freedom of speech to be used to incite people into murdering your neighbour that you’ve had a twenty-year feud with, or for freedom of association to result in anarchist radicals meeting together, plotting to blow up the parliament. The same imperfect humans that run governments are also found everywhere else, because imperfection is a human condition. This kind of free-for-all would completely defeat the purpose of establishing a government in the first place, as people desire governments to rule in order to keep order and enable them to live freely and harmoniously.


Governments are our defenders against evils, and freedoms are our defence against evils in government. So, within the restrictions that are placed on them to enable freedoms for the people, governments are allowed to legislate that certain activites remain illegal. To use freedom of speech as an example, this includes speaking certain falsehoods (such as perjury), threats and incitement to ‘imminent lawless action’ — all linked with evidently criminal behaviour, which is the only agreed-upon limit on freedoms in most cases.


When seeking to place boundaries on these freedoms, governments must introduce legislation that has to be passed through the parliament in order to become law. The non-government members of parliament therefore act as a line of defence against any government overreach, and even if they don’t have the numbers to block legislation directly, a sufficiently unpopular, overreaching law may well see that government removed from office at the next election.


Furthermore, each country has a constitution that the laws must not breach, and these constitutions can place stringent requirements on governments, such as the First Amendment in the United States, which proclaims that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech,” the wording of which makes clear that freedom of speech is one of a series of freedoms that are absolute. Being absolute also means that freedoms, unlike rights, cannot butt up against each other, with a debate over whose rights are less important when they are in conflict. Freedoms apply equally to any and all groups and individuals.


The Chinese government has been stifling freedoms rapidly in Hong Kong over the past 18 months (Wall Street Journal)

And yet, it seems these defences are not enough. In Hong Kong — which originally borrowed its political and legal system from Britain — the Chinese government has forced ‘national security laws’ through their parliament, which include restrictions on ‘inciting secession’ and ‘inciting hatred of the central government (the Communist Party of China) and Hong Kong’s regional government’. These new laws were recently used to convict a man for holding a flag that stated ‘Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of Our Time’.


‘Incitement’ was also used by police in the Australian state of Victoria last year to arrest a pregnant woman who used social media to call for a protest to take place, among others, and has been used by police in the neighbouring state of New South Wales against some participants in a recent protest.


The ease with which ‘incitement’ is being used to charge people for advocating to commit newly invented crimes makes the ‘freedoms’ framework look pretty similar and easy to abuse as the ‘rights’ framework, but unlike with the latter, the problem here is not with the freedoms themselves. The problem is with the failure to defend said freedoms by the people charged with doing so.


In Hong Kong, the situation is more difficult — the Chinese government has made great use of the Coronavirus pandemic to crush the dissent that had been boiling in the city-state beforehand — but in Australia and other Anglosphere nations, legislation passed with little challenge or fanfare, generally in the last twenty years, has been used (sometimes beyond the boundaries of what it actually legislates) to run roughshod over parliament, while government spin-doctors feed lines to the media and assume that the general public will be too scared and/or clueless about what’s happening to challenge them in any real way, and the police enforce government edicts regardless of what the law actually says.


In theory, the freedoms still exist, but are being ignored in practice and need to be rescued. While the ‘rights’ framework can very quickly devolve into ‘who can take their position by force and make everyone bend to their will’ (see: French Revolution), the ‘freedoms’ framework creates a cage from which governments will regularly try to escape, and which therefore requires the people to act responsibly and fight back when governments overreach — putting them back in their cage, so to speak.


It is precisely because freedoms are a burden on governments that our governments will always try to get around them, and even eliminate them, and why we must always be alert to their attempts to do so. This is especially the case when our lines of defence — opposition in parliament, media megaphones, and the like — fail to hold them to any account on these issues. Taking responsibility in this way may require sacrifices, but the end result is the continuation of freedoms that are not our own — we have inherited them from our forebears, and we have a duty to pass them on to the next generations. If government is truly from, by and for the people, that means that we, as ‘the people’, must be the ones holding them to account.


