American Freedom vs Australian Freedom

In recent months a number of high-profile Republicans and right-leaning media in the US have been using the ongoing corona repression in Australia to try to advance their domestic political agenda. The trend hit an interesting inflection point last week when Texas Senator Ted Cruz picked up on an announcement by the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory that certain workers needed to get vaccinated or they would be forbidden from working. Such a scheme had already been rolled out in other states of Australia. The reason behind it was that a national committee had made a decision that 80% of adults in Australia had to be vaccinated before the state governments would relinquish their iron grip on life in this country and we could open borders and return to some kind of normality. That agreement was made back in the middle of the year when it was still possible to pretend that the vaccines might end things. The problem was that there was no way Australia was going to get to an 80% vax rate voluntarily and so state governments had to turn to coercion. In the Northern Territory, for logistical and cultural reasons, I suspect there was going to be extra difficulty in achieving the 80% number and so the leaders saw fit to go beyond the coercion of threatening to destroy people’s livelihoods and added fines to the mix. As a publicity stunt, it worked a treat and even became global news, hence the Ted Cruz tweet. The Chief Minister of NT, no doubt delighted to have received his fifteen minutes of international fame, decided to answer Ted Cruz’s tweet by pointing out how nobody had died of covid in NT while some tens of thousands had died in Cruz’s home state of Texas. I have noted in past posts on corona that pride goeth before a fall. I would not be surprised to see the Chief Minister eating his words once the borders of the Northern Territory open. However, there was another aspect of the exchange that was interesting; the age-old issue of freedom. Cruz chastised Australia for not standing up for freedom but he was implying a specific type of freedom, the one that is dominant in the US but not in Australia. This difference existed prior to corona but has now been thrown into sharp relief and it’s worth exploring that difference in more detail.

The first thing that needs to be said is that Australia is not what most Americans think it is. Ted Cruz said in his tweet that we are the “Texas of the Pacific” and are known for our “rugged independence”. As I pointed out in an earlier post, this is simply not true. It is nothing more than a stereotype that Americans have of Australians; the Crocodile Dundee trope. It was no coincidence that at the recent AUKUS announcement there was a big picture of Crocodile Dundee sitting behind Joe Biden. That’s still what Americans think of when they think of Australia. This caricature is popular in America not because it represents Australia but because it represents America. The lone rider, the rugged individualist is an American myth. The closest we have in Australia is Ned Kelly. It’s true that Ned Kelly was a rugged individualist. It’s also true that we hanged him. You can see why that story wouldn’t resonate in America. Australia is culturally more collectivist than the US and this collectivism places us politically far to the left of America. We’re more California than California. As the subject of “freedom” is one of the main differences between right and left in political theory, it’s no surprise that Australia has a different default position on freedom than the US. Australia’s covid response is what it is because our notion of freedom is different from Ted Cruz’s.

A useful way to understand this difference is the one outlined by political philosopher Isaiah Berlin: negative freedom and positive freedom. Negative freedom is the one Americans believe in. It is hard-coded into US history and culture. It is freedom from external interference especially interference by government. This is the kind of freedom most often associated with libertarianism, liberalism or the right of politics. Positive freedom is more complicated but can be thought of as freedom to do something. It’s the freedom to become your best self. Positive freedom has both a more psychological and social dimension. It’s not enough just to be left alone to do what you want. Positive freedom is about having the means to achieve something worthwhile. The person left alone to drink themselves to death in a gutter has negative freedom but an advocate for positive freedom would say it would be better if somebody intervened and put that person on the right track. That works ok in extreme cases like alcoholism but can be taken too far. One of the problems the Marxists always had was that there was a group of proles who just couldn’t be made to see the “truth”. This gave rise to the phrase “false consciousness”; the consciousness of a person who cannot see what is right for them and therefore needs to be taught. This in turn gave rise to the phrase re-education at which point positive freedom crossed the line into positive authoritarianism.

