Liberty, Freedom and the Lessons of History
Are These Contrarian Concepts?
I wrote this piece in November 2021 and I have been sitting on it. That may account for the fact that the articles that I mention in the piece are somewhat dated. But since then I have become increasingly concerned at the devaluation – at least in the commentariat – of the concept of freedom. I know that many of those who are critical of its use hearken back to the Parliamentary Protest and since then there has been an association of those who advocate freedom with conspiracy theorists. This was apparent in an article by Simon Wilson in the NZ Herald for 25 July 2023 when, reporting on the NZ First Party launch he mentioned Winston Peters’ reference to “the conspiratorial protest movement”. The association of “conspiratorial” with the suggestion of “protest” or contrarian opinion is a shorthand form of demonizing dissent and in my view is a cheap shot that actually avoids confronting the issues raised.
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Wilson’s view – which it must be said is consistently from the left hand side of the frame – echoes that which was apparent in a cartoon in the Herald the day before by Body. He too took a shot at Winston Peters which is fair enough, but, like Wilson he too demonized the freedom movements. In the cartoon – I reproduce it below – Winston is portrayed stirring a pot marked :freedom movements” and the contents of the pot are coloured a toxic green with unpleasant objects floating in it.
I don’t have a problem with satire and I certainly don’t subscribe to many of the theories that were floating around during the Parliament Protest. But I do support the right of those protesting to have their say and voice their opinions. It matters not what those opinions might be. It is one of the aspects of freedom and liberty that we have – a most important aspect at that.
Yet the commentariat seems to be of the view that freedom – or the desire for it to continue – is somehow weird or possibly subversive. That cheapening of freedom serves to diminish its importance and in a liberal democracy that is a problem.
The piece that follows more fully articulates what I consider to be the importance of freedom and liberty – placing those concepts within an historical context.
There is a point of view that suggests that the current rhetoric on “freedom and rights” derives from American conceptions of individualism and individual freedoms. This point of view was articulated by Nicky Hager who expressed a justifiable concern that many of his associates were being swept up and high-jacked by unsavoury elements whose principles and values were antipathic to theirs.
In his discussion however, he made the following observation about the concept of freedom. In suggesting that there is a Trumpian influence through the rhetoric of many of the protesters he observed that US ideas about freedom meant
“freedom of the individual to do what they like and stuff everyone else. In New Zealand, the dominant values are much more about community and caring for each other. Freedom sounds good, but it’s a slogan for deeply conservative and unattractive ideas that deny or avoid the responsibility we have for others.”
Hayden Thorne made a similar suggestion within the context of the rhetoric about the rights of the individual to refuse vaccines and keep a jobs. He argues that this is an import from the United States and goes on to suggest that first it corrupts the importance of American constitutional freedoms and shows a serious misunderstanding of our culture and constitutional structure.
To suggest that the concepts of individual rights and freedoms are an import from the United States is incorrect.
Freedom – or liberty as I prefer to call it – is not a peculiarly American ideal and historically its concepts extend further back in history than the American Revolution.
Perhaps one of the most articulate and eloquent expressions of the nature of liberty (or freedom) came not from America but from the pen of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill in his classic “On Liberty”.
Mill considered that the tyranny of government needed to be controlled by the liberty of citizens.
There were two ways in which this came about. Citizens had inherent rights and citizens thereby established constitutional checks on the government which, with the consent of the community, represented its interests. These checks imposed conditions on the governing power, thus preventing its absolute exercise.
In some respects this hearkened back to Enlightenment thinking about the nature of Government expressed by Thomas Jefferson (along with John Adams and Ben Franklin) in the Declaration of Independence
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”
We can see in that statement the emphasis is on individual rights. The duty of Government is to secure or ensure these rights and then powers of the Government to do so derive from the consent of the governed.
However, although these ideas received their best known expression in the Declaration of Independence they were founded upon the writings and thinking of the English philosopher John Locke and in particular his Second Treatise on Government. Locke identified life, liberty and property as the three fundamental rights and that a Government existed, among other things, to promote public good, and to protect the life, liberty, and property of its people.
