Humanity Is Still Moving Towards Greater Freedom

Short-term trends can disguise the fact that freedom remains a powerful driving force.

Within long-term trends, there are shorter-term trends and cycles.

Currently, we are in a short-term cycle in which freedom has receded and is under sustained assault.

In democratic countries like Canada and in many other Western nations, the initial response to the covid-19 pandemic became a drawn-out expansion of government power at the expense of individual freedom.

Even now, unvaccinated people in Canada are still unable to get on planes or trains, a completely outrageous denial of basic freedom.

Freedom of speech is also under assault, with governments seeking to restrict social media platforms and expand government power over what people can say, write, or consume online. All of this is done ostensibly for ‘safety,’ but that is simply the latest in the long-line of historical excuses governments use to try and limit free expression.

The fact that these assaults on freedom are being debated in the West demonstrates that the spirit of resistance and individual initiative remains, and that – for all of the issues with our society – we are freer than nations that don’t allow such discussion and dissent.

And when it comes to those nations, particularly China and Russia, freedom is also under assault by their leaders.

China has imprisoned 1 million Uyghurs in concentration camps, and China now resembles an advanced panopticon that looks like the dystopian society of ‘1984’ with a high-tech upgrade.

Russia has been trending in a more totalitarian direction for some time, and is now removing the last vestiges of opposition that remained. Further, Putin’s decision to wage war on Ukraine represents an extreme example of denying freedom, as he is seeking to deprive the Ukrainian People of their right to chart their own destiny. Yes, Ukraine may be a highly flawed democracy, but it is a country that is at least trying to become a truly free and open society, in contrast to Russia which has been moving in the opposite direction.

When we consider all of this, both the receding level of freedom we have here at home, or the increasing aggressiveness of authoritarian states, it can be easy to think that freedom is losing.

Yet, the longer-term trend shows the exact opposite.

The Significance of the 20th Century

When the 20th century began, there was no real consensus on whether democracy was the best system.

Fascism and Communism seemed like contenders for long-term dominance, and even many in the West favoured – at least in theory – a fascist or communist worldview.

World War Two represented a massive showdown between democracy and fascism. Many forget that the communists started out by signing a pact with the fascists, agreeing to a non-aggression agreement and jointly invading and then dismembering Poland.

When the fascists turned on the communists, the Western world came to the aid of the Soviet Union, and the people of the Soviet states fought bravely for their lives against a genocidal dictator.

Japanese and Italian fascism was also defeated.

By the end of the war, fascism was discredited, with Germany split between a democratic West and communist East, while Japan and Italy transitioned towards being fully democratic nations over-time.

The fight between three ways of organizing societies (democratic, fascist, or communist), then became a fight between two.

The Cold War ended with the defeat of communism, largely due to it’s inability to create the freedom for creativity and wealth creation that drove the democratic nations.

Japan demonstrated the immense power of democracy and capitalism, with the nation – devastated after WW2 and largely devoid of natural resources – transforming into an incredibly powerful economy.

Europe became more and more unified, and – despite the many serious flaws of the EU – experienced a long-period of peace.

Now, the number of people who live in democracies outnumbers those who live in authoritarian regimes.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, 6.4% of people on Earth live in ‘full democracies,’ while 39.3% live in ‘flawed democracies.’ Another 17.2% live in ‘hybrid regimes,’ (with elements of both democracy and authoritarian rule), while 37.1% live in authoritarian regimes.

And, when we look at the long-term trend as compiled by Our World in Data, the surge in democracy has been dramatic:

Notably, given that India has a rapidly growing population, and that China’s population is either already shrinking, or will soon be shrinking, the percentage of people living in a democratic country will expand due to that shift alone.

Look at the short-term, and the trend is clearly a weakening of democracy. 

Look at the long-term, and the trend is clearly towards a surge in democracy.

A closer look at the Economist Intelligence Unit information provides some essential context to what we see around us.

For example, some have criticized people like myself who support Ukraine, saying the country is ‘corrupt,’ (as if that somehow justifies Russia’s brutal invasion).

The Economist lists Ukraine as a ‘hybrid regime’, demonstrating that they clearly have many issues to work on in their country to become fully democratic. However, Russia is listed as an authoritarian regime, being less free and more repressive than Ukraine. Poland, and all of Ukraine’s neighbours except for Belarus and Russia, are democracies.