The American Constitution is founded on the belief that governments are instituted by and responsible to ‘we the people,’ and restricts what the government can do to ‘the people’ accordingly

But are freedoms worth making sacrifices for? Are they worth death itself? Our governments are telling us that our safety is paramount, that nothing is worth risking even the slightest bit of ill-health (if that — a positive test result even when one feels perfectly fine, or someone else’s positive test when you were vaguely in the same vicinity, is now enough to imprison you in your home, or some random hotel). But this is not how those before us saw things. For hundreds of years, people have been willing to fight and die for the sake of not merely their own personal liberties, but for the sake of freedoms as a principle.


Far from being inherently selfish in the way that governments throughout history — today included — try to present these actions as, the fight for freedoms is fundamentally about what is best for those around us and for all of society, just as the freedoms themselves are. The principles of freedom are a bulwark against tyranny, because where absolute power reigns, evil will follow soon after, with corruption and destruction in its wake. Only the historically illiterate would think otherwise.


Because would-be tyrants are generally not stupid, their preferred way of accruing power today is not all-at-once, but rather in ‘salami slicing’ freedoms away — by making the population, piece by piece, increasingly subservient without them even noticing and, therefore, not raising a fuss. This is the other reason why freedoms must be absolute: that absolute, inviolable nature means that any attack on them, big or small, is an offence against the principle precisely because any attack on them may be used by governments to continue attacking them in future, until they have been completely done away with.


Certainly, the system is imperfect in both theory and practice, as the freedoms are not entirely absolute (because if they were, we would quickly destroy each other), and the existence of limits on freedom that we entrust to the government will occasionally result in debates about where those limits should lie. But even so, it is the best we can do on this earth, and it has served us very well to date, creating the greatest nations the world has known.


And yet even as I write, this principle is under serious attack in those same nations. Freedoms are being tossed away, as governments are now deciding on a whim what counts as criminal behaviour, without oversight, without restraint, and without serious opposition — the very thing that freedoms were implemented to stop from happening.


William III agreeing to the Bill of Rights following the Glorious Revolution. (Britannica)

It was the tyranny of James II that led to the Glorious Revolution and the 1689 Bill of Rights, which set in place certain freedoms, building on others that had been previously established, and leading to further freedoms that were later legislated. Yet now the parliamentary supremacy that developed from these events is being used to eradicate the very same freedoms that were given to us by it!


Because constitutions are the last official line of defence in these situations, it may well turn out that governments in all these countries have acted unconstitutionally by giving orders to be enforced by police (and now even by the military), without passing appropriate legislation, or by passing legislation which is unallowable by the constitution, or by simply acting in ways that are not allowed by either legislation or their constitution. But it will probably take years before these things are decided, and by then, the general public may have become so pliant and ‘safe’ in their subservience to the will of any wannabe despot that comes their way that the constutitionality of their actions will be regarded as an irrelevancy.


You may personally regard that as a good thing, especially if you are concerned for your personal safety. But such fears ignore the fact that this is far from the most dangerous situation any of the Anglosphere nations have been in, even if we were to narrow that to health dangers, and yet previous governments have never gone as far as ours today. Never before in allegedly free societies have healthy people been ordered to stay at home en masse, businesses to close completely, and social functions to cease entirely.


‘Lockdown’ is a befitting name for this reach into even private property and private lives of individuals and families, as the word comes from the United States prison system, which exists in its own world of deliberate tyranny. Freedom is a non-entity in that place, and yet unless you fight for the principle of freedom in this place, you may as well end up in prison, for the difference between it and the free world will continue to dwindle as governments continue to shatter these priceless heirlooms.


So as your leaders insist that they have been doing The Right Thing as they send you into another imprisonment, and tell you to wear a mask despite being jabbed, and force you to tell them every location to travel to, and leave you out of work once more, and threaten to make your life impossible unless you obey their every word, ask yourself why, hundreds of years ago, those with influence in your nation and its predecessors felt that freedoms were so important to their nation’s wellbeing that they were willing to revolt, fight and die if need be in order that their fellow man could have them.


Furthermore, ask what kind of country you may end up with if governments can simply decide to do whatever they want, with no parliamentary or media backlash, and an enforced silencing of public dissent, as well as asking whether that is the kind of country you would want your children and grandchildren, and those of your family, friends and neighbours, to inherit and grow up in.


Governments happily make freedoms disappear when people do not ask questions — so ask away, before our valuable inheritence disappears for good.