The Enlightened Caveman


Economic Freedom Versus Political Freedom
February 1, 2006, 5:27 pm
Filed under: Books, Culture and Society, Economics, Politics

Original Post (with comments)
Milton Friedman wrote in, Capitalism and Freedom, that it is possible to have economic freedom without political freedom, but that the opposite is impossible. That makes pretty good sense, but what he didn’t talk about was what might happen in a place where economic freedom exists and political freedom does not. It appears that we may soon find out.

Reuters is reporting that some Chinese villages have recently resorted to violence to deal with factories that are polluting rural farmlands. (Click here for the article.)

After chemical plants set up shop in a nearby industrial park, residents of this farming town in China’s wealthy coastal province of Zhejiang pressed authorities to shut them down, complaining that waste was polluting their crops and river. Using China’s centuries-old method of petitioning, they took complaints first to local authorities, then to city officials, and finally all the way to the central government, more than 600 miles away in Beijing.

“None of it achieved any results,” said one resident, who asked not to be named. For five years, frustration built. Then, as the villagers in Huashui, near the Zhejiang city of Dongyang, moved to block the road leading to the plant, their frustration exploded. “Ordinary people don’t have any other way. It was only by not letting the workers in that we could stop the factory from producing,” said the resident. She gestures at the landscape where plants making everything from chemicals to zippers are encroaching on what was once some of China’s most fertile farmland. The blockade escalated into a full-scale riot involving as many as 30,000 people. Thousands of police had to be called in from neighboring towns to put it down. Yet, after years of fruitless petitioning, the riot worked.

Interesting, huh? It looks as if China’s supersonic expansion has extended out of the industrial areas and into the countryside, where many of the new facilities are causing serious problems for the local inhabitants. This, in itself, is not particularly surprising.

Commercial growth is often at odds with people who are resistant to change. Sometimes these people are justified in their resistance. In that case, in politically free places, those people have recourse. They can appeal to their leaders to address their grievances. For example, here in Atlanta, the City Council is considering (and will likely pass) a moratorium on building new residences in much of the city. Click here for the article.

The impetus for this is complaints by many long-time residents that their property taxes are skyrocketing due to the continuous building of “McMansions.” You see, Atlanta is somewhat unique in the sense that there are quite a few nice greenspace neighborhoods scattered in and around the commercial areas of the city. Most of the homes in many of those neighborhoods are fairly small. They’re well maintained, but they’re small. So builders are coming in, knocking them down, and replacing them with larger, more elaborate homes. Some folks don’t like it, so they’ve appealed to their political leaders for help. Putting aside the arguments for or against prohibiting this practice, one thing is clear – our politically free society is working as it is supposed to.

But not in China. In China, the political leaders are all about stability – they’ll do anything to keep from rocking the boat. In this case, that means ignoring complaints and hoping they’ll just go away. This is because the Chinese government is in a very precarious situation. As more and more Chinese people get a taste of the prosperity that comes with economic growth, the ability of the Chinese government to maintain a docile population is deteriorating rapidly. Now they’re seeing what happens when political freedom does not accompany economic freedom.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, I like the idea that the people are starting to take matters into their own hands. However, for now, the need for political expediency on the part of China’s leaders is winning the day, which is why these riots were successful. As this trend continues, things will have to come to a head. The Chinese government will have to decide what they’re willing to do to keep things as they are. The result may be another Tiananman Square, or the result may be capitulation. My money is on the former.

Are we witnessing the beginning of a Chinese revolution? If so, then I hope the people win. Politically freedom is an absolute prerequisite for an enlightened society. Alas, history is not on their side. In any case, keep your eyes on China, folks. It’s gonna get dicey.

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