Freedoms of West make our culture worth defending

At a time when the West faces serious challenges from outside and within, we need to return to our roots and remember why Western culture is worth defending.

Without self-confidence, we’ll never see off the menace of totalitarian regimes such as those endured by the Russian and Chinese people. Those regimes hate our way of life. But throughout our own culture it seems our message to ourselves is that we’re evil, or doomed, or both. I want to see us regain our optimism, which means rediscovering what made our nations so great to begin with.

The West has created a peace and prosperity unlike any other time in history, but that is no accident. It is thanks to Western institutions and values such as democracy, the free market, and the rule of law. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 because people were tired of totalitarian, communist governments. They wanted what the West had. In the 1990s the victory looked absolute and perhaps that made us complacent: we thought it would go on forever.

But we are not in a good place and, to return to a better place, we need to re-find our fundamental freedoms, which have been the engine for our progress. These are freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of belief and conscience, and freedom to own private property. Together they are four legs of a stool – if you weaken one, all are compromised.

So why do they matter? Freedom of speech means the right to have a healthy, contested debate to encourage critical thinking and good ideas. It also means the right not to speak about certain matters, or use certain words. When we lose freedom of speech, we lose open, honest discussion and we threaten the marginalised and the voiceless.

It is through freedom of speech that we defend all other freedoms, so I am alarmed by the recent trend towards cancelling others, or engaging with our emotions rather than clear thinking.

But freedom of speech can’t exist without freedom of association, which protects our natural desire to collaborate with, or employ, the people we choose. When I was deputy prime minister, I hand-picked my team because I wanted people I could trust, people I knew were on-board with where we were going. Yet even this right has recently come under attack in our own country by legislators and vocal activists who don’t think it’s right, for example, for faith organisations to employ people who support their creed. This sets a dangerous precedent for rights we once took for granted.

Freedom of belief and conscience, I would argue, is even more fundamental because it starts with our minds – what kind of thoughts we have and whether we can act in accordance with them. Without the right to live lives of integrity, in accordance with our consciences, we aren’t free to flourish as humans. We need freedom to seek answers to life’s great questions: who am I, do I have value or purpose?

Finally, I want to unpack the freedom to own private property, because I’m convinced of its centrality to human flourishing. Its intellectual roots stretch back to biblical times. The Ten Commandments mention private property twice. And in the 15th century an English lawyer named John Fortescue connected people’s freedoms with the right to private property. So it’s not a modern, libertarian idea but an ancient right that encouraged productivity, individual responsibility and stability. If the state can’t guarantee our land, our house, our business or our resources are ours – worse, if it tries to take them for itself – the incentive for us to be good citizens is profoundly compromised.

We see this with our housing crisis; so many young people are disconnected from politics or want to tear the old economic system down because they don’t have a stake in society. Home ownership naturally makes us value what we have and want to defend it.

There’s a brilliant film called The Castle, which you ought to watch if you haven’t, that revolves around a husband willing to give everything to defend his house – just a small, ramshackle house on the edge of the city – from being bulldozed. Why? Because, as he says to the judge when fighting his case, “It’s not a house, it’s a home”.

I’m a believer in the right to private property because I think it makes us all better, more conscientious, community-minded citizens. It also remains the key to building prosperity and giving us lives that aren’t “nasty, brutish and short”.

Countless men and women have sacrificed their lives for these freedoms, or died because they lacked them.

Today, as much as ever, there are people dying for the kind of life we in the West take for granted – 30 years after the Berlin Wall fell, Russia has invaded Ukraine to prevent Western influence. China is setting up a consciously different model to Western governance based on state surveillance and mass social engineering. And in Iran, dozens of civilians have been executed for daring to stand up to the government. The common theme of these countries is that their governments don’t care about individuals. People can be sacrificed for some higher ideal.

Governments don’t create our freedoms but we need governments to defend them. The West relies on good leaders committed to serving the nation rather than themselves. We should support our governments for their role in protecting us, but also must watch out for governments starting to infringe on our basic freedoms.

And to do that, we must shoulder responsibility rather than seeing freedom as permission to do whatever we like. American founding father John Adams famously said: “Our constitution is made only for a moral and religious people.” When our society loses its faith and virtues, it starts to disintegrate, and that’s what we’re seeing today. Too many people now confuse liberty with licence. Liberty needs to be accompanied by wisdom and virtue. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean spreading misinformation. Freedom to own private property brings a responsibility to give generously to the needs of others. We won’t truly understand our freedoms unless we see the responsibilities that accompany them.

So let’s celebrate the freedoms we enjoy in the West and not take them for granted. They were hard won, but they’ll easily be lost if we don’t regain our self-confidence and live as responsible, virtuous citizens in our communities.

Originally published in The Australian

Original Article