Sunday, July 19, 2015

Arthur Answers, Part 2: Freedom’s flavours

Today’s question is from my friend Andy, with whom I’ve had many interesting Facebook discussions. On the blog post announcing this series, Andy asked:

“You have experienced the American flavor of ‘Freedom’—which, in the Land of the Free, tends to be fairly overt; and you have experienced the New Zealand flavor of ‘Freedom’—which, in the Land of the Long White Cloud, tends to be implied and quite understated.

Which do you prefer, and why?”

When I first began this blog in 2006, that was the sort of question I didn’t want to answer. I had this idea that I shouldn’t criticise my homeland, mostly because of how notoriously tetchy Americans can get when their country is criticised, especially when it’s compared unfavourably with another country. Clearly, I no longer have any such reluctance!

I should say upfront that “freedom” is a very general term that can be interpreted in numerous ways. For this post, I’m using the term in relation to enumerated rights, that is, rights that people have guaranteed through their national constitution/government structure, and how that affects the way people (including me) feel about their level of freedom.

So, keeping that in mind, at a certain fundamental level, both the USA and New Zealand have very similar attitudes toward freedom: They both protect freedom of speech, and of belief, and of assembly, for example, and both countries also forbid unreasonable search or seizure, and also ban cruel punishment.

New Zealanders’ fundamental rights are laid out in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (the link goes to the NZ government website, where the entire BORA, as it’s called, can also be downloaded as a PDF; naturally, I’ve done that. Of course.). It’s also been further clarified in subsequent court rulings (the Wikipedia article on the BORA is pretty good).

Americans’ fundamental rights are spelled out in the Constitution of the United States and its amendments, but the most fundamental rights are listed in the first ten amendments, known collectively as the “Bill of Rights”. US Courts have also expanded and explained the rights held by citizens. The Wikipedia article on the Bill of Rights provides good, basic information on the history and meaning of the amendments.

I mention all that first because I think it’s important to understand that the citizens of both countries enjoy pretty much the same enumerated rights. There are, however, some significant differences in those enumerated rights: US citizens have the right to “keep and bear arms”, and New Zealanders do not. New Zealand’s BORA forbids discrimination on wide range of criteria as outlined in the Human Rights Act 1993 (HRA), and these go FAR beyond the discrimination that the US Constitution forbids, even with NZ’s carve-outs and exclusions (the Wikipedia article on the HRA is a pretty good tl;dr description).

The USA’s Bill of Rights, however, can only be changed through Constitutional Amendment, a process that was deliberately made difficult and cumbersome—so much so, it seldom happens (it's described in Article V of the US Constitution, btw). In New Zealand, a simple majority of Parliament can amend the Bill of Rights Act at any time—or repeal it altogether.

The US Constitution is what’s called “entrenched”, that means, it’s supreme law and cannot be easily changed or abandoned. New Zealand’s constitution, on the other hand, is unwritten and made up of the laws passed by Parliament. An incomplete portion of that—generally the parts about the structure of government—were codified in The Constitution Act 1986. The Act was passed as the result of a constitutional crisis, but also established the final independence of the NZ Parliament from that of the UK (again, Wikipedia has a good, brief discussion).

All this talk about structure is important because I think it’s the reason for the fundamental difference in the way Americans and New Zealanders look at their rights. In the USA, with its difficult-to-change Constitution, there’s a culture of entitlement in which people think they have absolute rights that apply in all cases, even when they don’t—like, for example, that most Americans fundamentally misunderstand their rights under the First Amendment (the xkcd cartoon on free speech wonderfully illustrates—ahem!— what I’m talking about). This attitude leads to a lot of court action.

New Zealanders, on the other hand, have a culture of assumption, that is, they assume they have basic rights. Like their American cousins, NZers sometimes misunderstand free speech rights, but they otherwise don’t assume that their rights trump other people’s rights, as so many Americans clearly think. On this point, Kiwis clearly have the advantage. We don’t have a litigious culture, and our civil court proceedings aren’t about conflicting rights.

New Zealand’s more laid back attitude extends to government regulation, and Kiwis can pretty much just get on with their lives without a lot of government interference. For example, if a New Zealander wants to start a business, they just start: They don’t need to register with anyone (though they may have to register with Inland Revenue to pay Goods and Services Tax, but very small businesses don’t need to bother with that). In Chicago at the time I left, anyone wanting to start a business needed to get a license from the City of Chicago, register with the State of Illinois and Cook County (all of which charged fees for that, of course). In addition, at that time it was generally illegal to run a business out of one’s home in a residential area, even if no customers would ever visit and there was no “noxious” manufacturing (some of that has been eased since I left, and I realise that in other places it’s easier—or harder—than Chicago was then).

But it’s not just about constitutional structure or lack of unnecessary regulation: There are profound differences in the way that Americans and Kiwis approach their lives as part of a community. In general, NZers have an attitude that how other people live their lives is no one else’s business (unless they’re endangering other people or creating a nuisance for the people around them). Americans, on the other hand, have a long history of telling other people how they must live their lives. As a gay man, I never felt as free as I did when I arrived in New Zealand. Sure, the USA has caught up a bit in the past two decades, and New Zealand isn’t perfect (of course—no place is), but I feel freer as a gay man than I did in Chicago.

To sum up, then: Both the USA and New Zealand have the same basic enumerated rights, while differing in some areas, as well as how secure those rights are. The differences in how those rights are structured leads individuals in the two countries to have differences in expectations of what their rights mean for them personally. Added to the more relaxed NZ culture, and the more controlling US culture, this leads to New Zealand feeling more free to me than the USA did.

One final caveat: I left the USA nearly two decades ago, and things have changed a lot. The dark years of the Bush/Cheney regime aside, I think there has been a clear move toward greater freedom in general, but having been away so long, there’s no way I can possibly know how the USA’s freedom feels. So, my reactions are based on what my lived experience in the USA was and is in New Zealand.

Noting that caveat, and all the other qualifications and such in this post, in general, I personally prefer New Zealand’s flavour of freedom over the USA’s.

There’s still time to ask questions! Here’s how: First, you can leave a comment on this post (anonymous comments are okay). You can also email me your question (and you can even tell me to keep your name secret, although, why not pick a nom du question?). And, for the first time, you can also ask questions on the AmeriNZ Facebook page.

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