Tag: economic freedom

Obama and Reagan’s Speeches about Freedom

President Obama spoke to Chinese college students on Monday, as President Ronald Reagan spoke to Moscow State University students in 1988. There were a lot of similarities – both men are great communicators, convinced of the rightness of their views and of their persuasive ability, and confident that their values are not just American but universal. But there were some clear differences in the philosophies they presented.

President Obama was eloquent in his defense of freedom in the heart of an authoritarian country:

The United States, by comparison, is a young nation, whose culture is determined by the many different immigrants who have come to our shores, and by the founding documents that guide our democracy.

America will always speak out for these core principles around the world.   We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don’t believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation.  These freedoms of expression and worship – of access to information and political participation – we believe are universal rights.

Those documents put forward a simple vision of human affairs, and they enshrine several core principles – that all men and women are created equal, and possess certain fundamental rights; that government should reflect the will of the people and respond to their wishes; that commerce should be open, information freely accessible; and that laws, and not simply men, should guarantee the administration of justice….

Those are important American values, and I agree with the president that they are universal, as classical liberals have long argued. But I’m disappointed that President Obama didn’t cite freedom of enterprise,  property rights, and limited government as American values. Those are not only the necessary conditions for growth and prosperity, they are the necessary foundation for civil liberties.

He did glancingly mention in the paragraph above that “commerce should be open, information freely accessible,” so that’s half a clause about commerce, I guess. But that’s it for the freedoms that allow people to work and save, create, build, invest, and prosper. He noted that “China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty – an accomplishment unparalleled in human history” but didn’t examine how that happened. (Hint: economic reforms that moved toward free markets and (quasi) property rights.)

His only subsequent mention of freedom touched on economics in the context of citizen participation and the Internet:

Now, that’s not just true in – for government and politics. It’s also true for business.  You think about a company like Google that only 20 years ago was – less than 20 years ago was the idea of a couple of people not much older than you.  It was a science project.  And suddenly because of the Internet, they were able to create an industry that has revolutionized commerce all around the world.  So if it had not been for the freedom and the openness that the Internet allows, Google wouldn’t exist.

So I’m a big supporter of not restricting Internet use, Internet access, other information technologies like Twitter.

Yes, “the freedom and the openness that the Internet allows” were important to the development of Google. But more fundamental was the freedom of enterprise in America. There’s a reason that so many technological advances and consumer benefits are developed in the world’s freest economies. Property rights, freedom of exchange, low taxes, and limited restrictions on entreneurship allow people to invest and create.

Contrast the speech that President Reagan gave to the students who were still behind the Iron Curtain in 1988. Start with the way he addressed a very similar point to the one Obama made about Google:

The explorers of the modern era are the entrepreneurs, men with vision, with the courage to take risks and faith enough to brave the unknown. These entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth in the United States. They are the prime movers of the technological revolution. In fact, one of the largest personal computer firms in the United States was started by two college students, no older than you, in the garage behind their home.

Reagan praised democracy and justice and openness:

At the same time, the growth of democracy has become one of the most powerful political movements of our age….Democracy is the standard by which governments are measured.We Americans make no secret of our belief in freedom. In fact, it’s something of a national pastime. Every 4 years the American people choose a new President, and 1988 is one of those years. At one point there were 13 major candidates running in the two major parties, not to mention all the others, including the Socialist and Libertarian candidates – all trying to get my job. About 1,000 local television stations, 8,500 radio stations, and 1,700 daily newspapers – each one an independent, private enterprise, fiercely independent of the Government – report on the candidates, grill them in interviews, and bring them together for debates. In the end, the people vote; they decide who will be the next President.But freedom doesn’t begin or end with elections.

Go to any American town, to take just an example, and you’ll see dozens of churches, representing many different beliefs – in many places, synagogues and mosques – and you’ll see families of every conceivable nationality worshiping together. Go into any schoolroom, and there you will see children being taught the Declaration of Independence, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights – among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – that no government can justly deny; the guarantees in their Constitution for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion. Go into any courtroom, and there will preside an independent judge, beholden to no government power. There every defendant has the right to a trial by a jury of his peers, usually 12 men and women – common citizens; they are the ones, the only ones, who weigh the evidence and decide on guilt or innocence. In that court, the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and the word of a policeman or any official has no greater legal standing than the word of the accused. Go to any university campus, and there you’ll find an open, sometimes heated discussion of the problems in American society and what can be done to correct them. Turn on the television, and you’ll see the legislature conducting the business of government right there before the camera, debating and voting on the legislation that will become the law of the land. March in any demonstration, and there are many of them; the people’s right of assembly is guaranteed in the Constitution and protected by the police. Go into any union hall, where the members know their right to strike is protected by law….

