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.