Economic and political crises have often led to attacks on freedom. During the Great Depression all the major economies restricted trade by raising tariffs. This knee-jerk reaction only aggravated geo-political tensions and further increased economic hardship. The emergence of radical socialist regimes led to total oppression of civil, political and economic liberties in half the world.
More recently, the events of 9/11 and the US reaction have set in motion policies that have sacrificed freedom in an attempt to increase security. Similarly, the global financial crisis that began in 2008, and which was also germinated on US soil, has been followed by increasing controls, regulations and protections. Instead of relying on the creative destruction principle of free markets, governments on both sides of the Atlantic have used huge amounts of taxpayers’ money to bail out failing businesses.
Threats to freedom abound. A quarter of a century ago, the world embraced ‘glasnost’ in the Soviet Union and then celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. But new challenges have now emerged in the form of neo-nationalism in Europe and radicalism in the Middle East. Both trends will reduce freedom if they go unchecked. In Europe, this reversion to nationalism, and even racism, is taking place despite a relatively high degree of political freedom – a functioning democracy exists. In the Middle East, the rise of religious radicalism is less surprising – neither market nor democracy is in good shape.
Despite these problems, individuals in the 21st century are in many respects freer than their predecessors in the previous century. The information and communication technology revolution has brought down all kinds of barriers. In China, for example, Li Chengpeng is a prominent writer and social critic: his Sina Weibo blog has nearly six million followers. And, during the Arab Spring, social media helped bring about widespread political and social progress. If information is power, then information technology has empowered the individual. Geographical boundaries remain, but they are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
In this context, the publication of Eamonn Butler’s monograph could not be more timely. Foundations of a Free Society is a welcome addition to the family of modern primers on liberty. Butler’s unique skill lies in his ability to express complex and highly influential ideas in plain English. He also successfully undermines the arguments of critics and opponents with real-world examples that illustrate his ideas and support the theoretical arguments.
This Occasional Paper is therefore an excellent introductory text for those who would like to understand the basic principles of a free society. It will be particularly helpful for those promoting freedom in countries where these principles remain largely unknown, as well as for those protecting freedom in places where traditional liberties are under assault.
Click here to read the complete translated book Foundations of Free Society