But freedom is more even than this. Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things.

And he came back to the basic purpose of democracy in the American context, not a plebiscitary system but a way to ensure that the governors don’t exceed the consent of the governed: “Democracy is less a system of government than it is a system to keep government limited, unintrusive; a system of constraints on power to keep politics and government secondary to the important things in life, the true sources of value found only in family and faith.”

He tied all of these freedoms to the American commitment to economic freedom as well. Throughout the speech he tried to enlighten students who had grown up under communism about the meaning of free enterprise:

Some people, even in my own country, look at the riot of experiment that is the free market and see only waste. What of all the entrepreneurs that fail? Well, many do, particularly the successful ones; often several times. And if you ask them the secret of their success, they’ll tell you it’s all that they learned in their struggles along the way; yes, it’s what they learned from failing. Like an athlete in competition or a scholar in pursuit of the truth, experience is the greatest teacher….

And that’s why it’s so hard for government planners, no matter how sophisticated, to ever substitute for millions of individuals working night and day to make their dreams come true. The fact is, bureaucracies are a problem around the world.

He even explained why China would one day, as President Obama said, lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty:

We are seeing the power of economic freedom spreading around the world — places such as the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have vaulted into the technological era, barely pausing in the industrial age along the way. Low-tax agricultural policies in the sub-continent mean that in some years India is now a net exporter of food. Perhaps most exciting are the winds of change that are blowing over the People’s Republic of China, where one-quarter of the world’s population is now getting its first taste of economic freedom.

President Obama said some important things to the Chinese students. But his continuing failure to mention the virtues of productive enterprise in a commencement address or to note the centrality of economic freedom in the American experiment could easily lead listeners to conclude that he really doesn’t care much for business and economic liberty.

A Georgian Constitution of Economic Liberty

The former Soviet Republic of Georgia is a late economic reformer, having started such liberalization after the Rose Revolution in 2004. But it is one of the most successful post-Soviet reformers, and it may be the country that has implemented the largest range of serious market reforms in the shortest period of time. Its growth rate from 2004 through 2008 averaged 7.6 percent per year (which includes the comparatively low 2.1 percent rate of 2008 that resulted from the global financial crisis and the war with Russia).

Last month, the government submitted a draft act to Parliament that calls for amending the country’s constitution so that it would safeguard various elements of economic freedom. The amendments would put caps on public debt, spending and deficits; and ban any kind of price controls, state ownership of banks and financial institutions and restrictions on currency convertibility, and any kind of control over the movement of capital. New taxes or increases in tax rates would require approval through a national referendum.

With the possible partial exception of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, I’m not aware of any other constitution that explicitly enshrines economic freedom. I’m told by Georgian colleagues that prospects for passage of the law looks good, with the constitution being amended as early as next month.

Sixty Years On, China Has Prosperity, Still Needs Freedom

China’s rise from an isolated state-controlled economy in 1949 to the world’s third largest economy with a vibrant nonstate sector is something to celebrate on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Under Deng Xiaoping, China’s transition from plan to market began in earnest in December 1978. For more than 30 years now, China has gradually removed barriers to a market system and increased opportunities for voluntary exchanges. Special economic zones, the end of communal farming, the rise of township and village enterprises, and the massive increase in foreign trade have enabled millions of people to lift themselves out of abject poverty.

Economic freedom has increased personal freedom, but the Chinese Communist Party has no intention of giving up its monopoly on power. China’s future will depend to a large extent on the path of political reform. Further strengthening of private property rights, including land rights, would create new wealth and a growing voice for limiting the power of government. It is doubtful that in another 60 years there will be single-party rule in China.

Congress to Lift the Travel Ban to Cuba?

Bloomberg News reports today that the U.S. House may pass a bill by the end of the year lifting the almost five-decade-old ban on travel to Cuba by American citizens. The step is long overdue. According to the article:

A group of House and Senate lawmakers proposed in March ending restrictions to allow all U.S. citizens and residents to travel to Cuba. [Rep. Sam Farr, a California Democrat] said the legislation, known as the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act,” also has enough votes to clear the Senate, where Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, and Republican Senator Michael Enzi of Wyoming introduced the legislation.

As Rep. Farr succinctly added, “If you are a potato, you can get to Cuba very easily, but if you are a person, you can’t, and that is our problem.”

“If you are a potato, you can get to Cuba very easily,” he said. “But if you are a person, you can’t, and that is our problem.”