Thus we can see a thread running through the argument of liberty as an aspect of individual identity which should be protected by and yet from the Government. If a Government fails to ensure the protection of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the consent of the governed may be withdrawn and the Government loses its mandate to govern. But Mill was very clear on the extent of government power as it affected the individual
“That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant ... Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
This did not arise from a concept of natural rights because Mill based his standard on utilitarian principles and arising from that there were three basic liberties. Mill ranked these in the following order:
The freedom of thought and emotion. This includes the freedom to act on such thought, such as the freedom of speech
The freedom to pursue tastes (provided they do no harm to others), even if they are deemed "immoral"
The freedom to unite so long as the involved members are of age, the involved members are not forced, and no harm is done to others
Mill conceded that in certain situations and circumstances these freedoms can be overridden but in modern and civilized society there was no basis or justification for their removal.
As has been noted, Mill ranked freedom of thought as the most important basic liberty. Opinions ought never to be suppressed. Indeed he recognized that there may be false beliefs, beliefs that are partly true and those what are wholly true. All of these provide some benefit to the common good. He wrote:
First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.
One of the major criticisms of the current “rights” or “freedoms” rhetoric is that it is selfish and self-centred. There are several ripostes to this.
The first is that rights in and of themselves are inherently individualistic. Individuality is by definition the thriving of the human person through higher pleasures as Mill put it. Individuality promotes creativity and diversity and, as a corollary to that, conformity carries with it dangers.
Secondly, the word “selfish” in modern parlance is a term of criticism rather than a term of celebration. The first objective of an individual is to ensure his own survival. Only then can he enjoy the liberties that accompany that survival. “Selfish” is used to describe this but “self-interest” and “self-determination” probably are better encapsulations of these aspects of individual liberty. As opposed to this is altruism.
Altruism is all very well if it is freely assumed as a conscious choice. The problem is that enforced altruism – that it is a moral obligation to live for the sake of others – is a moral obligation that at times is incorporated into law. But there are frequently times when enforced altruism challenges self-interest or requires an individual to accept a lesser enjoyment of life than that they may otherwise achieve by virtue of their own efforts.
In considering, therefore, the nature of liberty, Hager’s comment “freedom of the individual to do what they like and stuff everyone else” – is not only a rather ineloquent albeit incorrect articulation of an aspect of self-interest and self-determination but it is wrong. Hager balances this against what he describes as New Zealand values of being more about community and caring for each other. In this way he argues that rights-based rhetoric is inimical to the caring community but it is not. A community is comprised of individuals rather than of a hive-mind.
Each individual enjoys liberty as described by Mill. Within that liberty there is the liberty of choice – the choice to remain aloof from or become involved as John Donne put it “in mankind”. It is my choice to care for my neighbour and to assist my neighbour but not to the detriment of my own existence. Liberty is not for the purpose of selfish indifference which may be the real root of Mr Hager’s complaint.
But liberty ensures that that a person should be left as free to pursue his own interests as long as this does not harm the interests of others. Mill’s system of liberty was intended to bring greater benefit to an individual than physical or emotional coercion. This means that a person may, without fear of sanction, do harm to himself. The only time that a Government should impose a sanction on a person would be for neglecting to fulfill a duty to others (or causing harm to others), not the vice that brought about the neglect.
The difficulty that has arisen lies in the polarization of points of view. For some extraordinary reason those who advocate for liberty are being equated with organisations that have little interest in the true nature of liberty or freedom characterized by Mill or by Enlightenment thought. There is little doubt that some of those organisations are fellow travellers with those who currently advocate for freedom or for liberty but this does not mean that they have high-jacked the theories of liberty nor the practice and reality of liberty.
Rather it seems that certain elements seem to apply a stereotype to those who advocate for freedom that may not be justified and that, like most stereotypes, ignores individual difference and diversity.
