Trudeau on liberty

by Don Lenihan. Posted March 16, 2015


This column was first published on the National Newswatch website on March 11, 2015



What is it to be free? In a democracy like ours, there may be no more important question. Justin Trudeau gave a speech in Toronto on Monday night that engages this question with the seriousness it deserves.

Freedom, he tells us, is a core value that will “motivate (political) leaders’ decisions, whatever events may throw at them.” For Trudeau, liberty is the moral compass that guides our leaders and his speech is an impressive effort to spell out his views on it.

Stephen Harper also figures in the speech, cast as the chief architect of a competing view of freedom, one that Trudeau believes is taking hold in Canada today, and which he fears. To bring out the difference between the two versions, first we must spend a bit of time on the history of liberty.

Bear with me.

To be free is to be able to make choices, such as a career, a spouse or where to live. On this much, liberals and conservatives agree, but then they part company.

While conservatives are inclined to see freedom as the absence of restrictions, liberals believe it is more. After all, there may be no law preventing a poor person from becoming a doctor, but poor people are far less likely to become doctors than those born into privilege. So what does it really mean to say they are “free to become doctors”?

According to liberals, if all citizens are to enjoy their freedom, the right economic and social conditions must be in place to support them, such as food, shelter, education and medical care. Without these, freedom is often little more than an abstraction.
So for liberals, freedom is not something you either have or you don’t. It comes in degrees and stages; and it grows, changes and develops over time. To promote the growth of freedom, liberals endorse Equality of Opportunity. This allows governments to tax the wealthy so they can help the less fortunate develop the knowledge, skills and tools they need to exercise and enjoy their freedom.

Conservatives, on the other hand, believe it is wrong for the state to take away one person’s property to enable another. It violates their liberty.

This disagreement over liberty has been a constant tug-of-war between these two sides for almost a century. Yet, curiously, Trudeau says nothing about equality in his speech. Instead, he focuses on the role of community. What should we make of this?
Trudeau’s speech not only has a deep affinity with traditional liberal thinking on equality, it expands and deepens it in a way that makes it even more relevant for our century.

Much as 20th century liberals argued that education or heath care enables freedom, Trudeau believes that in the 21st century liberals must come to terms with a whole new category of enabling conditions: community participation. He explains this through two key ideas: inclusion and collective identity. Let’s start with inclusion.

Suppose a wave of immigrants arrive in a town where their customs, language and dress are different from the residents. Should the locals be expected to make adjustments to their lifestyle to accommodate the immigrants?

Many conservatives would see this as an infringement on their liberty, much like taxes. They would say it is wrong to ask the locals to give up their freedom to accommodate “outsiders.”

Trudeau sees things differently. For him, freedom is not a zero-sum game where a gain by one side is a loss for the other. Inclusiveness gradually expands the range of freedom within the society as a whole—and that is good for everyone.
For example, it challenges Canadians to see immigration as a two-way street where everyone should be open to new experiences and new choices. This, in turn, develops and deepens everyone’s understanding of freedom.

Collective identity, which is the second aspect of community, is like the flipside of inclusion. While inclusion is a way of expanding the boundaries of our experience, collective identity ensures these boundaries don’t just dissolve.
Liberty is meaningful only if the choices we are free to make reflect our sense of who we are and of what is important to us. Membership in a distinct social, cultural, ethnic or linguistic community is a critical part of meeting this identity condition and, as such, a key enabler of freedom that must be recognized and safeguarded.

In future, societies like Canada will become increasingly more diverse, not less. Striking the right balance between the “centripetal” force of collective identity and the “centrifugal” ones of inclusion will be among the most pressing and potentially stressful challenges facing democracies like ours.

For guidance, Trudeau believes Canadians should look to the Charter, which he sees as a key instrument to help us strike this balance. But while the Charter is central to this view of liberty, it is not enough to ensure it, which brings Trudeau to his third and final theme: political leadership.

He tells the story of a Muslim woman who recently appeared in a Quebec court. When the judge asked her to remove her headscarf, she refused on religious grounds. The judge, in turn, refused to hear her case, even though the federal court had confirmed a woman’s right to wear the hijab.

Trudeau was furious. But even more disconcerting, he notes, Harper has promised to appeal a ruling allowing women to cover their faces during the citizenship ceremony and that, on announcing this, went on to described Muslims’ refusal to remove the veil as “offensive.”

The anecdote is meant to bring out the difference between the two kinds of freedom, as well as the role of leadership in promoting them. Trudeau believes Harper sees diversity and difference as a threat to liberty, rather than an enabler of it. In Harper’s view, granting immigrants special freedoms will only diminish those of other Canadians.

Nor does Trudeau think Conservatives trust the courts and the Charter to help strike the right balance. But without the Charter and the courts to discipline politics, Trudeau fears Canadians could become hostage to a view of freedom that is inward-looking, reactionary and xenophobic. Indeed, he thinks this is already happening.

In response, he challenges us to see Canada through a very different lens—as a great experiment that is changing the rules of social organization. We are a “constitutional superpower” that is leading the world in the practice of liberty and we have been widely recognized and praised for it. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are really ready to give up on this now.
In the end, Trudeau’s view of liberty is very much in keeping with the liberal tradition he defends. Indeed, it can be traced back to the original triad of democratic values in the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (Community).

As for the Charter, it is much more than a collection of rights and freedoms. It is a tool for aligning these three values within a single system of social organization. This achievement goes beyond the handful of Canadian First Ministers who created the Charter. It is a legacy of 250 years of hard work and often bitter experience from the liberal tradition.

Trudeau is simply trying to bring this learning fully into the 21st century.