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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Freedom–What Does It Really Mean And Why, Exactly, Is It So Important?

Successive Chinese governments since the death of Mao Zedong and the rise of  reformer Deng Xiaoping have insisted that that democracy is not the sine qua non of economic development; and that some curtailing of civil liberties will always be necessary to assure a smooth transition to a market economy.  Once the tens of millions of Chinese living below the poverty line  begin to join the growing middle class; and once economic progress is universal and not restricted by class or geographic area, then and only then might the limitations on free speech, assembly, and the press be instituted.


Although most American observers have continued to roundly criticize the Chinese for this policy, their demands for an acceleration of democratic reforms have been rejected out-of-hand.  It is not yet time, Communist Party leaders have repeated.  The economic revolution has yet fulfilled its promises.
These same critics have watched the remarkable growth of the Chinese economy since the last important statist policies were jettisoned by Jiang Zemin in 1993. 

GDP growth in the ensuing 20 years was consistently above 10 percent.  Growth in all sectors was noteworthy, China’s exports increased geometrically, and imports – first to fuel the industrial sector and then to meet growing consumer demand – never exceed exports, and Chinas foreign reserves became among the largest in the world, so much so that it became a lender to Western banks, including those in the United States.


Although much is made of China’s alleged political repression and continuing stifling of civil rights; and although loud Chinese voices of political protests are heard, most Chinese are happy with the spectacular growth of the economy, its influence  in both the developed and Third World, and the dramatically improved standards of living for millions.

In other words, the Chinese are willing to accept some restrictions on their freedoms in exchange for rapid, fair, and ultimately universal economic growth.

China has not been the only country to adopt this model.  Although Singapore has never been Communist, the state has been virtually totalitarian in its control of its population.  At the same time, it has become a major international financial hub and a very wealthy country.


South Korea was for many years had been described as an authoritarian state; and predictably its leaders had said “Hands off!”  They apparently knew what they were doing, because in the space of only a few decades the country went from a developing nation to an economic and cultural powerhouse.

The United States, on the other hand, for all its caviling about the affairs of other states, has seen the very freedoms it has applauded become eroded to the point of insignificance.  This loss of individual liberty is not only because of heavy-handed post-911 interventions into the private life of its citizens; but because of the gradual ceding of personal privacy to commercial interests, and the new Puritanism.  Government wants to prevent terrorism; commercial firms want to know us better in order to tailor sales pitches; and we, the citizens, have become so afraid of our shadows that we want institutional discipline and regulation to monitor all ‘aggressions’ large and small.

We are now spied on, tracked, followed, invaded in cyberspace, photographed, recorded, poked and prodded until our composite medical, public, financial, and commercial records are available to all.   We are increasingly afraid to check websites on terrorism, radical Islam, child molestation,  pornography, and a thousand other sources because the FBI might finally piece together a hundred innocently connected pieces of information and haul us off to prison.


One important question must be posed within the context of China to understand the very American concept of liberty - what good do our supposed freedoms do us?

The Chinese have a very clear rationale for the abridgment of civil liberties.  Civil disorder, disobedience and unrest cannot be tolerated because they impede the functioning of the engines of economic progress.  Rightly or wrongly they have made a connection, an association, and a correlation which – in view of the spectacular growth of the Chinese economy, its superpower status, and its reassertion of its cultural heritage – cannot be dismissed.

We, on the other hand, intend to protect individual and social freedoms for their own sake.  They are tied to nothing.  They are not correlated with a specific positive social outcome.  On the contrary, America is in a period of severe political and social dysfunction, unable to negotiate the rough waters of foreign policy because of persistent belief in a moral exceptionalism which has lost its currency, incapable of governing without acrimony and dissension, focusing on narrow and immaterial judicial issues instead of the more fundamental principles of law and governance.


The dumbing down of America by politicians, commercialism, and the increasing closure of the academic mind mean that freedom of speech means little unless the content and substance of the speech are worth something. 

If free speech is getting us nowhere in Congress; if the free speech of politicians is no more than nostrums, feel-good patriotism, and incendiary red-meat issues; then how can governance improve?  If the political process has been thrown open to the majority via straw votes, caucuses, and primaries; and if those events are dominated by fear-mongering and ad hominem assaults; and if the voting public knows little about finance, economics, political philosophy, or foreign affairs, then how is governance improved?


If commercial enterprises are now protected by the same free speech amendments that govern citizens, then how, with all their corporate wealth, can the little man every have a real say?   If businesses have limitless resources to write intelligent software programs which are insinuated in social media and the web thereby giving those enterprises a free and dominant hand in any transaction, then isn’t our ‘freedom’ of economic choice compromised?

Most importantly, however, assuming that the individual citizen has lost most of his civil liberties, has ceded others willingly, and is happy enough ranting and raving about issues which will be resolved with or without the support of his voice, what purpose does free speech have?
Why should the democratic imaginings of this wild, wooly, untamed circus called the United States be considered universally valid?

If freedom of speech is irrelevant for the well-off and the middle-class, it is of absolutely no value for the poor who never have had a say in any case, but who continue to be sold a bill of goods on the value of civil liberties.  Will these freedoms get me a job, a decent education for my children, the ability to move, settle, and prosper where the opportunities are? Hardly.

Freedom without a purpose is no right at all.  It is as suspect as the lack of freedoms in an authoritarian state.

More and more the American democratic model is suspect.  Religious fundamentalists in Europe and the Middle East are rejecting any idea of secular law (the basis of civil liberties) and preferring God’s law.  One of the five principle tenets of Islam is submission – faithful, absolute, worshipful obedience to God; so rejection of what is considered a secular society gone bad is good.


President Putin of Russia has exerted his political will and brought Ukraine to heel.  His version of realpolitik has nothing to do with national sovereignty and much more to do with historical imperative.


These ‘anti-democratic’ movements have a clear purpose, whether religious, political, or cultural.  The individual rights of the citizen must be subsumed within the larger community whose leaders are acting in his interest.

Freedom?  By no means an absolute and always subject to interpretation.  The rest of the world knows and understands this.  Why don’t we?


  1. I once asked a bright young Georgian—Not our Georgia but the one in the Caucuses. You know the former Soviet Republic of Georgia— shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, ”Isn’t freedom great?” His reply was unexpected. “Sure” he remarked. “It’s great to be hungry. It’s great to be cold. It’s great to be poor. It’s great to be without a job. It did not end there. I learned about many more unintended consequences of “freedom” that day.
    I should have known better.

  2. I once asked a bright young Georgian—Not our Georgia but the one in the Caucuses. You know the former Soviet Republic of Georgia— shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, ”Isn’t freedom great?” His reply was unexpected. “Sure” he remarked. “It’s great to be hungry. It’s great to be cold. It’s great to be poor. It’s great to be without a job. It did not end there. I learned about many more unintended consequences of “freedom” that day.
    I should have known better.


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