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Friday, May 01, 2009

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance: Ezra Levant

The book Shakedown is only a month old, but I go to it again and again, as much for inspiration as for practical guidance on the battle for free speech in Canada.

The book's author, former Western Standard publisher Ezra Levant, has documented every shocking detail of Canada's unjust, corrupt and malicious human rights industry. In case after case, Levant uncovers state censorship and the abuse of political power by human rights bureaucrats who lack reason, compassion and any grasp of natural justice. And no case better exemplifies this than Levant's own: The Alberta human right complaint directed at the Western Standard for the decision in March 2006 to publish cartoons depicting images of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

In a column in today’s Metro titled “Price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” Levant continues his defence of free speech and expression and retells the story on his 900-day trial for publishing the notorious Danish cartoons, the trial that became the catalyst for his book and sudden international celebrity among free-speechers.

Levant writes in his column that “Freedom of speech is something we take for granted, so we rarely think about it. But the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

Levant is right. We shouldn’t take freedom of speech for granted, but nor should we take for granted the private rights that underpin this freedom. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, but the instrument is private property rights.

In the Virtue of Selfishness, philosopher/novelist Ayn Rand wrote on the relationship between free speech and the right to property that:

The right to property means that a man has the right to take the economic actions necessary to earn property, to use it and to dispose of it; it does not mean that others must provide him with property.

The right of free speech means that a man has the right to express his ideas without danger of suppression, interference or punitive action by the government. It does not mean that others must provide him with a lecture hall, a radio station or a printing press through which to express his ideas.

It is this relationship between property rights and free speech that brings me to my single but substantive complaint with Shakedown.

In Levant’s defence of free speech he seems to ignore that this freedom is only a corollary right of private property. The subtitle title of his book is How Our Government is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights, implying that democracy – and not property rights – is central to freedom of speech. This is, of course, not true. Human rights commissions are part of the apparatus of democratically elected governments. They are no more undemocratic than any government bureaucracy.

Levant also spends considerable energy – the entire first chapter of his book and then throughout -- defending the work of the original architects of Canada’s human rights laws, people like Alan Borovoy. Levant calls these laws “a beautiful idea – that failed,” implying that the restrictions placed on property owners like employers and landlords under these laws are appropriate, even “beautiful,” while the mandate creep that eventually extended these restrictions unto media property owners, publishers, is illiberal and tyrannical.

Levant writes in Shakedown that:

When they were created a generation ago, Canada’s human rights commissions were inspired by a narrowly defined goal: to offer victims of true discrimination a quick, low-cost means to fight back against bigoted landlords, employers, and storeowners.

But are bigoted landlords any different than bigoted publishers, which is not to say Levant was ever a bigoted publisher? Which is more dangerous to the public order? Why should human rights laws apply to one and not the other?

I wonder, for instance, if a Jewish landlord shaken profoundly by the events of 9/11, who refuses to rent to radical Islamists, preferring to rent to fellow Jews, would be an appropriate target for human rights commissions, by Levant’s standard of justice.

Would Levant defend this Jewish landlord’s right to exclude Muslim tenants with the same vigour as he defends the right of Maclean’s magazine to exclude certain Muslim columnists from its editorial pages? Western Standard readers may recall that the four students at Toronto's Osgoode Hall Law School who brought a human rights complaint against Maclean's over an article titled “The Future Belongs to Islam,” by the legendary Mark Steyn, demanded access to the editorial pages of this magazine in the interest of balance and diversity. The management team at Maclean’s said “no,” exercising their property right to exclude. Did Maclean’s restrict the free speech of these Muslim student activists? Of course not. As Ayn Rand wrote, free speech “does not mean that others must provide [you] with a lecture hall, a radio station or a printing press through which to express [your] ideas.”

If we can restrict the landlord’s right exclude, why not the publisher's?