Using these broad concepts of positive and negative freedom, we can say that Americans’ default version of freedom is negative freedom and Australians’ default version of freedom is positive freedom. The difference here is really quite stark. Bernie Sanders, for example, would be considered a right wing politician in Australia. Thus, in some sense, corona is forcing Americans to see Australia for what it really is; not filtered through the lens of some Hollywood movie. It’s no surprise that Republicans would have a particular problem with this because corona represents a big shift to the left in US society. The vaccine mandates are run under the banner of positive freedom and supported most enthusiastically by the left. The problem for Republicans is that the corona event is as much caused by the faults of negative freedom as positive. It was the laissez faire policies of the Republicans in the 1980s among other things which have led to the current situation. To understand why, we need to take one example of positive freedom which is the protection of the commons the flip side of which is the well-known concept the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons occurs when individuals pursue their own self interest in a way that negatively impacts the collective. One example could be somebody starting a business selling fish. Without any restriction on their activity, they might fish a particular species of fish to extinction or exhaust a local fishing ground. That person has made short term profit from the fish but in doing so destroyed the underlying source of wealth meaning that other members of the community present and future have no access to it. Even the most hardened advocate for negative freedom would allow that the individual’s freedom should be curtailed in such an example. The commons need to be protected; a job usually, but not necessarily, given over to government.

Modern American society is, in my opinion, rife with examples of the commons not being protected. One of the ways this manifests is in the presence of various economic rackets of which big pharma is a prime example. Other examples are the higher education racket which is tied in with the student loan racket. Big Tech is increasingly a racket too. Rackets are what happens when the free market (a commons) is not protected and monopolistic players are allowed to obtain enormous power which they then use to serve their own interests and not the interests of society in general. Such rackets are everywhere in modern US society and it is the outsized influence of Big Pharma which has led directly to the corona event. That would normally be a problem of what you might call excessive negative freedom but, interestingly, corona represents a peculiar combined form of the worst elements of negative and positive freedom which has become dominant in the US in the last couple of decades. In the economic sphere, corporations are given the negative freedom to do as they please by lobbying the government for legislation that benefits themselves at the expense of the general good. Meanwhile, those same corporations, in league with the media and the universities, run a version of ideological warfare under the guise of positive freedom. The vaccine mandates are the most extreme form of this dynamic we have seen so far. They are so extreme because they don’t even deliver the ostensible positive freedom benefit of protection from disease while the suppression of alternative therapeutics can only be explained by the entrenched graft in the medical industry. No surprise, of course, that this should happen during the Trump presidency. Whatever else you can say about Trump, his platform was squarely aimed at combating this status quo dynamic. Thus, he was as much a threat to the Republican party as the Democrat. He took aim at both the excessive negative economic freedom given to corporations as well as the ostensible positive freedom pursued by the elite institutions.

Meanwhile, Australia has experienced the same lurch to the left of all western nations during corona. The problem is, we were already so far left that this lurch has landed us smack bang in the middle of good old-fashioned authoritarianism with the crushing of dissent, conformity and group think that this always entails. This tendency is always there wherever there is a bias for positive freedom and has always been a problem in Australian culture. The reason that Australians have not pushed back to the authoritarianism is partly because we believe in positive freedom by default. To the average person, corona represents a straightforward extension of positive freedom with the vaccines protecting the commons. It’s also true that the positive freedom bias has worked for Australia for some time. Australian society is far more stable than American society. There is far less poverty, less inequality and less crime. There is also far less political corruption. The blatant hypocrisy which is par for the course in American politics doesn’t exist here and thus, while Australians pretend to be cynical about politics, we have a trust in government that Americans simply don’t have. That trust may be about to be severely tested. Corona has revealed the weakness of the positive freedom bias. It turns out that you can protect the commons so much that you destroy the commons. Our response to corona has done enormous damage, most of which is not yet visible. The question is what happens when it becomes visible. Already, we are trying to act like the whole thing is a big success. This self-congratulatory tendency is also very strong in our culture. David Horne criticised it directly in his book The Lucky Country. Unless things get really bad, I expect that politicians will do whatever it takes to protect that idea. If so, we would chalk it up to the success of positive freedom. The commons were protected, lives were saved. That’s exactly what the Chief Minister of NT said in his response to Ted Cruz. We’re not like you, he said to Cruz. He’s right about that.

11 thoughts on “American Freedom vs Australian Freedom”

  1. I do find it hard to believe Bernie would be “right wing” in Australia. Not even middle of the road?

    What a complex topic! The positive freedom concept is one my girlfriend sometimes points out to me, as in “People have a right not be afraid of getting sick and dying.” I’m paraphrasing, but she sets it in opposition to my right not to take a COVID vaccine.

    Negative freedoms are hard coded enough into American culture that I have a hard time really holding on to positive freedoms in my own mind. President Obama caused a kerfuffle some years back when he said that the freedoms described in our bill of rights were “negative freedoms” I guess a lot of people took “negative” to mean “bad” and the news made a big deal of it for a few weeks.

