You can say one thing for sure about the large-scale anti-vaccination mandate protests that have all but paralyzed Ontario, Canada for over a week: They confirmed your political priors.
Many saw these demonstrations as a cipher for their political values, even when those values were in conflict. The anti-mandate truckers and their sympathizers, we were told, made up the vanguard of a proletarian revolution. They were also, somehow, the leading edge of a groundswell of long-suppressed Canadian libertarianism. For those inclined to look with disfavor upon this disruptive affair, the movement was a ginned-up mob fueled by foreign money and ready to explode with terrific violence at any moment. This is all fatuous nonsense.
The struggle to imbue these demonstrations with profound political meaning is frustrated by the protests themselves, to say nothing of Canadian society more broadly. This is not a “labor action” in the classic sense, or it would be supported by the labor organizations designed to support the workers in the affected industry. The Canadian Trucking Alliance, in fact, has issued statements distancing itself from the protest movement, saying that the demonstrators appear to have little connection to the trucking business. This is not the full flowering of a dormant strain of Canadian conservatism, in part, because a majority of the country believes that “what the people taking part in the truck protests in Ottawa have said and done is wrong and does not deserve any of our sympathy.” Finally, those who worked themselves up into a froth over the idea that this movement had latent terroristic designs should be soothed by the absence of organized violence.
All these observations are more revealing of the observer than the phenomenon they’re observing. Indeed, the displays of psychological projection to which we’ve been privy are quite informative. Maybe the most fascinating comes to us by way of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, which recently performed a deep dive into the protesters’ terrifying battle cry: “freedom.”
Freedom, the government-funded entity informs us, “is a malleable term—one that’s open to interpretation.” And the interpretation the CBC chose to focus on is the one whereby “freedom” actually means the word’s literal antonym. But the CBC does have a point. The methods these demonstrators have used to secure their personal freedoms involve disrupting the freedoms of others by blocking streets and choking off commerce.
That’s a valid contention. It’s one that the political right in Canada and the United States should recognize. After all, conservatives make the same arguments when leftwing groups appeal to similarly disruptive tactics. But the CBC didn’t stop there. You see, the “concept of freedom can be used to reject equality.” Efforts to “remedy inequality,” said the political science professor and author of Ugly Freedoms, Elisabeth Anker, tend to be opposed by the right. That’s especially dangerous, she said, because it might popularize opposition to public-sector initiatives aimed at anathematizing discrimination. And central to her idea of freedom is equality—not just equality before the law, but the equality of outcomes.
COMMENTARY’s Christine Rosen has already taken Anker to task over her definition of “ugly freedoms.” Writing in the New York Times, Anker describes “ugly freedoms” as essentially negative liberties; that is, the freedom of individuals to make choices and take actions that are not specifically proscribed in statute, to enjoy equal access to opportunity, and to be free from interference. That is distinct from positive liberties, which liberate you from the ability to choose a course of action that may not maximize the welfare of others; it is the freedom to.
The pandemic has given Anker a whole new set of individuals for whom your freedom represents an existential threat. Those living with unique medical circumstances, which render them particularly at-risk, require that individuals who are not similarly vulnerable should, for example, wear masks in public. The immunocompromised have been dealt an unfair hand in life, and it’s our responsibility to even the playing field. Our refusal to participate in this philosophical experiment “denies freedom of movement to the immunocompromised,” she wrote for the Times.
Without elaborating on the concept, Anker casually describes an individual’s liberty to behave as we all behaved before March of 2020 as the exercise of “violent freedom.” “Freedom is often used almost as a national entitlement, as a claim for what people have,” Anker concludes. “It’s been taking a lot of people by surprise to see people in Canada, who often seem so much more accepting of social interdependence, to start pushing back against it with the language of individual freedom.” Classical liberals couldn’t have made the case against positive liberties any better themselves.
By describing freedom as an entitlement, Anker has defined liberty as something that is granted by a beneficent public authority—not a natural condition into which we are all born. By casting “individual freedom” as something that is at odds with “social interdependence,” she is articulating the right-libertarian principle of “self-ownership.” That is, the idea that personal autonomy—in the case of the Canadian trucker protests, bodily autonomy—should be immune from non-consensual violation. The protesters in Canada are appealing to a far more traditional idea of freedom: Less “do this for me” and more “stop doing this to me.”
Anker’s “freedom” is a perversion. Hers is the sort of freedom that exists only insofar as you’re willing to do what she wants you to do. In that sense, it’s a fragile idea. Her idea of freedom requires your participation. Without it, she is no longer free. That’s why Anker is going to struggle to popularize her new definition of freedom, and why the word’s dictionary definition will continue to be, as the CBC put it, “such a useful rallying cry for protesters.”