The Freedom Trade-Off

The Diplomat speaks with John Kampfner about the trade-offs between prosperity, consumer power and public and private freedoms.

Your book describes the global phenomenon of people willing to give up their freedoms in return for an easy, comfortable life. You suggest that we’d all make this trade-off, regardless of the political system we’re in. Could you name some of what you think are the most striking examples of this?

The trade-off applies equally to countries that are long-established democracies and those that have a recent totalitarian or authoritarian past. In the UK, for example, the population was seemingly entirely comfortable with giving up all civil liberties from ID cards, to plans for a universal DNA database, to a surveillance state that allowed local councils to eavesdrop on phone calls and emails if they suspected citizens were being irresponsible in the way they threw away their garbage.

In Italy, people voted not once, but three times, for Silvio Berlusconi, in spite of his systematic assault on the independence of the judiciary and media, and the emasculation of parliament. Why? As long as they continued to enjoy the ‘private freedoms’—the freedom to lead their atomized lives as they pleased—and as long as they could aspire to great wealth and consumer power, people were quite happy to give back their ‘public freedoms.’

How does this apply to your country of birth, Singapore, which was described in the 1960s as a ‘cesspool of squalor and degradation’ but which now has one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world, and is often ranked very highly for indicators such as health and quality of life?

Singapore is the model for the pact. It’s no surprise that authorities from China to the Middle East and beyond go there to learn the secrets of its success. What I have long found intriguing is the extent to which Singaporeans I know, well-travelled with high-flying degrees and jobs, extol the virtues of the trade-off. They do so willingly, having experienced the more politically open alternatives elsewhere, but see virtues in their state’s very different approach towards the rights of the individual.

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Kishrore Mahbubani has said that these ‘authoritarian capitalist’ states are delivering ‘modernity’ to their countries and are characterized by good governance, growth and the rule of law. Would you say it’s such a bad thing, then, for people to be content with prosperity and stability?

I have great respect for Kishore, and indeed spoke to him in detail during my research for the book. The National University of Singapore even hosted an event to publicise my book in Singapore, an act I found extraordinary given that earlier on the Singapore government had twice denounced me for writing it. Therein lies the dilemma and the difficult dynamic for Singapore and similarly-minded states. They know that countries prosper when individuals are allowed the intellectual space to explore and to ask difficult questions. At the same time they are trying to control this process. Can systems such as Singapore and China turn on and off the tap of criticism and argument? This question will be crucial to the development of these states.

Is it such a bad thing for people to be content with private freedoms, security and prosperity? Especially if the alternative might be chaos or poverty?

For societies that enjoyed neither public nor private freedoms before – the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century—any progress towards greater liberty is to be praised. Russians who are free to travel, or Chinese who are free to wear the clothes they wish or choose the partners they wish, are not being ‘deprived.’ The more culpable are citizens of the West who have enjoyed both, but who appear so nonchalant about their public rights. The right to operate freely in the public/political realm may not be the first priority; nor is it an optional extra. Least of all it should not be seen as a concomitant to chaos or poverty, although I admit that many citizens have accepted this argument, as propagated by their governments.

The new UK government has decided to scrap ID cards, review counter-terrorism laws, take innocent people’s information off the police DNA database and restrict use and access to surveillance cameras. What do you make of all this?

The decision by the new Conservative-Liberal government to repeal some of the excesses of its predecessor is a welcome development. It’s part of a broader philosophy of reducing the size of the state. Whether it marks a fundamental reappraisal of the rights of the individual in more sensitive areas such as criminal justice and state security is another matter. What is so sad for people like me who count themselves, in Western terms, as being of the centre-left, is how the former Labour administration was so cavalier about civil liberties. Indeed, its hostile response to these first tentative changes suggests that it has learnt little.

There has been a lot of coverage of the labour disputes in China recently, which have prompted some pay rises. There were strikes at Honda and Hyundai factories, while Foxconn offered its workers a 70 percent wage rise. This is a significant improvement, but is still barely enough for workers to live on. Is it really reasonable to expect these people to be agitating for free expression or democracy?

China has handled the economic downturn that followed the banking crisis with great dexterity. Predictions of workers’ uprisings, particularly in the south, did not come to pass. Nevertheless, the strains remain, and the first manifestation of increased emancipation is wage demands.

Much harder to predict is whether the demand for higher living standards will necessary manifest itself into a demand for greater political rights. In the early 90s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Barrington Moore’s thesis was all the rage: the bigger the middle class, the greater the economic freedom, so authoritarian states would collapse under the weight of these pressures. Strikingly, this hasn’t happened, posing a difficult challenge for theorists of Western-style democratization.

You wrote your book a couple of years ago now. Has anything happened since that has reinforced or made you reconsider your views?

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When I was finishing my book, the banking crisis was at its peak. My immediate task was to determine whether the pact that I was describing pertained to a specific era that had started in 1989 and that had, perhaps, come to an end with the fall of Lehman Brothers and the demise of what I called the globalised consumer glut. I forecast that it had not come to an end and that, once economies had dug their way out of recession, business would return to usual, and societies would continue to model themselves on the pact. In other words, the pact continues to this day, having emerged relatively unscathed from what might have been an existential threat.

John Kampfner is the author of ‘Freedom for Sale: How we Made Money and Lost Our Liberty’ and chief executive of Index on Censorship,a leading organization that probes abuses of freedom of expression. Interview by Jenghiz von Streng.