I rebut a lot of what Sen. Dorgan has said about free trade and globalization in my new book, Mad about Trade, but on the issue of the Cuban embargo and travel ban, Sen. Dorgan and most of his fellow Democrats are pushing in the right direction, while most Republicans still vote to maintain our failed policies. For more on why the travel ban and embargo should be lifted, read my speech at Rice University in 2005.

Here is one issue where those of use who support less government and more economic freedom really can hope for progressive change.

Why Chile Is More Economically Free Than the United States

42-16335429In the 2009 Economic Freedom of the World Report, Chile is now #5, one place ahead of the United States.

In 1975, of 72 countries, Chile was No 71. How did this happen? The explanation lies in what I call the “Chilean Revolution,” because it was as important and transformative to my country as the celebrated American Revolution that gave birth to the United States.

The exceptional political circumstances of this period have obscured the fact that from 1975 to 1989 a true revolution took place in Chile, involving a radical, comprehensive, and sustained move toward economic and political freedom (from a starting point where there was neither one nor the other). This revolution not only doubled Chile’s historic rate of economic growth (to an average of 7% a year, 84-98),  drastically reduced poverty (from 45% to 15%), and introduced several radical libertarian reforms that set the country on a path toward rapid development; but it also brought democracy, restored limited government, and established the rule of law.

In 1998, The Los Angeles Times described the importance of the Chilean Revolution to the world:

In a sense, it all began in Chile. In the early 1970s, Chile was one of the first economies in the developing world to test such concepts as deregulation of industries, privatization of state companies, freeing of prices from government control, and opening of the home market to imports. In 1981, Chile privatized its social-security system. Many of those ideas ultimately spread throughout Latin America and to the rest of the world. They are behind the reformation of Eastern Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union today… which demonstrates, once again, the awesome power of ideas.

The role and achievements of Chile’s team of classical liberal economists is well known. They were the ones who in 1975, once the quasi-civil war was over, decided to carry out a principled, “friendly takeover” of the military government that had arisen from the breakdown of democracy in 1973 (here is my essay, published in “Society”, on that drama). Much less well-known, however, is that they were also the foremost proponents of a gradual and constitutional return to a limited democracy.

In fact, on August 8, 1980, a new Constitution, containing both a bill of rights and a timeline for the restoration of full political freedom, was proposed and approved in a referendum. In the period 1981-1989, what Fareed Zakaria has called the “institutions of liberty” were created—an  independent Central Bank, a Constitutional Court, private television and universities, voting registration laws, etc—since they were crucial for having not only elections but a democracy at the service of freedom. Then on March 11, 1990, an extraordinary event happened: the governing military Junta surrendered its power to a democratically elected government in strict accordance to the 1980 Constitution (here is my note on the restoration of democracy in Chile).

Since 1990, Chile has had four moderate center-left governments and, despite minor setbacks on tax, labor and regulation policies, the essence of the free-market reforms are still intact. The 1980 Constitution is the law of the land, and has been amended by consensual agreements among all parties represented in Congress. Not only is Chile now at the top of rankings on free trade (number 3 in the world after Hong Kong and Singapore) and transparency (less corruption that in most western European countries), but it is expected to be a developed country by 2018, the first in Latin America.

Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek proved, again, to have been a visionary when he stated in 1981: “Chile is now a great success. The world shall come to regard the recovery of Chile as one of the great economic miracles of our time.”

Monday Links

  • Burnt rubber: Obama’s decision to slap a 35 percent tariff on Chinese tires whiffs of senseless protectionism.

Entrepreneurship for Good

At last week’s Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Stockholm, Deirdre McCloskey argued that it was important for society to affirm entrepreneurship.  How right she is.

The economic benefits of the new technologies and processes constantly created by people with new economic ideas is obvious.  But the social benefits of such inventions also are enormous.

Consider James C. Marsters, who helped end the isolation of the deaf around the world.  The Wall Street Journal reported on his death:

As an orthodontist, a licensed pilot and a sometime-professional magician, James C. Marsters mastered fields challenging for anyone, even more so for a profoundly deaf person such as himself.

His greatest feat was to conjure the text telephone, or TTY, which for the first time gave deaf people independent access to the telephone via teletype machines. It was the first in a string of technologies that help deaf people communicate.

Mr. Marsters, who died July 28 at 85 years old, defied the isolation many deaf people of his generation experienced. He willed himself into the mainstream long before there were technologies and programs to help deaf people do so.

People like Marsters exemplify how the market encourages people to do good while doing well.  Markets are not perfect, nor are the entrepreneurs who drive them.  But then, human beings are not perfect.  However, human liberty – in the form of economic freedom in this context – is the best environment in which to foster a society that is both prosperous and good.