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Freedom stuck in the middle seat

If I had to compare the fate of liberty in today’s Malta, I’d say that more of us are feeling as though we’re confined to the middle seat of a passenger plane. Think of a world where, no matter how early we turn up at check-in, or whether we pay extra to choose our seats beforehand, we’re never quite sure if we are going to end up in the middle seat with all its discomforts and indignities. That’s us.

Political thinkers classically distinguish between two kinds of liberty: freedom from interference (the right to be left alone as long as you’re not harming anyone else) and the freedom to do things. We encounter these two forms of liberty at the airport check-in counter, everytime we’re asked to choose whether we’d prefer an aisle or window seat.

The window seat is the preference of those who favour being left alone without being bothered by your neighbours getting up and returning to their seat. The aisle seat is the favoured trade-off of those prepared to accept some bother from their neighbours as long as they feel free to get up whenever they want, look around and do their thing. Surveys suggest that executives tend to prefer the aisle seat.

Have you noticed that you’re never offered the choice of middle seat? It’s only given to you if there are no other free seats. It’s just assumed you wouldn’t want to be in the middle. (I once asked for a middle seat, just as an experiment, and the check-in clerk looked at me with such concern and suspicion that I quickly confirmed I was joking.)

The middle seat has the worst of both worlds. From both sides you’re hemmed in and vulnerable to your neighbours’ elbows and spills. You have more interference and less freedom of action.

Now switch back to your life and that of your friends. Think of the people you’ve heard of who woke up one morning to find that a new neighbour had decided to raise the dividing wall between the houses; suddenly your friends found their kitchen window looked straight out at a blank wall, making them feel they were living in a shaft.

Or think of the story you’ve heard of the developers who told a relative that she has two years to sell them her flat, or else they were going to rebuild her block around her, making her life hell.

Or just think of people who invested in a house in a quiet area, only to find it’s going to become a traffic magnet. Or think of your wait to get an appointment at Mater Dei, only to find out that the secret Facebook groups investigated by this website offer their members special helpline numbers where they can jump the queue.

The examples can be multiplied. Your quiet life is increasingly vulnerable to interference from others. Not because the State is poking its nose into your private life. But because, thanks to the State’s absence, bullies can interfere with what ordinary people can do.

It’s a zero-sum game. The stronger some get, the less opportunities others have. An unjust promotion does not simply reward the undeserving; it also blocks the promotion of those who merit it. Speculation doesn’t just make some rich; it keeps others off the property ladder and damages the quality of life of others.

What is happening is that the very nature of freedom in our country is changing from one kind to another.

In a liberal society under the rule of law, freedom is an area we all occupy. It’s an area of fair rules, applied transparently to everyone.

Our society, however, is rapidly changing to one that is deregulated. The rules might remain but we know that exceptions can be made overnight. Enforcement is elusive. It’s like the rules are only a suggestion.

At the same time, effective decision-making has become increasingly centralised – away from independent authorities to politicians. It’s become a more arbitrary society. In such a context, freedom is more like a personal quality, which some have while others don’t.

The symbol of freedom in a liberal society is the bill of rights, guaranteed by autonomous institutions. The symbol of freedom in a radically clientalistic society is the permit, guaranteed by ”closeness” to the politician.

Some are free, others have the freedom of those stuck in a middle seat. Some people, on the basis of who they know, can jump the queue at check-in. They can ask for your aisle or window seat if they take a fancy to it.

Some of them are paid out of your taxes. Others have thriving businesses by taking over public goods at below-market prices. They’re getting your air miles while you subsidise their club class tickets.

Do not be surprised if they expect your seat and leg-room to be made smaller, so theirs can be bigger. When freedom ceases to be an area we all occupy equally, liberty becomes the privilege of lords and masters.

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