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The sunny side of liberty

By | National Post on Oct 26 2015

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It’s the optimism — or the lack of negativity. That’s what is being credited for the Liberals’ federal election victory; that’s what Harper cabinet minister Jason Kenney says conservatism needs more of. I say, set politics aside for a bit. It was a long campaign. But hang on to the idea of a sunnier outlook because it’s something from which the non-partisan freedom movement could stand to gain. That’s true even though the temptation to sell people on the importance of autonomy by scaring the living daylights out of them is high.

For example, the case for free trade can be made by dwelling on the crippling economic consequences of trade barriers, including high prices; the case can also be made by focusing on the new economic opportunities for small businesses and entrepreneurs that are created when trade barriers are removed. It doesn’t matter whether you are generally a hopeful and aspirational type or you are a curmudgeon capable of finding the downside to any situation or happening; looking at pleasant possibilities is more energizing than dreading doom — it can also be more motivating.

And I want to stress, here, that I am not suggesting a shallow Pollyanna approach to the serious problems of the day — I am all in favour of realism. The point is that liberty has enough positive reasons to recommend itself as a solution to many of those problems that wallowing in gloom needn’t be part of the campaign. Another example: I have never seen people who oppose the use of e-cigarettes — or vaping — in private clubs and restaurants be won over by arguments that they are interfering with the independent choice of consenting adults; though that is a perfectly valid point. I have, however, seen vaping opponents be won over when they learn that the practice of vaping can have a hugely positive effect on cigarette smokers, some of whom are suddenly able to quit a destructive, unhealthy, and stubborn addiction in days, after trying unsuccessfully for years.

There’s a lot of negativity on all sides of the broader health-care debate, as well — with the result that it often feels like we’re having a morbid argument over which policy will kill more Canadians, rather than comparing the benefits of a government monopoly and a hybrid system. And because the level of access to timely care can truly be the difference between life and death, the drama is not completely unwarranted — but it’s also not the only way to look at the issue, which may also be understood as giving parents, patients, and caregivers a chance to seek out exactly the health options that make the most sense for them and their loved ones.

Now, as I say, my goal is to remain realistic about the challenges that the encroachment of rights create — but I also believe that this is completely compatible with maintaining a focus on making lives better and empowering individuals to take the stands and do the work that matters to them. Is there a sunny side to something as harmful as civil forfeiture abuse, where the government takes private property from innocent people who have not been convicted of any crimes? No. But there are incredible stories of courage and principle in property owners who have stood up for what was theirs even at great personal financial cost and despite government attempts to silence them. And there are inspiring reminders of the power of property ownership from these people, who have used their houses to raise close families, run successful small businesses, and offer affordable housing to people with mental health or addiction issues.

So let us imagine selling freedom by highlighting what it has to offer, rather than appealing to fear of the dystopia that will result without it. That means, say, persuading people of the societal benefits of free and open debate rather than — or at least before — invoking Big Brother.

And it also means not letting freedom’s opponents drag us down into a negative fight if we can help it: it pays to stay focused on the world we actually want to live in rather than the worldview others might ascribe to us based on their misunderstandings about who we are or what we believe. Let us imagine that a healthy optimism about liberty, responsibility and happiness is highly contagious if purely felt and expressed. You just may spread that hopeful confidence in autonomy further than you’d expect.

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