The First Obstacle Is Our Confidence That Things Won’t Get Worse

April 19, 2021 Updated: April 21, 2021

Commentary

Between 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, and 1989 when it came down, many daring escapes were made across the wall to freedom. By some accounts, around 5,000 people managed the feat, risking their lives in some audacious way like crawling through tunnels, using fake passports, flying in hot air balloons, walking tightropes, or busting through the wall in tanks, hoping not to be shot by border guards. Many thousands of people made the attempt and a couple of hundred are thought to have died in the attempt.

These individuals were willing to risk their lives to be free. Yet they did not bother to escape from East Berlin before the wall was built. For a dozen years, East and West Berlin almost seemed like they were still one city and travelling into West Berlin to defect was one of the easiest ways to escape East Germany. Hundreds did so every day—so many, in fact, that in August 1961, East German authorities resolved to shut the door. On Aug. 13, 1961, shocked residents of East Berlin awoke to find barbed wire between them and the West. Two days later, construction of the wall began. Why did some people wait? They may have been confident that conditions could not get worse.

Many people seem to believe that now. When COVID lockdowns began in March 2020 for “two weeks to flatten the curve,” some of us warned that a dangerous precedent had been set from which we would not easily recover. “Crises are an ideal time for the state to advance into territory from which it will not wish to retreat,” I wrote last spring, “In this new era, we will discover that leaders of all political stripes have more than a little Lenin in them.” Some dismissed the sentiment with a wave of the hand. Don’t worry about it, they said, just a temporary measure to get us through a difficult spot.

Thirteen months later in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has announced the extension of the present stay-at-home order. Ontario Provincial Police have established checkpoints at the Quebec and Manitoba borders to bar travellers. “Non-essential” retail businesses are closed. Labour inspectors will visit offices to check for compliance with provincial guidelines. Police have been granted powers to stop people on the street or in their car upon suspicion that they are headed to a “social gathering” and ask for their address and the purpose of their trip. Papers please, comrade. Quarantine hotels are our gulags. Soon, vaccine passports will be our barbed wire.

Western liberal democracies, especially Canada, have descended into authoritarianism. COVID appears to be the reason, but this transformation has long been underway. The virus simply unleashed the gathering storm. Over time, managerial states have steadily expanded their reach into every aspect of modern life. Governments supervise behaviour and speech, mainstream media propagandize, public schools and universities indoctrinate, and professional regulators require ideological comportment. The chattering classes now demonize the ideas upon which their own civilization is based, including the sovereignty of the individual over the group, freedom of speech, and equality of treatment under the law. While we once celebrated liberties and achievements, people are now fearful, ashamed, dependent, and obedient.

The law will not protect us. The law is a product of culture, and when the culture turns, the law goes with it. Yes, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms appears to guarantee liberty and the fundamental freedoms of conscience, thought, belief, opinion, expression, peaceful assembly, and association, as well as mobility rights to enter and leave Canada and to live in any province.

Some of those rights are now infringed, but so far, courts have mostly said “meh.” Charter rights are subject to “reasonable limits” in Section 1 and the Supreme Court of Canada has long guarded the ability of the managerial state to do what it thinks best. As former chief justice Beverley McLachlin once wrote, “The bar of constitutionality must not be set so high that responsible, creative solutions to difficult problems would be threatened.” What constitutes responsible and creative, of course, is for the government and the courts, not the individual, to decide.

The historical record shows that Western freedom is an aberration. Human civilization tends to consist of tyranny, oppression, slavery, and violence. The present period of relative liberty may be fading fast, a fragile blip in a panoply of misery. As Professor Gary Morson of Northwestern University has written, “One sometimes hears that ‘the pendulum is bound to swing back.’ But how does one know there is a pendulum at all, rather than—let us say—a snowball accelerating downhill? … What meets no resistance does not stop.”

If we continue to acquiesce, perhaps sanity, liberty, and individualism will return next year. Perhaps they will take 20 years. Or perhaps they will be gone for good.

Bruce Pardy is professor of law at Queen’s University.

pardyb@queensu.ca  Twitter @PardyBruce

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.