05 October 2009

the tragedy of freedom

The march of freedom

Now that is more like the premises and meaning of freedom than these silly parades and stickers that Americans purchase believing they are supporting the expansion or even mere retention of liberties.

I've seen an increasing amount of people willing to write off Europe and parts of Asia as somehow these communist bastions. Or even our own American economic and political systems (which are admittedly far more socialistic than most people understand them to be and have been for generations, it's not a new story that somehow began in late 2008). But the trend around the globe, if not so much in America, is for increasing amounts of liberalism in the classical sense: decentralised governments with less regulated economies.

The existence of strong safety networks and welfare states throughout much of the developed world, while it has created high tax states or debt to GDP ratios, hasn't crumbled native and international dependence on the free movement of goods, services, and, to some extent, opinions and (marketable) behaviors. Virtually every election in Europe over the past year has moved their economic situations slightly to the right, toward decentralised, less planned and controlled economies (with the main notable exception being Greece's election this week carried by their socialist party). The same story repeats in Asia with for example India, Indonesia, and Japan. Let me know when this makes sense in the middle of an economic crisis that our people seem to think means we must increase government involvement and regulation (at least in the form of new rules and new rules agencies rather than the enforcement of pre-existing ones).

Now it could be argued that many of these "right-wing" parties in Europe were pan-nationalistic ones or parties which are leeching support off of smaller pan-nationalistic parties, with the idea that such parties would somehow be aligned with such radical "liberal" economic policies like free trade (how a pan-nationalistic party would hold a firm non-protectionist position as ideologically consistent is not explained, though for my own explanation it does in fact trend to being the most "nationalistic" outlook to preach for trade rather than protectionism). The growth of such parties in the UK or Italy for example might support such a hypothesis. But the German elections don't look that way. Neither did Indonesia or India. So it's hardly a universal process for people to look inward, or at least, to look selfishly inward during a period of economic harshness. Nor have these countries by and large adopted harsh and pointed xenophobic immigration policies (as we have attempted to do) or further restricted political or religious speech. There are some exceptions of course, such as France's attempt to ban the burqa. I think the most likely explanation is that planned or central economics have been shown empirically not to work and that some level of mixed to free economy is far superior, with some low or non-existent level of protectionism and barriers to market participation and economic freedom for citizens and foreigners alike seems to work better for the vast majority of people. And the rather old traditions of political free speech certainly have shown themselves to work better than restricting speech to that which is inoffensive or controversial, at least as a matter of law.

There might be some appropriate balance that is somewhere between the social welfare systems of Europe and ours, or our regulatory frameworks and an optimal social and functional regulation system. It could be that we have a position of pro-corporatism (which amazingly doesn't appear to be the case, our largest 100 companies still only make up 30% of our GDP, which sounds terrible until it is compared with say, Germany, Japan, or France, where the figure is usually north of 50%). There's still a great deal of work to be done to strike these careful balances between democracy and freedom.

The most probable explanation I can make is that Americans are not as well educated as to the benefits of a "liberal" economy, and of course the flaws. There are lots of examples of this. For instance: the demand for "simple" or short federal laws supposedly caused by making Congress read the bills. These are either trained lawyers or can pay trained lawyers to explain the language. They can make it convoluted and complicated when necessary (and it is generally necessary). The American people are not in the habit of either reading complicated language or settling complex issues into simple and clear language. And this defect is common here, while it isn't nearly so common in a place like say, Norway, where the population can on average read legalese without blood flowing from their eyeballs and a stiff drink to stop the voices. The type of mindset to understand basic economics, trade, and policies involved therein, is pretty much the same. It is often a counter-intuitive logic that must take place to understand it. It's very different from the "straightforward" messages of our political speech. I often describe the look on people's faces as though they are running into a pole in the road, repeatedly. For whatever reason there's a dogma widely circulated that Europe, if not the rest of the world, is some sort of socialist nightmare and we are a bastion of freedom. The reality is somewhere in between. Common Americans seem to have a hard time navigating around this talking point toward something logical and sensible.

If it were not having such a tragic effect on our national debates and politics, it would probably make for a tremendous comedy routine.
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