China, America, and the Future of Liberty

William R. Thomas
Issue CCXXXII - January 15, 2010
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Question from a reader: What do Objectivists make of the hypothesis that China (or some other country following a similar trend) could be where one should consider throwing one's lot in? China is trending towards liberty, while the U.S. is precipitously trending away from liberty.

Answered by William R Thomas:

Objectivism advocates a free society and universal moral values. At root, it is not tied to any particular country, people, or culture. Still, America remains a good bet, and China still has a long, long way to go to become a free society.

What makes America special

Ayn Rand came to the United States seeking freedom and a society open to happiness and achievement. If her biographer Anne Heller is right, Rand envisioned America as a beacon of liberty and individualism—as against all of Europe—before she ever set foot in the U.S. According to Heller (Ayn Rand and World She Made p. 48–49), around 1924 Rand outlined a novel about “a beautiful, spirited American heiress who lures Europe’s greatest men to follow her to America.” (Fans of Atlas Shrugged, take note!) And Rand knew from moment she saw first saw New York’s soaring skyline, in 1926, that America stood for her ideals made real. It was a conclusion that was only deepened by learning American history.

America is distinctively a country founded not as a nation-state, but as an a-religious, ideological republic. Its ideology is summarized by the famous principle that each individual has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The principles of America’s founding call each generation to reconsider what those rights are, but “liberty” is the basic idea America still stands for and to which Americans refer when they think of their country.  

Of course, Americans also think of football, baseball, hamburgers, and hot-dogs when they think of their country. They think of hip-hop, rock’n’roll, and jazz.  They think of freeways and stock car racing. There are indeed those who want to define America as an anglo-sphere nation, as one defined by its racial and cultural characteristics, more than any political or moral idea.

Despite Objectivists’ long-time defense of core American values and of America as a free country, let us be clear that if the United States were not one of the freest societies in the world, or were it obvious that the United States was doomed to turn oppressive, then no Objectivist could continue to support the U.S. government or culture—as long as he  remained true to objectivity and individualism. In fact, Ayn Rand portrays a situation like that in Atlas Shrugged, where a rebellion of the talented brings down the entire U.S. social system, government and all (though it is even worse for the rest of the world).

China: then and now 

China, unlike the U.S, is an imperial nation state, overlaid with a Communist/Leninist political system. To be Chinese is to be part of a people, a race. It is not to embrace an idea. Over the past couple thousand years, China has regularly been one of the most technologically advanced economies on earth (some argue that China experienced a nascent industrial revolution in the boom years of the Song Dynasty—around 1000 AD).

When Europeans came to trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, they sought the finest products from China—silks, porcelains, etc.—but what did Europeans sell there? Opium, like Bolivians dealing cocaine to the U.S. today. That’s how advanced China was even at such a late date. China’s 20th-century status as a third-rate civilization was never likely to last.

Under Mao Zedong in the 1950s and 1960s, China’s culture was cut off at the knee-caps. What remained were only roots of language and fundamental values onto which a graft of communist ideology was attached. Since the economic reforms began there in the 1980s, China has rediscovered the world. It is booming now, as the talents of hundreds of millions of intelligent, hard-working, decent people have been liberated from unconscionable oppression and enforced poverty. It is playing furious catch-up with the rest of the world, and the quality of life is improving by leaps and bounds as the institutions of liberal capitalism spread there.

Where does freedom really ring?

Nevertheless, the United States remains one of the very freest countries in the world. China is not. This is shown in economic terms in the most recent “Economic Freedom of the World” rankings, which survey the degree to which government restrictions, taxes, and legal structures embrace liberty or do not. Here are the top ten most free countries from 2007, from worst to best:

United Kingdom and Australia (tied for 9th most free)
Canada (8th)
Ireland (7th)
United States (6th)
Chile (5th)
Switzerland (4th )
New Zealand (3rd)
Singapore (2nd)
Hong Kong (1st)

Hong Kong, which became free as a British colony, is now legally part of China. But politically and institutionally, it remains worlds apart.

Where is China itself ranked, apart from Hong Kong? 82nd — just about as economically free as Russia. And if we throw political freedom into the mix, China would rank even lower (Hong Kong is not politically free, either, though it respects freedom of speech and assembly to a degree unheard of in the rest of China.)

China’s economy is roaring these days, even while the rich-country economies sputter. But China is still so far behind the rest of the world that profits can be made there producing at a fraction of the efficiency of most first-world firms. China has almost four times as many people as the U.S. Yet the Chinese economy is smaller in total than America’s, still.

The authors of the Economic Freedom of the World report observe that generally, it is the freest countries that are the richest and grow the fastest (even taking into account the rapid growth of liberalizing countries like China). This stands to reason: until and unless people in free countries give up on rationality and trying to be happy, economic freedom will continue to unleash their creativity and productivity to work wonders. Economic competition exerts a gentle social pressure that encourages continual improvement even among the best and most successful firms. “Innovate or die,” is a slogan for free-world businesses. “Embrace capitalism and flourish,” should be the slogan for free-world individuals.

America continues to be a beacon to the world because of what it openly stands for, because of its size, and because of what it still is. Is America the freest country in the world overall? No, it may have been nudged out of the top spot lately by Switzerland, Chile, or New Zealand, as it was in 2001 when we last published our “Lands of Liberty” survey of full individual freedom worldwide. But it’s close enough so that it still makes no difference. And among those minor players, America remains indispensible.

As you note, things have looked brighter in the U.S. We are in the midst of a terrible, grinding battle of political attrition, one that tests our commitment to liberty and reason every day. Forces on the Left and the Right both pander to narrow pressure groups and grab onto any and all measures to hold onto power—screaming “Terrorist” to extend police privileges on the one hand, or railing against the “corrosive power of money in politics” to get laws passed that suck the life out of our freedom of speech on the other.

China continues an ongoing process of economic reform, lurching politically onwards from “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” to a 21st-century Chinese capitalism. With this continues as well a large measure of legal reform. But will political freedom come, too? It has in most other developed Asian countries, so one would think so. But nothing is inevitable in human affairs. The very history of China the last two centuries is proof that the present is no prediction of the future.

The sleeping giants of the world, China and India, are joining modernity at last. Nowhere will the ideas of Objectivism be more relevant or more needed. Modern society cannot exist where traditional, pre-modern ideas hold sway. But what will take the place of tradition as Asia modernizes? There is the universal truth that reality exists and that to live is a choice we make. Recognize these facts, make that choice, and a philosophy of life can be sketched out before you: the philosophy of Objectivism. It’s not American. It’s not Western. It’s not Chinese. It’s universal.

I hope Objectivists end up having many free countries to choose among. If the U.S. isn’t among them one day, so be it. But that day hasn’t come yet.

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