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Why Free Societies Throw Their Success Away

By: Javier Garay - @Crittiko - Nov 22, 2013, 4:21 pm

EspañolIt is easy to find a causal relationship between a lack of freedom and underdevelopment. In fact, this relationship can account for a great deal of the economic failure in Latin America, Africa, and some Asian countries. Unfortunately, many of these poorer societies — stuck with closed economic and social models, characterized by statism and a loss of individual autonomy — have political representatives who implement these policies out of democratic necessity.

What is more difficult to understand, however, is why societies that have succeeded in consolidating their ideals of freedom, with great effort, may decide to retrace their steps.

I say effort, because placing limits on the state and broadening the scope of individual autonomy has not stemmed from powerbrokers’ initiatives, rather from decades, even centuries, of pressure and struggle. Examples are the separation of church and state, the recognition of property rights, and the founding of the United States.

Several historical advances, including those mentioned above, have consolidated the ideals of freedom which, among other benefits, have allowed society members to enjoy economic success. The United States and much of the Western Europe are good examples.

At some point, though, despite their success, many members of these societies decide to retrace their steps. For a long time now, Europeans have decided, for example, to rely on a bloated welfare state, as well as regulation of an ever greater number of social and economic issues which formerly belonged in the private sphere. Similarly, US society appears to be following the statist path in the name of security; during the past few years, particularly since Barack Obama took office, too many US Americans have led the country to follow Europe’s foolish example.

Over the past few weeks, the outcomes of two elections have been exponents of this trend. On the one hand, the office of the mayor of New York City went to Bill de Blasio, a Democrat whom can be described, without exaggeration, as a left-wing populist who played around with the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. On the other hand, on November 17, Chileans gave a punishing first-round victory to the socialist candidate, Michelle Bachelet, whose radicalized speech and proposals have shifted towards Marxism and restructuring the country.

New York — this city represents the success of Western culture and, therefore, of freedom to consolidate economic success. As for Chile, it is the only Latin-American country that shares nothing but geographic proximity with its neighbors, since it has succeeded in adopting liberal policies and developing at an impressive pace. Both, however, have shown a gradual but ever greater rejection of the values and practices that made them great and allowed them to solve the wealth-creation problem.

That begs the question, what are the reasons behind such a withdrawal? Do individuals living in free societies simply become “tired” of freedom?

Although the paths vary, experience shows that this is the trend in most societies: the more a nation’s or society’s wealth increases, the more people seem to tolerate or even welcome a greater role for the state in conducting other people’s lives as well as their own.

Allow me to propose two potential explanations. The first may be a problem with democracy itself, its tendency towards phony, short-term, and utopian presentations of options. In most cases, anti-liberal political platforms have come to power because they propose objectives which, though desirable, can only be conceived as a result of state action.

The best example may be education: I can assume we all agree that education should be accessible to everyone — but there are many approaches to reaching that outcome. However, the alternatives are not part of the dialogue. The knee-jerk conclusion, and fatal promise, is that the state is the only one that can accomplish the objective.

The second explanation is a positive one, even though its manifestation is not. Wealthy societies demonstrate that human beings have a tendency to cooperate with others and feel empathy for those who do not enjoy well-being. However, the members wrongly assume that they should channel that sentiment through the state.

While there are other reasons, the above offer wisdom for the battle of ideas. If we are to discuss political alternatives, we must appeal not only to economic, dispassionate reasoning but also to emotions, the positives intentions that so many have. The affirmation will be that more freedom, both in economic social terms, is a guarantee of human flourishing — for both cooperation and solidarity.

Javier Garay Javier Garay

Javier Garay is a professor at the Externado University of Colombia. He has written two books on international issues, such as development, after his doctoral dissertation focused on the same topic. Follow him on Twitter @crittiko and through his personal blog, Crittiko.