It would then follow that Ukrainians would much prefer their own flawed system to the more flawed system in Russia, and they are showing that preference by fighting with tremendous courage to maintain their right to freely and independently seek to improve their nation.

It would also follow that those who flee would flee towards more democratic nations, rather than flee towards Russia, and that is indeed what is happening.

The fact that Ukraine sought greater integration with Europe is itself telling, since that kind of integration would almost certainly lead to Ukraine becoming more democratic, and less corrupt over time, as has been seen in many other countries that made difficult transitions towards a full embrace of democracy.

Also notable is that Canada fell 7 positions in the Economist rating, meaning the feeling many Canadians have that our democracy has weakened is indeed based upon reality.

Who is fighting to join authoritarian regimes?

When we consider the long-term trend towards freedom, and the short-term trend against freedom, it is essential to note how much resistance there is against those who seek to expand their power at the expense of individuals or nations.

Look at how people around the Western world – including here in Canada – strongly pushed back against infringements on our freedom.

Look at how the people of Hong Kong pushed back (ultimately unsuccessful) against the Chinese Communist Party.

Look at how Ukrainians are putting up an amazing fight against Russia.

Look at how vast majorities of people in democratic nations feel a connection to Ukraine’s fight for freedom and independence, and how there has been an awakening in the West to the need for greater military strength to defend our values and support our allies, while imposing sanctions on Russia.

I’m not claiming all those situations are the same or that the level of courage in each instance is the same, but the point is that attempts to restrict or deny freedom generate significant pushback around the world.

And, consider the massive amount of effort that authoritarian regimes have to go to in order to try and control their populations. Mass censorship, relentless propaganda, huge levels of state-imposed violence, and outright war against nations seeking freedom. If authoritarianism was so natural, then why does it require such effort to maintain, and why do so many people fight back against it?

Freedom retains immense power

It is also important to realize that the word freedom retains immense power.

Nearly everyone claims to support it.

People across the political spectrum may have very different things in mind when talking about freedom, but hardly anyone would ever admit to being against it.

In fact, I would go as far to say that freedom is the closest thing we have to a civic-religion.

While some have been surprised by the extent of the emotional reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the Western world, I think it’s in large part because it reminded us of our past, and that we have taken many things for granted.

For example, I long looked negatively upon the European Union (and still do in some ways), as it can be easy here in North America to see only the flaws of that organization. However, Ukrainians looked upon the European Union as a bastion of freedom, which – relative to Russia – it certainly is.

We can also see NATO in a different light, as it is something that Canada has long taken for granted (especially given our paltry defense spending). But for countries like Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and others, NATO means protection, security, and hope, and is a deterrent to Russian aggression.

This wakeup call for the West can remind us that while we have the luxury of criticizing those aforementioned supranational institutions, without them our allies could find themselves subsumed by far more ruthless supranational institutions controlled by authoritarian states like China and Russia.

Will the United Nations ever achieve its potential?

As it stands now, the United Nations is a great idea horrendously executed.

And I’m not exaggerating on the horrendous part.

The UN Security Council is currently chaired by Russia, and the Human Rights Council is a running list of the world’s worst human rights violators.

Following World War Two, there was hope that the UN would be an institution that advanced human rights and freedoms, but it has instead largely become a forum for rampant hypocrisy and grandstanding.

Ironically, the stated values of the UN are indeed quite pro-freedom, but the organization doesn’t live up to those values, and is instead often used as a platform by governments that explicitly oppose those values.

Yet, even that is instructive. Even the most flawed institutions claim to be in favour of freedom, showing that the idea of freedom retains far more resonance and inherent truth than the claims of authoritarian regimes.

There’s a reason why authoritarian states try to pretend they have real elections or claim to be a ‘different kind’ of democracy. They know that in a free and open competition between democracy and authoritarianism, the vast majority of people will pick the former.

What does the future hold?

With Canada and other Western nations having awakened from our naïve slumber, the importance of freedom and the importance of standing with our allies and building up our shared institutions has been rekindled.

This should also be a reminder that freedom here at home is worth standing up for.

The ancient human aspiration to be free has only gotten stronger over time.

Each of us faces the question of what role we will play not only in the story of Canada, but in the story of humanity.

There’s every reason to be hopeful and believe that we – both individually and together – have the power to leave this world freer than we found it.

Spencer Fernando

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