It might be unfair to ask of Levant that he take on the entire human rights industry, but in ignoring the importance of property rights he is creating weaknesses in his own argument and is making future reforms of these laws more difficult.

Sticking with Ayn Rand, she wrote:

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.

When people discriminate on the basis of race or for any other arbitrary reason, it offends our sense of justice. Decent people hate racism and are often prepared to ignore unjust laws that punish bigots. But any law that undermine property rights, also undermines the foundation of a free society. This is why Canada’s so-called human rights laws must be repealed. All. Of. Them.

Posted by Matthew Johnston

Posted by westernstandard on May 1, 2009 | Permalink


Excellent article, Matthew, and I can only say spot on. I bought and read "Shakedown" but did not arrive at the same conclusion.

I did not interpret comments about the HRC being a good idea that failed as an endorsement of the HRCs. I admit that he did not address property rights, which are another fundamental in a free society. I would not expect a single writer to address the totality, so that Ezra focus on freedom of expression and of the press does not seem unreasonable.

I think that private property rights are perhaps the most basic in that a free society expands from them to the concept of rights to include free speech, freedom of association and freedom of the press.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-05-01 7:46:18 PM

Your point is well taken Matthew. Rand would have added that the very right to life itself is dependent on the right to property.

Posted by: DML | 2009-05-01 11:47:33 PM

Mathew - isn't the other right involved here the right to freedom of association. In other words, what non-discrimination laws do is force individuals to associate with others against their will.

Posted by: Craig | 2009-05-02 12:34:24 AM

That sounds right, Craig. Is freedom of association not an extension of property rights? Perhaps not entirely.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-05-02 1:07:06 AM

'Rand would have added that the very right to life itself is dependent on the right to property.'

No she wouldn't. The right to property can be justified only on the fundamental principle of the right to life, not vice versa.

'The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.

Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.' Ayn Rand, 'Man's Rights,' in Virtue of Selfishness.

Obviously, the right of association is a right to action. Hence the HRC should not exist and neither should her laws which clearly stand only in violation of the right to life.

Posted by: John W | 2009-05-02 7:46:51 AM

Re: Matthew Johnston's statement that "The management team at Macleans said no (to the Osgoode four's demands), exercising their property right to exclude."

Couldn't disagree more.

Macleans said 'no' to the blatant shakedown these students attempted, including demands for: (1)cash for their hurt feelings, and (2) complete CREATIVE CONTROL over a very long rebuttal they expected to have published.

Macleans didn't say 'no' to the demand for balance and diversity; it said 'no' to extortion.

Posted by: Judith Pankewitz | 2009-05-02 11:41:22 AM

Judith, I agree with you completely.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-05-02 12:39:54 PM

Mathew -

Yes, in some cases, although I don't think the exercise of a right to associate (or not) is at root an extension of property but of personal liberty. Have to think about this some more, though.

But I absolutely agree with the thrust of your post - it's very hard to separate laws against hate speech from those against discrimination. And it's even harder to say (as Ezra does) that a right to not wash your hands at Micky D's doesn't exist, but that in principle (and in other areas) there is a legal right not to be discriminated against.

Posted by: Craig | 2009-05-02 4:11:55 PM

I should say that Ezra is careful with his words and doesn't directly say he supports laws against discrimination. I think this is Alain's point.

He does, however, draw a sharp distinction between hate speech and discrimination, and praises the architects of Canada's human rights laws originally intended to address private discrimination.

And to be completely fair, Ezra does mention property rights on one occasion when dealing with the case of the Muslim family and their satellite dish-related complaint.

Shakedown is an excellent book -- I've read it twice, word for word -- but Ezra plays to win, and left a few sloppy arguments around for the sake of political expediency. It's hard to argue with success, though -- Ezra is winning the battle of ideas on this one, and might not have been as successful if he had called for the repeal of the anti-discrimination provisions of Canada's human rights laws along with the so-called hate speech provisions.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-05-02 4:35:34 PM

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