This leads me to a few observations on Mr. Thorne’s position. His starting point is that we should learn from history, but he has overlooked the history of the philosophical underpinnings of liberty . That is demonstrated by his assertion that
“individual rights dialogue was corrupted by the American right - in particular, the religious right - to protect what it saw as important, at the expense of other groups in society. Debates about abortion and gun control became infected with an emphasis on individual rights.”
I would suggest that the individual rights dialogue referred to by Mr Thorne pre-dated the 1970’s and the rise of the religious right, as I have already demonstrated. That the dialogue started to be used as a justification for elements of various societal debates is neither unusual nor concerning.
Indeed the debate about abortion in the US is between the individual self-determination that a woman has to terminate a pregnancy on the one hand (grounded as Mr Thorne will be aware from his study of Roe v Wade and the cases that preceded it like Griswold v Connecticut not only in individual rights but underpinned by privacy considerations) and the rights of the unborn child (as an individual) on the other. These tensions are well known and common when the law and differing moral standards collide.
The debate about gun control is grounded upon the various nuanced interpretations of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution and again involves a conflict between rights – one grounded in a constitutional instrument and the other on aspects of individual safety – again a tension between competing interests with which the law is familiar.
I do agree with Mr Thorne that to try and import US Constitutional theory into New Zealand law misunderstands our constitutional arrangements. Unlike the US Constitution and its Amendments, we do not have a “higher law” that can be employed to test the legitimacy of Acts of Parliament. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (BORA) is more an aspirational piece of legislation than a constitutional one. It argues that in interpreting the law Judges should apply a “Bill of Rights friendly” approach – I know this is a gross oversimplification of the nuances of section 6 BORA and for that I apologise. On the other hand there is a specific provision – section 4 – that prevents a Court from holding that an enactment is invalid because it is inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act. Thus it is not possible for a New Zealand Court to declare a piece of legislation unconstitutional as the US Supreme Court has been able to do since the early Nineteenth Century.
But that does not mean that the various individual rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and property have vanished, simply because constitutional arrangements are different. Although BORA may not occupy the supreme position of the US Constitution, it does articulate a number of rights such as freedom of expression (to impart and receive information) in section 14, freedom of movement in section 18, freedom of association in section 17, freedom of peaceable assembly in section 16, freedom of thought, conscience and religion in section 13, the right to refuse to undergo any medical treatment in section 11. These and the other rights contained in BORA (I have cited a brief selection) are a bottom line. If the Government wishes to enact legislation that is inconsistent with BORA the Attorney-General must advise Parliament – section 7. That advice has rarely prevented inconsistent legislation being enacted but at least the Legislature is put on notice.
Furthermore any existing right or freedom shall not be held to be abrogated or restricted by reason only that the right or freedom is not included in the Bill of Rights Act or is included only in part – section 28. Thus the rights in BORA are not exclusive.
Another important point about the BORA rights is that they are primarily individual rights and provide a measure against which the acts of the legislature, executive and judiciary may be tested along with the actions of any person or body in the performance of any public function, power, or duty conferred or imposed on that person or body by or pursuant to law. Thus BORA acts (or should act) as a restraint on Government power which may involve interference with the rights of individuals.
It will be well-known that over the last few years the powers invoked by the Government have infringed upon and have abrogated many of the rights of New Zealand citizens that are contained in the BORA. In fact the exercise of these powers have resulted in a reversal of the principle that everything that is allowed unless it is prohibited to one (during lockdowns) of everything is prohibited unless it is allowed.
It is therefore not unexpected that individuals may feel concerned or upset that their individual rights have been and continue to be infringed, and that they may wish to express themselves and their dissatisfaction. But in doing so they are calling not upon Trumpism or the reinterpretation of rights rhetoric by the American religious right but on a long history of protest against the wielding of arbitrary Government power against individuals that goes back beyond Mill and Locke and indeed as far back as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Petition of Right of 1628.
 I imagine that Mr Thorne is familiar with Rick Perlsetin’s tetrology “Before the Storm”, “Nixonland”, “The Invisible Bridge” and “Reaganland”. If he is not I recommend them.
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