We find ourselves manning the proverbial barricades, defending our freedoms in the public square. But it’s difficult to defend an idea that has not been properly nailed down and defined. So I hope you will bare with me as I turn to first principles so we may build our arguments upon solid ground. We demand that our freedom be respected and upheld, but what does that mean, and why?
I contend that the freedom we seek to restore can best be summarised as the freedom to exercise our essential individual rights. From Collins online dictionary “rights” in this context are “those things that one is morally or legally entitled to do or have”. Legal entitlements are simply those rights that have been established in law. The question is what rights are we morally entitled to. Today many employ a sweepingly broad definition that includes a university education, the right to not be “offended” and much in between. Such a broad and all encompassing set of rights has many internal contradictions which renders the entire concept easy to manipulate and thus meaningless.
But I think we can find some insight in the past. In our British tradition these ideas can be traced back to the “Magna Carta” of 1215 and beyond, but we arrive at what I would describe as a crystallization of the modern idea at the 18th Century Enlightenment. In 1776 America’s founding fathers articulated what they felt was the essence of the issue in their 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.”
The rights are “unalienable”, they are not privileges granted that may be rescinded on a whim. To live, speak, travel and think freely, to associate freely, to pursue happiness as we define it ourselves. Free from active interference we are all able to exercise these rights. The possession of these rights is vital for the flourishing of the individual, and of a free democratic state. As individuals we must be able to make our own judgements and take our own risks to reach our full potential. For a democratic society, open and robust debate is of vital importance if we are to develop sound policies and correct the inevitable mistakes that human fallibility produces.
The question of medical freedom provides one of the best examples of the importance of these principles. Only the individual, or a legal guardian who is responsible for the consequences of their decisions, is in a proper position to understand their unique health circumstances and motivated to account for all of the potential risks of a treatment.
Free individuals will make mistakes, sometimes they will have tragic consequences. But when the decision making is centralised incentives are quickly distorted and mistakes that are still inevitably made will have their consequences magnified in proportion to the scale of centralisation. Many would decry this assertion, and appeal to the superior knowledge of the expert, and they may do so very convincingly. But as we stroll down that rode and examine the scenery in our next article, we will find an attractive facade hides a disturbing reality.