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Retired Law Professor is Positive Your Freedom is Negative
Like Isaiah Berlin before him, Bruce Ziff has confused liberty with opportunity.
As provincial governments knock off the COVID theatre, the Edmonton Journal has put out this opinion piece entitled, “Ditching vaccine passport reduces freedom for the majority.”
Bruce Ziff, a retired law professor, writes, “[T]he concept of freedom is more complicated than one might think. Sometimes it refers to “negative” freedom, that is, freedom from state-imposed restrictions. That’s the kind of freedom that truckers and like-minded protesters are so adamant to preserve.”
Ah yes, the old “positive” versus “negative” freedom debate.
According to Bruce, freedom “means empowerment. For example, those who are wealthy are free to spend their life as they wish... That kind of liberty is constrained by factors other than the law. We are all free to buy a Porsche; there is no law against it. But not all of us can realistically make that choice.”
Like philosopher Isaiah Berlin before him, Bruce has confused liberty with opportunity. In his Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin created this two-freedom concept. One he called “negative liberty” which is what we traditionally think when we think of liberty: absence of interference in a person's sphere of action. And then Berlin's new “positive liberty” concept which refers to an individual's power over themselves or their environment.
Bruce, seemingly unaware of this, thinks winning the lottery means you're freer than the person who hasn't won. But, let's say you won the big jackpot. Now family members you didn't even know you had are contacting you for money. Is that interfering with your freedom? Aren't you entitled to that prize money without having to screen phone calls? If we accept Bruce's ambiguous definition of freedom, then we can make any argument we like. Ice cream machine broken at McDonalds? Muh freedom!
Bruce is simply confusing freedom with opportunity.
We are all free to buy a Porsche. We are all free to accumulate the wealth that would allow us to buy a Porsche. Only third-party interference (like a thief or a government lawmaker) would prevent this. In reality, the choice to be rich or poor comes down to the individual. Some are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Others are born into shitty neighbourhoods with deadbeat parents. We don't all begin the race at the same starting point. But we all make choices which lead us to a better or worse life. We pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. The fact this is now a “right-wing talking point” further demonstrates how far removed we are from the generation of men and women who built this country.
But back to the article - Is Bruce more likely to call mother nature a tyrant since she demands we either work or starve?
Bruce's type of freedom was unheard of in times past. It is only the luxury of the modern age that has allowed us to split this definition of freedom to mean two different things. There is the definition we've been working with for centuries: freedom from the arbitrary power of other human beings. Keyword being arbitrary. If I steal cars (other people's private property) I certainly can't complain when my freedom is restricted and I'm put in jail.
Then there is the definition Bruce is working with. The freedom to goods and services, like health care. Which is incompatible with the other definition of freedom. If you break your leg, you might think you have a right to get it looked at. But a professional with certain skillsets must give up his or her free time, they have to forgo seeing other patients, or doing something else entirely.
Bruce agrees that by removing the vaccine passports, “negative freedom is thereby increased. The government loosens its control on where we can and cannot go. But let’s think about how that will affect our individual and collective empowerment on the ground.”
Empowerment. Noun. The granting of political, social or economic power to an individual or group. By using that word, Bruce has laid his cards on the table.
Is freedom synonymous with empowerment? How so? If Bruce is looking for a job, and a hiring manager skips over his resume because she doesn't like the name “Bruce,” would we say the hiring manager is infringing on Bruce's freedom? Is Bruce entitled to work there? Does he have a right to?
Did Canadians who voted for the Liberty Party infringe on the Conservative Party's freedom by not empowering them with a vote? Why not?
Bruce continues, “I, for one, have felt able to resume some of my pre-COVID activities under the passport system. I can work out at the gym, or go to a restaurant with some level of assurance that I will not contract COVID. When passports are no longer required, more people will be free to exercise or dine out in public spaces including those who are not vaccinated. I probably will not do so. I will choose to forego these simple pleasures. There is no question that my range of life choices is abridged.”
Consider the mental gymnastics here. Let's go sentence by sentence. We agree negative freedom is increased without a vaccine passport system. Bruce feels safe doing things he was doing in January and February 2020 when the virus was making its way around the world and no one cared. Bruce thinks vaccines and vaccine passports will keep him from getting COVID. Already he's lost the plot. But he goes further and thinks dining out in a public space with an unvaccinated person is risky. I don't know how an unvaccinated person is supposed to be a risk to someone who is vaccinated and believes they can't catch COVID because of it.
