“The Freedom Myth” – Whistler Question Column, Oct 27, 2014

In Portfolio, Writing by Steve

The Question cut out a bit but here’s the unedited version:

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I’m sure most people remember the fairytale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, the story of a young boy with enough innocence to speak his mind to the naked emperor parading down the street. One of several morals to the story illustrates the fact that in public, people don’t always speak their mind and just go along with a lie in the fear of going against the grain.

The fable is not far from reality.  In our country people are reticent to even admit that we have an emperor at all. But in our world, the emperordoes wear clothes, along with silly hats with matching handbags.  Yes, I’m speaking of the British Empire, which despite what we’ve been told, still thrives.  More than a few clues pop up, from the ever-aging face on the 20 dollar bill to Her Majesty’s smug grin that is prominently displayed at every council meeting.

The reality is that we aren’t as free as she, or anyone else in a position of leadership has led us to believe. Keeping things relevant in our quaint valley, I will go out on a limb to say our local government does more to restrict the freedom of citizens than its assumed purpose of preserving it.

I’m not one of those people who would defend a society of complete anarchy.  I get it – we need rules and structure to be able to get along nicely and protect the interests of the society as a whole above the individual.  But somewhere along the way, especially locally, government has bit-by-bit increased its power to include everything from taking a criminal amount of money, to behaving more like a strata corporation bent on preserving a certain idea of how a “proper” society should look.

The strata corporation mentality is what really rubs me the wrong way; creating what I feel is a plasticized environment that robs the town of it’s true character.  People are what give a community its soul, and over time municipal government has a framed a structure designed to keep certain people away.  It’s designed to keep the flow of money in the hands of those who are already there, regulating it to those who own and lease real estate.  But most of the world’s public places function as a venue for interaction and open commerce.  One thing we love to call our little town is “World Class” – why shouldn’t we try to emulate what works in the world’s great gathering places?

Opponents to an open market concept would argue that we don’t want the tourists to feel hustled as if they were walking through a busy market in Mumbai.  But that’s where balance comes in and there is room for some regulation.  People could register for that right to sell to ensure the village streets weren’t full of con artists and cheaters.

People are quick to list reasons why it would never work.  But think of the upsides, of which there are many.  Visitors could buy Whistler souvenirs that are actually made in Whistler for an affordable price.  The streets could be full of vibrant music and street entertainment.  Roasted chestnuts and maple taffy at Christmastime and snow cones in the summer.  And every single venture could be regulated to ensure that it was local owner-operators benefiting and prospering.

If we are really able to look honestly at our system of local government, we will see that although claiming to be democratic Muni is actually a very rigid entity that functions without the average citizen having any real decision making power.  Sure we elect a council, but the staff who are running the show stay more or less consistent regardless of who we elect.

The good news is that there are things we can do.  Although limited, the powers bestowed to local government by Her Majesty still give us a small slice of decision making.  And perhaps those changes could possibly influence the bigger picture around once the positive effects were seen from outsiders.

We could eliminate a system that relies on bureaucracy and top-down decision making, in favour of a grassroots approach proven effective through the same model as the internet.  The internet model by nature is much more resemblant of a democratic system than our current framework. It allows seamless communication to flourish instead of getting stalled on someone’s desk. It also removes ego from the equation, allowing ideas to spread much more fluidly than having to funnel through a gatekeeper.  Many communities are taking this seriously with positive results.  Whistler wouldn’t be the first community to adapt this technology to local government, but it could stand a chance to be a leader by virtue of the fact that we have an outstanding collection of talent from across the world, as well as worldwide attention through our extraordinary natural resources.

Both of these examples would be concrete things our local government could do to steer ourselves toward real freedom both collectively and individually; something everyone on earth values. The key now is to do what you can to pressure candidates to live those values, and then are committed to seeing our little town work hard toward pursuing true democratic freedom.