The title sounds like an oxymoron, but, as I once tried to explain to a group of young economic libertarians, it isn’t necessarily.
As one of them put it, “I thought when you free up the markets everything else will follow automatically.” In response I warned against the dangers of totalitarian economism, a term that often crops up in this space.
It’s possible, I argued, for reasonably free markets to coexist with tyranny. Economic freedom may be essential, but it’s certainly not sufficient. The youngsters looked at me with utter consternation.
In fact, looking at the entire complexity of life mainly from the standpoint of economics is a common element on which socialists and libertarians overlap.
Nationalise the means of production, claim the socialists, and everything else will follow. Socialism good, capitalism bad.
Privatise the means of production, object the libertarians, and everything else will follow. Capitalism good, socialism bad.
Like Orwell’s animals, both species reduce everything to a single issue. They just can’t agree on the number of legs.
Alas, libertarian fallacies are so deeply engrained that I don’t think I convinced my audience (I would have suffered a similar failure with socialists, but I never argue with them: they’re a lost cause.)
So much more thankful I am to my new friend Xi Jinping, who has kindly provided some empirical evidence for my argument. President Xi (funny he should use the newly fashionable impersonal pronoun for his surname) has submitted to whatever China’s legislative body is called a proposal that no limitation on the president’s terms in office should henceforth exist.
Since every proposal coming from Xi is automatically rubberstamped, that effectively makes him president for life, barring a successful coup. Such an arrangement is hard to reconcile with democracy or indeed liberty (I don’t use these words interchangeably).
And true enough, China’s government is an out and out tyranny, complete with severe limitations on civil liberties, unlawful prosecutions and whatnot. The cult of Xi’s personality is also growing apace.
Thus at the Nineteenth Congress of China’s Communist Party, held in October 2017, the Party Charter was augmented to include ‘thoughts of Xi Jinping’. Until then that honour had been bestowed only on Mao and Deng Xiaoping, so Xi is in good company.
However, China’s economy is reasonably free and getting freer. Plus there’s a sizeable middle class that too is growing.
The current development in China is closely paralleled in Russia, where the sham of democratic elections can’t conceal that Putin enjoys a similar job for life, again barring a coup or a popular uprising.
The two countries have much in common, and in fact Putin’s pet concept of Eurasia has since 2014 taken a marked turn towards Asia. I’m not sure if a meaningful alliance between the two powers is possible, given their widely divergent interests, and I rather hope it isn’t.
However, there’s more in common between the two presidents for life, and indeed their two countries, than either of them has with the West. Incidentally, both countries invest vast amounts in R&D, Russia mostly in weaponry, China across the board.
China contributes 20 per cent to the world’s R&D expenditure, making her second only to the US, and not by a wide margin. That sort of thing would be impossible without a great deal of economic freedom, which is so dear to my libertarian friends. And yet China is a tyranny.
Libertarians ought to realise that Homo economicus isn’t among the species of life’s fauna. Neither production nor consumption nor economic behaviour in general defines man and therefore society.
Man and therefore society can easily accommodate both political tyranny and economic liberty. It’s just that some tyrannies are too ossified to introduce a measure of elasticity, and some aren’t.
Mao’s tyranny had no room for private enterprise; Xi’s tyranny does. Thus Xi can control the populace without having to murder millions, and Mao couldn’t. But controlling the populace is the shared goal – only the methods are different.
Similarly, by transferring power from the ossified party to a more flexible blend of KGB and organised crime, Putin’s government can limit itself to murdering hundreds, thousands at most, rather than tens of millions. But there are no moral or, if you will, existential barriers that would prevent Putin from upping those numbers exponentially should the need arise – and that’s the case with Xi as well.
One can understand how most people are attracted to simplistic theories providing a total explanation of life. They don’t realise that the very fact such theories provide a total explanation of life means they’re false, for life is irreducible to simplistic formulas.
This goes for Marxism, socialism in general, Darwinism, Freudianism – and also for libertarianism. Propagation of such fallacies obviates the need to study widely and think deeply, thereby reducing man’s chances for grasping the truth and gaining freedom.
For, as we know, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Conversely, missing out on the truth means a life of intellectual servitude – with physical servitude lurking just round the corner.