Tuesday, August 09, 2005

China and Saudi Arabia and Freedom

China and Saudi Arabia are two very different countries. Yet, recent articles in US News and World Report and The Economist, respectively, tell me that they're in similar places, developmentally.

Each nation is governed by oppressive, totalitarian regimes. The governing elites in both places are striving to create wealth and so, placate people's desire for economic well-being. At the same time, the Saud family and the Communist Party are trying to hold onto dictatorial power and institute window-dressing democracy.

In their respective efforts, the Chinese and Saudi governments are betting that traditional Marxist theorists and some apologists for market capitalism are right in saying that the behaviors of human beings are always and solely economically determined. In essence, the totalitarians in both Beijing and Riyadh are hoping that they can buy off their citizenry; that people will accept oppression as long as they get another week of vacation, a nicer house, a new car, and plenty of Pepsi in the refrigerator.

Frankly, I don't think that it will work. As David McCullough shows in his newest book, 1776, the most materially well-off people in the world when the United States declared its independence from Great Britain were the people of America. And while some of the reasons for the American Revolution were economic, at their core, even they had a deeper motive: The desire for freedom that's about more than fattening our wallets or sating our bellies.

When people taste economic freedom, it creates a concomitant desire for freedom in other aspects of their lives: Freedom of speech, of religion, of vocation, of assembly, and of self-governance, to name a few. Economic freedom unleashes what used to be called a "revolution of rising expectations" in more than simply the economic sphere of life.

In a sense, the crying need in places like China and Saudi Arabia is the opposite of the greatest need we have in America. Here, and to varying degrees in the rest of the democratic West, there is a need to learn the distinction between democracy and license, or what the Founders called "mobocracy."

Freedom without a sense of mutual responsibility, whether in our personal interaction or in the policies of government, is its own form of tyranny.

Even as I hope and pray for greater freedom for people in China and Saudi Arabia, I hope and pray that all of us in the West won't lose our freedom by means of "anything-goes-ism."

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