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Monday, June 19, 2017

Two essential freedoms

Alamgir Mohiuddin :
If one looks at the western civilisation  and the dominant role it plays in the world, the image that inevitably emerge is that of great freedoms they enjoy. The  freedoms they practise are economic freedom and political freedom. In a way they are interwoven or, as some economist said, two sides of the same coin.
They thought so because the western civilisation flourished when it was free. It is true from both historical and logical perspectives. Numerous investiagations and studies have shown that one of major determinants of living standard and various indicators of social growth is economic freedom. But this freedom is inextricably linked to  political freedom. In other words, if there is no political freedom, there will be no economic freedom and vice versa.
Political freedom is based on the fundamentals that an individual should have liberty to pursue his or her own ends as he or she thinks fit. This is also the essence of economic freedom. Economic freedom ensures independent political action possible. Therefore, all political actions have in their back the driving force of  free economy. Will this political move affect the economy and make people unhappy? This question comes first before any pragmatic political move is made. Frederic Bastiat in his book "The Law" said: Political economy precedes politics-the former has to discover whether human interests are harmonious or antagonistic, a fact which must be settled before the latter can determine the prerogatives of the government.
That is why it is stated that 'Economic freedom is the foundation of all freedoms'. It is evident from history that people rose in revolt and lent total support to anyone who protested or opposed  any move to wrest away people's economic freedom. History also shows that human progress was not a product of any constitution, bills of rights, laws or statutes. Those laws or documents only aimed at safeguarding liberty and freedom firmly established by the market economy, against the encroachments on the part of government or any other usurpers. These wisdoms always offer power holders the way to pass law or even constitutional amendments, if they wanted peace and stay in power. Political and economic liberty will be wasted as long as the economic freedom is usurped by the government. Thus economics not only triumphs politics, it determines its very form.
Insight from this portray the picture of a country. If the people have economic freedom, the politics that will be predominant is one geared to the welfare of people and the progress of the country.
So the level of economic freedom is the product of fights between two sets of politicians. Both are vote seekers. One set attempts to buy votes by providing interest groups with special benefits through subsidies, regulations and tax breaks, the other set appeals for votes by making public aware of the cost of the policies advocated by their opponents. These fights sometime lead to national crises leading to change in political scenerio, such as the collapse of Czarist regime in Russia, the great depression in the United states.
The issue of economy is also the darling child of extremist forces such as international organisations and financial institutions who want to control a society or country without physical occupation.
Interestingly, economy is also the core issue for all governments of the world. This dates back to the creation of empires. Governments interevene in economy with the mistaken belief that government alone can improve the lives of the people. This intervention is often coercive, maintained by police power of the state. The government intervention in economy, thus, only limits the freedom of people to make choice about their daily economic activities. This intervention only takes away people's freedom. For example, various government agencies control workings of private organisations under arbitrarily established codes and principles with little concern to the people affected. These codes are often based on questionable research or pure assumptions. According to a study, the Environmental Protection Agency in USA shut down various industries that conflicted with the interest of the government or special groups that supports the agency. This practice is followed almost universally, the study says, leading to increase in unemployment.
How the scenerio can be changed? Economist Milton Friedman suggested : The preservation of freedom is the protective reason for limiting and decentralising governmental power. But there is also a constructive reason. The great advances of civilisation, whether in architecture, or painting, in science or literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralised government. Columbus did not set out to seek a new route to China in response to a directive from parliament; though he was partly financed by an absolute monarch, Newton and Leibniz; Einestein and Bohr, Shakespeare, Milton and Pasternak; Whitney, McCormich, Edison and Ford; Jane Adams, Florene Nightingale and Albert Schwietzer; none of them who opened new frontiers of human knowledge and understanding in literature,  in technical possibilities, or in relief of human misery, in response to government directives. Their achievements were the product of individual genius, of strongly held minority views, of a social climate permitting variety and diversity. (Milton friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, Chicago (1962) pp-3-4.). Here Friendman has beautifully protrayeel how freedom helps one's own end to pursue his motives. He is not referring to Freedom or privilege of electing leaders. He refers to the Freedom to be left alone to pursue one's own motive. In earlier days, the political Freedom was considered to be its ability to limit the governmental power and to protect individual autonomy. Political freedom thus ensured economic freedom. And this economic freedom inspired mankind to the achievements on which modern civilisation is founded. To sum it up, the prosperity and power that western countries today enjoy is not  the result of government action. Regrettably the present day system has systematically robbed individual freedom which was the foundation of present civilisation. This freedom helped in the past conquer poverty, ignorance and mesery. Now it is undermined through various forces.
All over the world, both economic and political freedoms are either being squeezed or controlled through endless rules, laws and regulations or used to empower and enrich a small section of people. These people are constantly working to ensure a state where common people are kept in darkness about their rights and privilges. The result is widespread inequality. Often this lack of freedom is breeding unrest in the society and the power that be, describes it as one that need not attract attention.
The first casualty of these mechanisms is the freedom of press. But Press Freedom is essential foundation to attain economic and political freedom.
According to annual study of press freedom by the Freedom House (FH) global press freedom declined to its lowest level in 13 years in 2016 amid unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies of the world and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media, including beyond their borders.
The report said only 13 percent world population enjoy a free press. In these counties media coverage of political event is robust, safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimum and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressure. Forty five percent world population live in countries where media is not free. The worlds 10 worst-rated counties and territories were Azerbaijan, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkemenistan and Uzbekistan. Politicians in some countries like Poland and Hungary shaped news coverage  through different kind of manipulation. This is general scenario all over the world.
The FH gave one example which is how the US President disparaged the press, rejecting the media's role in holding government to account for their words and actions . Some 3-4 billion people live in countries rated not free in 2017.
The 2017 index of Economic Freedom released by Heritage Foundation, said that 49 countries achieved highest level of freedom while it declined in 73 countries. Situation in the third world was shown to be critical in many cases. The question, therefore, is whether these twin essentials for human living will eventually be lost under various pretext. Hope is that such situations were defeated or diffused again and again in the past as people united to oppose it. And it will hopefully be repeat to thwart current manipulations.
-- The author is a former Editor of the New Nation and currently Editor of he Naya Diganta