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Freedom requires a better defence

Paul McKeever analyses Ezra Levant's arguments for freedom of speech, and finds them wanting: Ezra comes to the right conclusions, but for the wrong reasons.

Paul McKeever - February 6, 2008

The only thing worse than not defending freedom is defending it so poorly that one's audience is left thinking maybe freedom is not defensible. Consider Ezra Levant, who is currently responding to a human rights complaint for his allegedly "offensive" publication of the famous Muhammad cartoons. Ezra condemns our human rights commissions' procedural and evidentiary standards for not being court-like. He thereby implies that censorship would be acceptable did our commissions have court-like standards.

Ezra says censorship is wrong for this reason: we have (he submits) a long history of laws that disallow it. In other words: our laws (allegedly) against censorship are just because they are old. Yet the argument that "old law is just law" implies that we should still have laws that facilitate slavery in Canada, that give only propertied men the vote, and that make it illegal to open your store on Sunday.

Ezra condemns the addition of speech to the original list of things regulated by human rights commissions. He thereby implies that he has no objection to human rights laws concerning employment and housing. Our human rights laws typically cannot prevent someone from denying a person a job or an apartment so long as the reason for the denial is not known to be one prohibited by human rights legislation. Thus, in effect, Ezra's position is this: nobody should prevent Ezra from saying that another man's religious beliefs are dangerous but, if Ezra utters such an opinion, he should lose the freedom to deny that man a job or an apartment. In short: shut up, or put up. That is clearly a self-defeating defence of "free speech."

To be rational and effective, the advocacy of freedom must be founded upon the material facts of reality. A human being must obtain values (such as food and shelter) if he is to survive. To obtain values, a man must choose to engage in rational (hence productive) thought. His mind must maintain control of his actions so that his rational decisions will result in the production of values. His mind must remain in control of the values he produces if he is to use them for his own survival and happiness. That control--the control of one's own actions and property--is freedom.

If a man does not think rationally (i.e., if he is irrational), he can live only by obtaining values from someone who does think rationally. If others do not give the irrational man values for free, he can obtain values from others only without their consent; only by interfering with their control of their own actions or property; only by enslaving or expropriating them; only by denying others their freedom.

No amount of rational thought can preserve a man's life if he lacks freedom. For that reason, the violation of a rational man's freedom is a threat to his life. Because the irrational man depends upon the rational man's production of values, the irrational man's violation of the rational man's freedom is also a threat to the irrational man's life. Thus, the life of an irrational man is a murder-suicide in progress. Were a whole society of men consistently to attempt to live as irrational men do, the result would be (and, historically, has been) mass death.

It is physically impossible to make another man think rationally, or to prevent him from having racist, sexist, or other irrational beliefs. However, one can make life possible for a rational man by preventing irrational men from violating his freedom. Thus, in a society that values life rather than death, a government's role is not to compel individuals to think rationally but to defend every individual's freedom.

When government performs that role well, life and happiness are possible to a rational man because his mind maintains control of the production and use of his values. In contrast, when government increasingly passes and enforces laws that violate freedom, government becomes an ally of irrationality and an enemy of life; it gradually ceases to be a government.

More articles by Paul McKeever