But here's the clincher: “There is no question that my range of life choices is abridged.”
By your own limited thinking, Bruce. Your opportunity for enjoyment is diminished by your belief that others’ freedom is a risk to you.
“For me, the greatest actual limit on my autonomy is not the law, but the well-grounded fear of a breakthrough case of Omricon. (If you doubt that this concern is well-founded, then stop reading now. I read the papers. I know what COVID can do.)”
Should we stop reading, then? Bruce is an old, retired professor. He has reasons to be afraid of COVID. This is a guy that probably watches CBC and thinks he's getting unfettered truth. Also – how did Omricon even get here? Canada has had vaccine passports and border controls in place long before the new variant showed in Africa. So pray tell – if these mandates are so wonderful why aren't they effective?
“Removing the passport requirement reduces my life choices. So do -30 C temperatures. I am free — in the negative liberty sense — to spend hours freezing outside or sleep under a bridge, but these are not real choices. I am free to mingle with non-vaxxers, but that would entail too much risk.”
One is a force of nature you cannot control. The other is government policy crafted and enforced by other human beings. You see the difference, don’t you?
And yes, they are “real choices.” Early humans dealt with those choices every day for hundreds of thousands of years. Fast-forward to modern luxuries and we're dreaming up scenarios where the State demanding your papers is considered “freedom.”
“I am not alone,” writes Bruce, “If non-vaxxers can go to gyms and restaurants, I suspect many of those who are taking sensible precautions will not. It is in this sense that freedom operates like a zero-sum game, where the benefits given to one group are offset by the losses suffered by another.”
Now he's really going off the rails. Freedom is not a zero-sum game. Public property is. I understand what's he's saying. And just for the absurdity of it all, let's use cannabis as an example.
This is like me saying I can't go to the park because of all the weed smokers there. My freedom to enjoy the fresh outdoors is offset by the cannabis smokers who also want to enjoy the park. But since we're all taxpayers and the park is “public” there is no obvious answer.
The solution is to put the park in private hands. Some park owners might ask for vaxx passport, another one might not. Some park owners might make you pick up after your dog. Others might include that in the park fee. Now you have real choice. The problem isn't to conjure up the bad philosophy of “positive” and “negative” freedoms. The problem is the tragedy of the commons.
If some third-rate journalist wrote, “we are optimizing the choices of an unvaccinated minority at the expense of the majority,” I would have simply rolled my eyes and moved on. But Bruce was a professor at the law department at the University of Calgary. He should know better. He should know the philosophical debates that formed this country.
Simply, we are a liberal democracy that protects the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Or at least we are in theory.
And the rights of the minority include being able to leave your house and dine or go to the gym without taking part in an anti-scientific and ineffective vaccine passport system.
Bruce hasn't lost any freedoms. He has simply diminished his opportunity for enjoyment because of his personal risk assessment of a deadly virus. Completely understandable.
“Here is a reality check. Those who prize some general notion of freedom should ask themselves this: since March 2020, what has actually caused you to adjust your lifestyle the most on a daily basis? Is it government action or the virus itself?”
Is this a serious question? Coming from the guy who has spent the entire article confusing “freedom” and “opportunity,” as Isaiah Berlin did all those years ago. This is what happens when you do philosophy without a good grasp of property rights and economics.
Which is ironic because Property Law is Bruce’s specialty. Yet this article reads like someone doing biology without any knowledge of chemistry. Passable, but not recommended.
“Put another way, imagine how life would have been had no government measures been taken to control the spread of COVID?”
First, this assumes they did control the spread. I suggest Googling: “Hayek” and “Pretense of Knowledge.”
Second, imagine how life would have been if the corporate press hadn't whipped everyone into mass hysteria.
I bet most people wouldn't have even known there was a virus going around. Sure, the elderly would have taken notice. But remember SARS in Toronto? Remember H1N1 during the Obama Years? Pandemics happen. If we allow governments to dismantle our freedoms whenever the masses are afraid – then what part of life is worth saving?
Live free or die is more than just a licence plate slogan. It is the lifeblood of Western civilization. It is what propelled young men to fight in wars. Bruce Ziff clearly doesn't see it this way. My question for him is, how much “positive liberty” do we need before it’s obvious that “positive” freedoms are no kind of freedom at all?