Notes on the Occupation 4: Thinking about Freedom

Working out what to think about … all this … in real time.

Gary Mason has a good column in the Globe and Mail today arguing that the alt-right has co-opted the language of freedom in a way that undermines our democracy. I think that’s mostly correct, as far as it goes. But I think there’s also a bit more to it that goes beyond competing visions of what constitutes “freedom.”

A lot of people tend to think of freedom – individual freedom – as either the foundational value in society, from which all others flow. While freedom is definitely important and a hallmark of a liberal-democratic society, it’s not the only, or even the most important, ingredient that goes into making a society. (Please read a few more paragraphs before accusing me of hating freedom.)

I discussed this point in a column last month for CIGI in the context of internet governance, but it’s relevant for politics in general, and especially for our current moment.

As Susan Strange – and others, but I like Strange’s candid take on it – argues in the beginning of her book States and Markets, all societies have to provide four things in order to function:

  • Individual freedom, that is, self-determination;
  • Justice, or equity, the sense that we and others in a community are being treated justly;
  • Wealth, the material things we need to both survive and enjoy life; and
  • Security, which is probably self-explanatory.

Strange argues that people and societies differ on how to rank these values. This ranking is the soul of politics, and it involves real trade-offs. In internet governance, when we’re talking about online harms, the main tradeoff is between freedom and justice (though wealth and especially security are in the mix as well). Those who argue for internet (individual) freedom are prioritizing freedom over justice. Meanwhile, those who argue that we need to address online harms, are generally saying that we should be more concerned with justice than with individual freedom. If we were talking cybercrime, the tradeoff would be between freedom and security.

Fortunately, these rankings don’t necessarily imply that we can only have one and not the other. As Strange also notes, societies must provide some of each. In other words, freedom is important, but you also need the other three. No single value is foundational; all are. But it’s up to us to decide how to prioritize and fulfill them.

The political question is how to balance these values: relatively more freedom and less justice (the current internet status quo), or more justice and less freedom? As heated as internet governance debates can get, they still, for the most part, exist within these parameters, and within normal politics, which is all about compromise.

In contrast, an extreme version of these policy choices is at play in the Ottawa Occupation. Using Strange’s language, the protesters – I think we can call them seditionists at this point – have gone all-in on the individual freedom to do whatever they want, at the expense of all the other socially necessary values.

In terrorizing Ottawans for over a week now, they’ve demonstrated their contempt for the value of security.

In their utter lawlessness, they’ve demonstrated their total lack of interest in justice.

By effectively shutting down Ottawa’s downtown core, including the Rideau Centre, they’ve shown an complete disregard for the need for people to engage in the economic activity needed to feed and clothe themselves.

But this is what you get when the delicate balance – not between freedoms, but among these four different values – gets tilted toward one value against all the others: very bad things, as we’re seeing in Ottawa.

So it’s not just that they’ve weaponized the concept of freedom in a way that is a direct attack on our democracy; they’re treating with contempt the other values any society needs to function.

You had four jobs

Thinking about the situation in terms of these four values also highlights the almost-unprecedented failure of our three levels of government (I say almost out of academic habit, but I honestly can’t think of anything in our history that quite compares).

In failing to confront the seditionists, the Trudeau, Ford and Watson (weird way to refer to a municipal government, I know, but there you are) governments have also abdicated their responsibilities to provide the basic necessities of a functioning society: justice, wealth and (most obviously) security. And in continuing to indulge the individual freedoms of a few seditious thugs and fellow travellers, they’ve surrendered the individual freedoms of entire downtown communities.

Great job, everyone.

As Strange notes, all societies must provide some of freedom, justice, wealth and security. What happens when a government fails to provide any of these? What should happen?

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