It is a sure sign that a person is against freedom when they start trying to redefine it. Even politicians who espouse explicitly anti-liberal and anti-individualistic philosophies feel obliged to pay lip service to freedom from time to time. In The Doctrine of Fascism, for example, Mussolini wrote: ‘In our state the individual is not deprived of freedom. In fact, he has greater liberty than an isolated man, because the state protects him and he is part of the state.’
In this view, safety and freedom become one and the same, with true freedom coming from the state shielding its citizens from themselves. In Orwell’s Animal Farm, Squealer assures the animals that Napoleon ‘would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?’
I have mentioned before the Senate inquiry into the nanny state that is currently underway in Australia. If it does nothing else, it will at least start a dialogue about what it means to be free in a country where paternalism has been on steroids in recent years. Nobody wishes to be seen as being against freedom and yet the ‘public health’ lobby has an endless list of taxes, prohibitions and restrictions which implicitly assume that there is too much of it. The answer, as ever, is to redefine what liberty means.
The latest example of this comes from the Australian Health Promotion Association (AHPA). Its spokesman told the nanny state inquiry that ‘to be truly free’ we need to be able to walk down the street ‘free from the fear of being run down by a speeding or drunk driver’ and without being ‘exposed to cigarette smoke’. Moreover, he said, we must be ‘free from the fear that our children will be harassed by cigarette and alcohol advertising’.
What is notable about this definition of ‘true’ freedom is that it is all about being free from things rather than being free to do things. This is the tried and tested method of obfuscating the reality of policies which remove autonomy from individuals, as Orwell recognised in the appendix of 1984:
‘The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as “This dog is free from lice” or “This field is free from weeds”. It could not be used in its old sense of “politically free” or “intellectually free” since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless.’
The AHPA actually goes further than the creators of Newspeak by demanding state intervention to ensure that people are not only ‘free from’ certain things, but that they are also free from the fear of them. This sets the bar impossibly high. Quite properly, we have laws against speeding and drunk driving, but the AHPA believes that to be ‘truly free’ we must also be ‘free from the fear of being run down by a speeding or drunk driver’. Moreover, we have the bizarre assertion that true freedom means being ‘free from the fear that our children will be harassed by cigarette and alcohol advertising’.
One wonders whether any parents go through life fearing that their child will be ‘harassed’ by alcohol advertising, but if such people exist it is doubtful that there could ever be enough laws to quell their neuroticism. The logical conclusion of the AHPA’s submission is that alcohol advertising be banned in order to address the irrational fears of hypothetical parents. Indeed, alcohol and motor vehicles should be banned entirely in order to free people of the fear of being assaulted by a drunk or hit by a speeding motorist. Smoking outdoors should be banned to protect people’s alleged right to ‘not be exposed to cigarette smoke’ and any number of restrictions on the food supply should be introduced because, they say, a person can only be ‘truly free’ if he is free from obesity.
That this all amounts to an assault on personal liberty should be obvious. The freedom to live your life as others think you should live it is no freedom at all. If it were freedom, it would not require a never-ending stream of new criminal offences to be created.
There is always a trade-off between freedom and safety. Getting the balance right is one of the oldest questions in political philosophy. For my money, nobody has bettered John Stuart Mill’s view that ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’. You may disagree, but whatever your view I trust that you acknowledge that a trade-off exists between paternalism and liberty. It is those who think that paternalism is liberty that pose the greatest threat to a free society.