The ACT Party’s relaunch in Auckland yesterday was mostly made up of reheated policies from the 1990s. However, it did include a new colour (pink), a renewed focus on ‘free speech’, and a new slogan: “ACT for Freedom”.
The trouble is that the idea of freedom has come a long way since the 1990s and no longer means what ACT thinks it does.
ACT’s rebrand comes on the back of some good work. They have been leading an important debate about assisted dying, which is about improving individual freedom of choice in a carefully regulated environment.
More recently, both ACT and the Green Party on the other side have sunk into the murky swamp of free speech and identity politics. This has apparently attracted them some donations, but is free speech really about freedom? What is ‘freedom’ these days anyway?
What is Freedom?
The idea of freedom has come a long way since the 1990s when ACT first started. Back then, freedom was all about freedom from government intervention. Around the turn of the millennium, Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen started talking about “development as freedom”. In other words, not just freedom from but also freedom to do things that enable a fulfilling life. I argue that freedom is actually a balance between these two perspectives.
From a values perspective, this more rounded view of freedom is usually grouped with other ideas like creativity, self-expression, and choosing your own goals. In other words, freedom means ‘you do you’. Individuals should decide what success looks like for them and havethe best possible chance to achieve it. That means making sure that other people don’t stomp all over their opportunities. This is why freedom is actually a balancing act between freedom from and freedom to.
A Gap in the Political Marketplace
There is clearly a gap in the political spectrum for people who care about freedom. Labour and their sub-party the Greens are positioning themselves as the parties of “kindness”. This can help freedom to but often sees the State override personal freedoms. Whereas the National Party focuses on traditional ideas of economic and financial success, leading to a focus on freedom from. Meanwhile, New Zealand First and other Christian parties scrap over conservative values, which are usually the antithesis of freedom entirely.
Neither the right nor the left have a monopoly on the idea of freedom. True ideas of freedom and self-expression are actually centrist: they lie between the left and the right. It seems a shame then for those on the Far Right to capture the term, when they (like National) are really only interested in freedom from and economic success.
What Does Freedom Actually Look Like?
A balanced perspective on freedom leads to policy ideas like an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). Give everyone an amount of money, no questions asked. This offers some recompense for the unpaid work that many people do and gives people the opportunity to pursue their passions.
High-quality education is also essential for freedom because, when done well, it provides equality of opportunity for young people. This is also good for our economy since it enables us to make the most of the talents of all our citizens, not just those from wealthy backgrounds. In reality, giving everyone the same opportunities means spending more on some tamariki than others (which is not ACT policy).
What does a more rounded definition of freedom mean for ‘free speech’? Despite ACT’s clever branding, this issue is not actually about freedom. As I have said, true freedom is about doing whatever inspires you, provided that it doesn’t stomp on the opportunities of others. True freedom also brings responsibilities. This stuff is hard.
Most Kiwis don’t like the Government deciding what we can and can’t say. However, given modern social media and what happened in Christchurch, we can also see the risks of allowing unfettered ‘hate speech’ relating to race or religion, etc. This is a classic example of balancing freedom from and freedom to.
The question is where to draw the line in our speech laws. In my view, this would be best settled not by politicians, but by ordinary people via a Citizens’ Jury. Sure, lawyers would need to advise the jury to help ensure we could enforce the line. But on a ‘values question’ like this one, why leave it to politicians to make the call? Why not let ordinary people write the law? Politicising it will only lead to more grand-standing like we have seen from both the ACT Party and the Green Party. And nobody really wins from that – apart from media hungry for a public spat.
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