We have been hearing a lot of talk about “essential” and “non-essential” these days. The health totalitarians, who have decided that the COVID-19 pandemic is just and sufficient cause for suspending civil rights and liberties and placing the entire populace of cities, provinces, and whole nations under house arrest, insist that only “essential” businesses be allowed to remain open. Of course, these same health totalitarians are themselves the ones who get to decide what is “essential” and what is “non-essential.”
The distinction is a fraudulent one. The idea underlying the distinction is that there are some goods and services which people need to survive – food, water, and the like – and others which they can get by without. The majority of goods and services available on the market fall into the latter category. While it is true that nobody is going to die because he cannot buy the latest video game, DVD, novelty t-shirt, or any other of countless examples of the like, this ignores an obvious truth. For those whose business is to provide these goods and services which people can get by without, the provision of those goods and services is how they put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. They are hardly “non-essential” to them.
Some may try to rebut what I have just pointed out by arguing that it is only true of small business owners and not of the large corporations that control most of the now shut-down economy and produce most of the “non-essential” goods. In response, I would say that what is true of the owners of small businesses is also true of the employees of the large corporations. They depend upon their jobs to put food on the table and pay the rent. I would also make the following obvious observation for those who think that this shut down is corporate, consumerist, capitalism finally getting what it deserves. It is the much despised corporations that have the accumulated capital to weather the shutdown for months and survive. It is the small businesses which will have to file for bankruptcy if forced to remain closed for much longer than a few weeks.
Others, might make the rejoinder that Justin Trudeau has promised financial assistance to small businesses. To which I would reply that Justin Trudeau has at no point in the past demonstrated that he or anyone else in his cabinet knows anything at all about small businesses and how they differ from large corporations. We are talking about the government that slapped taxes upon small businesses several years ago claiming that they were going after the “rich” and which got into a huge scandal last year because it tried to change the rules to prevent a large, Quebec-based, corporation from being prosecuted for bribing a foreign power.
What is true of us as individuals is also true of us collectively as communities, societies, nations, and countries. The so-called “non-essential” goods and services are how we pay for the so-called “essential” goods and services. If we eliminate the “non-essential” sector then we must force the “essential” sector to pay for everything including itself. It cannot bear this burden for long without collapsing under the additional stress. I, like many others, enjoy mocking the way in which the aggressive advertising that saturates our consumeristic, commercial society is constantly turning yesterday’s luxuries into today’s necessities, but the reality is that all of these goods and services which individually we might consider to be unnecessary, taken together perform a function that is essential.
It is not the government’s place to tell anyone that his business is “non-essential.”
What I have been saying about business is all the more true with regards to freedom. We often refer to such freedoms as our freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of worship, and freedom of motion as our “basic freedoms.” I do not think very highly of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In my opinion, it thwarts the Common Law foundation of our rights and freedoms and makes them less secure. It conditions us into thinking of our rights and freedoms as being limited to those which the government permits us to have, rather than limited only by what the law prohibits. It gives the government far too much power to bypass our basic rights and freedoms and undermines the sovereignty of Queen-in-Parliament, the capstone of the entire Common Law system, by giving too much power to the Supreme Court. I shall leave these considerations aside, for the moment, to note that Section Two of the Charter refers to such freedoms as freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association as our “fundamental freedoms.” “Fundamental”, like “basic” is another word for “essential.”
It would appear that the Dominion government, our provincial governments, and, sadly, a very large portion of our populace, think that these freedoms are not that essential when there is a virus running amok. For these are the very freedoms which our governments are curtailing – or eliminating entirely – in their hasty, poorly thought out, irrational efforts to contain the coronavirus and we, for the most part, are cheering them on as they do so.
There is no “freedom of peaceful assembly” when the government is telling us we can meet in groups no larger than fifty, ten, or single digit numbers, as the case may be. There is no “freedom of association” when “extreme social distancing” is mandatory. How can there be “freedom of religion” when churches are not allowed to assemble and worship? The closing of the churches is particularly appalling. Only a very depraved and evil mind would judge the state to be “essential” but the church to be “non-essential.”
It used to be that an essential part of raising young people involved teaching them that our traditional institutions and our basic freedoms stand and fall together and instilling in them such a love and reverence for these institutions and freedoms that in the unfortunate event that a war were to arise they would be willing to sacrifice their lives and die horrible deaths lest we lose these things. It speaks very poorly of us today that we are now willing to sacrifice all those freedoms in order to save our lives.
Freedom is absolutely essential. To sacrifice our freedom to stop COVID-19 is to sacrifice our humanity. Stopping COVID-19 is not worth that price.
Those who would give up their own essential freedoms in the name of empowering the state to deal with the COVID-19 emergency do not deserve their essential freedoms. Those who would force others to give up their own essential freedoms to achieve the same end deserve neither their freedoms nor the sorry lives they seek to save.
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