Ferenc Molnár was the author of such international hits as Liliom, better known to North American audiences as the Broadway musical Carousel (with music and lyrics by Rodgers and Hammerstein.) As the dark clouds of Nazism approached Molnár's native Budapest, he fled to America where he settled in the Plaza Hotel in New York.
Manhattan can be pretty stifling in the summer. One day a fellow refugee complained to the playwright about the humidity.
"My dear chap," Molnár replied, "we didn't come here for the climate."
Molnár's bon mot became a classic among refugees. It begs the question, though, of what most immigrants to the United States or Canada came in search of. If we didn't come here for the climate, what did we come for? Was it for streets paved with gold?
I'm only sure of my own answer. Nov. 23, the day the National Post began its "Strong and Free" series of essays about Canada, happened to be the 46th anniversary of the day I left communist Hungary. I did come for a climate of sorts: The climate of freedom. More precisely, I came to escape the oppressive climate of statist Europe.
I came to the right place, but what I didn't realize was that the climate of statism would follow me here. Like most countries, Canada has undergone tremendous changes in the last half century. Some have been for the better; some for the worse. In our efforts to get rid of the vices of stodgy old "WASP" Canada, we've managed to throw out many of its virtues. The country in which I landed in 1956 was both significantly stronger and freer than the one in which I make my home today.
Forty-six years ago, if Canadians didn't approve of something, they tended to use one of two expressions. They'd either say: "Well, it's a free country," or they'd say: "There ought to be a law."
Today one rarely hears the first saying anymore. Most people sense that it's no longer accurate. As for the second expression, it has become superfluous. By now there is a law at every turn, whether there ought to be one or not.
The problem isn't the law as such. When I came to Canada, the courts were using the law as a bulwark to protect the individual against the state. It's worth noting that they did so without a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But climate is everything: Today's courts use the law as a battering ram to break down individual rights and freedoms. They justify their breach of the Charter by references to social policy.
Canada's judges used to be freedom's friends; by now they've become freedom's enemies. A few may dissent, but in almost any conflict between someone's individual rights and the ambitions of a feminist, environmentalist, multicultural or public hygiene policy, statism will carry the day. It doesn't matter whether the state's ambitions clash with a person's right of expression, property or conscience, it's the individual rights that lose. When the existing law isn't restrictive enough, majorities on the bench may strike it down and substitute one that Parliament, much as it might have wanted to, wouldn't have dared to pass itself.
Dirigisme, as issued from bureaucracy's Temple of Central Planning, has become the state religion of Canada. It's not surprising that when it came to looking into the fiasco of universal medical care, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien gave the task to a venerable mullah of statism, Roy Romanow. The former Ayatollah of Saskatchewan concluded that the magic formula for making a silk purse out of a sow's ear was to multiply the cost of his own study -- $15-million -- by a thousand, so he recommended throwing 15 billion good dollars after the untold billions of bad dollars we spent on a fundamentally flawed idea. We're to spend this sum, along with the lives of untreated patients on medicare's waiting lists, as a human sacrifice on the altar of socialism, the faith of Mr. Romanow's formative years.
Proponents of dirigisme like to say that since individual freedoms tend to collide, the state must pick and choose between them. Indeed, there's no "absolute" freedom. Apologists for big government greet such self-evident truisms with shouts of eureka, as if they were ground-breaking discoveries. It isn't hard to figure out why. Statists use the fact that there's no absolute freedom to deny us relative freedoms. Promoters of intrusive government fabricate sophistries on an assembly line to support their position. "We all exist as part of a community," is one favourite cliché. Such commonplaces are fired off at Mach 2 by those who would obscure the difference between jails and shelters, lifelines and restraints. They give us a government so caring it would sooner let people die waiting for free medical care than let them buy it for themselves. They argue that since we can't fly like birds, the state has an excuse not to let us walk upright like human beings. The phrase "there's no absolute freedom" has become the argument of those who prefer to see us crawl.
Forty-six years after my arrival I have much to celebrate. Foremost, I celebrate that Canada is still a free country relative to many others. I also have things to mourn. Foremost, I mourn that Canada is less free than it was 46 years ago. While it's free compared to other lands, it's not free compared to itself. The past 46 years for me were like watching a loved one decline from robust, athletic health to moderate self-sufficiency. It's hard to cheer when, after the ravages of a progressive disease, the former champion can still brush his own teeth and tie his own shoelaces.
Ironically, the world I abandoned in my quest for freedom developed in the opposite direction. To pursue the analogy, if Canada's is the sad story of a declining athlete, post-communist Eastern Europe is a triumphant tale of a wheelchair-bound cripple taking his first halting steps. True, in terms of freedom, Hungary may not be able to brush its own teeth and tie its own shoelaces as dexterously as Canada, but it amounts to a victory that it can do it at all. The same accomplishment makes Canada a tragic caricature of its former self.
Not to end on an unhappy note, I put my faith in al-Qaeda. The poet John Donne prayed that God may preserve us from needing danger to be good, but sometimes we need danger, not only to be good, but to see the obvious. We often don't know what we have until we come near losing it. The Nanny State has been a grave threat to liberty, but big government's insidious emanations, whether from Ottawa, Washington, or Brussels, have passed unnoticed by many. Creeping statism may not trip the alarm. We needed a genuine jolt, and 9/11 has delivered it.
After the defeat of Nazism and communism, nothing threatens human freedom more than the rise of a totalitarian offshoot of Islam. The enemy isn't the Muslim faithful, just as in earlier times it wasn't the ordinary people of Germany or Russia, but the fanatic ideologues who claimed to act in their name. It's ironic that it may turn out to be Osama bin Laden who unwittingly reinvigorates Western values, including the value of being strong and free, in our own hearts and minds.