    The most potent argument I’ve heard for positive freedoms is that things like universal health care, high wages make and paid time off make someone more free to do what they want with their life. In America, the “freedom” argument around those subjects is usually that we should be free to pick what health care we want (and can afford) and free to work at whatever wages we’ll accept. I’ll admit that the whole COVID situation and left me wondering how much I’d like a government controlled health care system.

    The funny thing is, and what might not be visible of America from the outside, liberal America anyway, is that negative freedom is cheesy. I’m not sure what it means, but I would be ashamed to argue something on the basis of negative freedom. My friends would roll their eyes. Its something that the backwoods hicks yell about. The more culturally elite have a specific saying that mocks these complaints. It goes “Muh freedom!”

  2. Alex – Sanders would be a centrist in Australian politics but I think he’d be most at home in the left faction of the Liberal Party (our right wing party).

    There’s an interesting distinction between negative and positive freedom which I will write about in a future post. Negative freedoms are almost always binary and are easily codified into law. This also makes them easy to understand. You were either interfered with or you weren’t. Positive freedoms are almost always dealing with systems and systems are not binary, not linear and not easy to understand. For that reason, the purported benefits of positive freedom are hard to prove except in obvious cases like preventing poverty. The idea that vaccines stop people getting sick and dying was, in my opinion, already massively overstated in our culture before covid and it’s clear that the covid vaccines are among the least effective and safe vaccines we have so far. It’s far from obvious they provide any positive freedom benefit at all. But, in any case, the purported positive freedom benefit has been reduced to a binary (vaccinated/unvaccinated) which is invalid. Any cost/benefit analysis has to include other variables in the ‘system’ but the discourse has systematically excluded these (hello, ivermectin among many others examples).

  3. So, the distinction between positive and negative freedom isn’t widely known? Interesting!

    Re: “People have a right not be afraid of getting sick and dying.”

    Okay, if we take that literally (not to be *afraid*), then these “vaccines” function as anti-anxiety drugs. But there’s a catch: *they* are anxious, and *you* take the drug.

    And if it’s not about being afraid, but actually about getting sick and dying, umm, that may have made some sense six months ago, but by now, it’s so darn obvious it doesn’t work. A whole bunch of massively “vaccinated” countries are having huge spikes in cases, with the “vaccinated” mightily represented among the infected. That’s the thing. They have a narrative. Data comes in that destroys the narrative. They ignore the data and double down. At this point, these vaccine mandates are like a mandate to drink a gallon of water per day, ‘coz you don’t have the right to cause a fire in the middle of the city, and I heard water had something to do with preventing fire (::eyeroll::).

  4. Irena – agree. There is no evidential case that these vaccines provide a positive freedom benefit. Thus, the whole thing boils down to taking a vaccine to make others feel “safe” which maps directly onto the psychology of The Orphan archetype as I’ve noted in earlier posts.

  5. This is timely. Jacinda Ardern explains that the need for vaccine passports is the make the vaccinated feel safe. Given that the vaccine is supposed to make people actually safe, we have heads of government now claiming that they can trample on the negative rights of the unvaccinated just to make the vaccinated “feel” safe. Sounds perfectly sane. https://twitter.com/disclosetv/status/1452249617291153417

  6. That she would use that as the official reason is objectively weird but also quite fitting in a Devouring Mother kind of way.

  7. @Simon

    Monomania meets the Devouring Mother. There are lots and lots of things that people are afraid of. But somehow, this is the only one that’s worthy being acted upon.

    In the meanwhile, my self-test came back negative for a second day in a row. Could be a false negative, of course, but then – two in a row… So that’s the good news. The bad news is that I feel horrible. My cough and fever have worsened. That clinic promised a doctor would call me this afternoon. Let’s see if that actually happens (after all, they promised to call me on Saturday, and then they didn’t). I suspect they’ll send me to a hospital for an examination, but we’ll see. And if they don’t call, then I’ll just call an ambulance. This isn’t funny anymore.

  8. So, they finally called. The doctor didn’t think I needed to go to a hospital (she said I sounded coherent and spoke in full sentences). She did prescribe some medication for my cough, and told me to take ibuprofen for my fever, and also vitamin C and zinc. (She didn’t mention vitamin D, but of course, I’ve been taking that religiously long before this happened.) Of course, I can’t go to the pharmacy myself (I’m in quarantine), but hopefully, one of my colleagues can pick it up for me tomorrow. And then we’ll see.

  9. Good to hear. Who knew that even getting a doctor on the telephone would be so difficult.

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