We love freedom. Indeed, one can sum up the history of humankind from 1750 onwards as the quest for freedom, most ambitiously first in the United States, but followed quickly by demands in Canada in 1837 and in Europe especially in 1848. Over the next century the colonial world followed suit. Then, of course, we banded together to fight the tyranny of Nazism and later communism.
For the last four decades, though, we have fought for a very different kind of freedom: not freedom from tyranny, but freedom from responsibility.
Today, when we think of the word freedom we don’t tend to think of mundane things like ballot boxes or secret police; we think of the freedom to do what we want without other people telling us what to do. If I want to have sex with fourteen different partners, and have children by three of them, that’s okay. If a man wants to sleep around regardless of the multiple women he impregnates, that’s okay too, as long as he pays child support. If a woman wants to leave her husband and take the children with her because he doesn’t excite her anymore, no problem.
But let’s not be naïve and claim this type of freedom lacks consequences. Just look at the education system to see the effects of our quest for freedom. Today kids’ test scores are abysmal, and politicians are wringing their hands trying to figure out what to do.
So they spend more money, build bigger bureaucracies, and require more tax dollars, all to achieve less than what my mother’s rural Manitoba school did fifty years ago. They also take on more roles that parents used to fill, from teaching children about puberty to teaching kids to keep physically fit. We can’t trust the family to do these things anymore because the family, as we know it, no longer exists.
In late January, the Toronto school board passed a vote to start the city’s first black school. The impetus was admirable: teens of Caribbean descent have a 40% drop out rate, and the Board wants to correct that. What was omitted in most press accounts of this new school is that in this community, fatherhood is almost non-existent. So schools expand, spending millions more dollars, to try to make up for where the family is dropping the ball.
It’s not just schools, either. Family breakdown also causes more health problems, leading to more government. It’s directly related to crime rates, again causing more government as we build bigger prisons, courts, and hire more police. It requires more subsidized day care. Without the family to take care of each other, we turn automatically to the government. And the bigger the government gets, the more money it needs, to the point that we don’t actually start earning for ourselves until June 16, tax freedom day in British Columbia. Up until that date, we’re just working to pay the government.
It’s not just in monetary terms that we have lost out, either. The demand for freedom from responsibility also leads to a demand for non-judgmentalism, which then leads to speech codes in universities, governments, and the media. No one should make any sort of moral judgments against anyone’s behaviour, all of which leads to even more bureaucracy to monitor everybody else. Political freedom is so yesterday; freedom from absolute morality is today.
What saddens me is that we have lost this idea that we should be a responsible citizenry that is capable of governing ourselves and building a decent democracy. We’ve replaced it with a citizenry interested in pursuing their own happiness, because the government will pick up the pieces. And that is why freedom from responsibility ultimately hinders political freedom.
I doubt this is the kind of freedom that Mackenzie and Papineau were dreaming of during the rebellions of 1837. We have a social obligation to love our families, to be loyal to our families, and to keep our promises. We owe it not only to our spouse and our children, but also to our neighbours, our community, and our country. In this election, we’re often focused on what we can get from the government. Maybe it’s time we all collectively asked what we can do to make Canada a better place. That sounds old-fashioned, but let’s remember that freedom from responsibility is ultimately no freedom at all.