As is too often the case, May 19 of last year saw its share of sad news. Deadly bombings in Syria, Afghanistan and, of all places, Italy. A fatal construction mishap in China. Even two people killed in a rally car accident in France. Not everything that day was grim, though. Long-suffering Chelsea fans remember it as when their club finally won the Champions League. There was a small victory for human dignity when a prominent psychiatrist apologized for his claim that homosexuality was curable. And then something else happened, something much subtler – something that went largely unnoticed at the time.
That evening, in the Spanish town of Sabadell, a young girl in Plaça de Sant Roc approached a tuxedoed man holding a double bass and placed a coin in the top hat at his feet. As he started to play, a lady wielding a cello came and sat near him. As the crowd around them began to swell, still more musicians emerged seemingly from nowhere: a bassoon and then some violins – eventually, everything from a French horn, a drum and even a conductor joined in. If you are not among the more than 10 million people who have seen it, take six short minutes to take in the most stirring performance of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that you may ever enjoy. Everything about it is literally awesome, from the slow buildup to the frenzied finale, but above all the look of wonder and joy on the faces of the assembled crowd as they soak in every rapturous note.
Okay, fine, but why am I talking about a year-old musical flash mob in the (web) pages of the Québécois Libre? Believe it or not, that short video is among the single most perfect expressions of freedom that I’ve ever come across. Everything about it reflects the beauty and splendour that human beings are capable of when they are free to live their lives as they please. That’s rather a grandiose claim for a musical performance, so let me explain.
First and most obviously, I’m thinking of the freedom to create. Art, perhaps more than any other field of human endeavour, flourishes when people are at liberty to think and dream and express themselves. Without the right to let his imagination soar, Beethoven could never have composed “one of the supreme masterpieces of the Western tradition.” Such works are not crafted by fiat or on instructions from a bureaucrat, but by those whose creative impulses are free to operate unconstrained by political, ideological or economic diktats that take precedence over the artistic imperative.
But Beethoven’s work could never have found an audience without freedom of commerce. To create music takes only a writing block, but to perform it takes terrific amounts of wealth: instruments must be bought, musicians must be trained, a hall must be rented and, of course, an audience willing and able to pay must be found. It is freedom of commerce that makes all this possible. Mutually-beneficial commercial exchange allows for specialization, whereby some can make a living designing, perfecting, building and selling instruments, just as others earn their way by learning to wield those instruments to produce melodies, harmonies, rhythms. No small amount of resources is needed to pay for the construction of the hall, which requires not only labourers but also architects and engineers who understand how to fine-tune the room’s acoustics. And, finally, each audience member has not only the means to purchase the luxury of costly entertainment but also the leisure time to both acquire and indulge a taste for such music. All this is possible thanks only to the greatest engines of wealth yet discovered: free markets in which people are able to work and to trade without hindrance.
Speaking of audiences, what would such an experience be if it could not be shared? Laws against “illegal gathering” are sadly more common than we might think, even in so-called “free” countries. There is no shortage of places where crowds, especially spontaneous ones, are seen as something sinister, to be dispersed quickly before anything menacing can develop. But watch that video and you’ll see all kinds of people wander by, stop in their tracks and decide to spend a few minutes taking in something unexpected and wonderful, without anyone threatening them if they fail to move on. While it may seem like nothing, many people can only dream of such liberty.
And, finally, not so long ago those crowding around the performers would have been the lucky few. Scarcely 15 years ago, the chances of such an occasion being captured on tape were slim indeed. And even had it been filmed, an amateur movie would go no further than the small circle of acquaintances of whoever was wielding the video camera. Today, however, anyone can capture a moment like this for posterity – indeed, just try to count how many audience members are doing just that. Nowadays, all it takes for anyone on Earth to be part of such a performance is an ordinary Internet connection. For as long as human beings have communicated with each other, governments of one kind or another have sought to monitor and even stop us from interacting altogether. But, in this case at least, we’re reminded of how marvellous it is to be free to connect with one another so that we can experience an event even if we were half a world away when it happened.
While this didn’t all jump out at me the first time I saw this video – I was too busy simply basking in the moment – it certainly did after repeated viewings. But beyond rattling off different kinds of freedom that came to mind, there’s a more important point I want to make. Given the heavily statist world in which we live, libertarians are often left opposing and objecting; instead of communicating what we want and what we support, we explain – loudly and vehemently – what it is that we dislike. And since no one likes a downer, our message can easily get drowned out in what’s perceived to be a sea of negativity.
The real reason that those few minutes speak to me isn’t because they illustrate one or another specific kind of freedom, but rather because they illustrate the only real freedom that matters: the freedom to be happy, or at least to pursue that feeling. Watching the flash mob and the sheer delight that it inspires in all present is a reminder that freedom is a positive message. Indeed, it is the most positive message.
If libertarians want to be heard, we have to remember that people listen far more closely to those who speak in uplifting terms than those who preach hostility and resistance. And we have to convey that what we ultimately seek isn’t to terminate some government program or to put an end to state intervention. Instead, it is to remove the coercive restraints that we believe hinder the general spread of happiness in the world. And that is a positive message worth spreading with as much elation and optimism as appears on the faces of those lucky enough to have found themselves in Plaça de Sant Roc on that spring evening one year ago.
* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B. A. and an M. A. in political science from McGill.