Human ingenuity includes the ability to imagine conspiracies for all the wrong reasons, and in particular I have come to expect bizarre, misguided efforts by those who view government with deep suspicion. Despite this, I was still somewhat appalled to recently learn that activists with ties to the tea party have been attending local government meetings to protest efforts toward better use of natural resources, more effective urban planning, expanded public transportation, increased availability of bike lanes, preserving open space, reduced carbon footprints, use of smart meters and other measures, all of which are meant to improve the quality of life for citizens while spending less money. And the reason for the protests? According to these activists, the efforts noted above, as well as other government activities, will reduce personal liberty, deny property rights and allow big government to control our freedom.
The basis for these contentions is a United Nations non-binding resolution — Agenda 21 — passed in 1992. The measure, more than 100 pages in length, encourages nations to use fewer resources and conserve open space by emphasizing development in already densely populated areas. Functionally, this is accomplished through best practices in planning, conservation and innovative approaches meant to increase the overall quality of life in sustainable, affordable ways that also protect the planet we share. Given that most of us live in densely populated urban/suburban environments, people accept in principle the premise of trading some “freedom” for all of the benefits received by making the best uses of resources while utilizing sensible planning and development strategies. In reality, few actually think or feel they don’t have enough freedom.
It wasn’t too long ago I wrote about how freedom and liberty are concepts that coexist with other realities in complex industrialized societies. A pragmatist looking at how much personal liberty individuals have in the U.S. would well wonder why some think they lack sufficient freedom or believe they are living under government tyranny. In practical terms, we need and want a balance between societal cooperation and individual liberty so we may live in peaceful coexistence. So I perceive the reasons a minority of citizens want to impose their outlier views on everyone else actually have little to do with true freedom and liberty.
Most of those protesting are older, few are minorities and they dislike most if not all of the changes that have taken place in their country and culture. I’m assuming this means they feel they’ve lost control of their lives and their country and thus have lost much of their freedom. If freedom to them means being able to stop and even reverse change, they are probably right.
Agenda 21 has been a focus among those who are most conservative not because it represents a loss of personal liberty but rather because it symbolizes changes imposed by governments in response to a multitude of complicated issues. Whether it’s the increasing percentages of citizens living in cities and suburbs in industrialized nations or well-documented climate change, the response of government to these changes becomes the focus of those who distrust complexity and government, and find refuge in simplistic solutions. They express their anger at local government meetings by reducing everything to threats against freedom and liberty, and in doing so represent a threat to responsible governance for everyone else. What they fail to understand is that the real threat to freedom is a failure to respond to change in pragmatic ways.