For the 17th consecutive year, Hong Kong and Singapore finished one-two in the joint Wall Street Journal-Heritage Foundation global Index of Economic Freedom. Those weird results aren’t only reason for skepticism about these two US rightwing icons’ analysis.
Hong Kong’s designation as the world’s freest economy is questionable, especially to residents who deal with its cartels and other quirks. But casting Singapore as the world’s second freest economy is patently ridiculous. Heritage and the Journal would never abide by many of the Lion City’s economic policies – such as 35 percent of salaries going to a state investment fund run by the prime minister’s wife – or the government holding controlling stakes in nearly every sector of the local economy.
Writing about this apparent contradiction for Asia Times, I uncovered reasoning behind the strange results that says less about Singapore’s aberrant ranking than it does about US politics. The Heritage Foundation website explains succinctly: “In an economically free society, individuals are free to work, produce, consume, and invest in any way they please, with that freedom both protected by the state and unconstrained by the state.”
In other words, less government means more freedom. That’s the essential myth behind the rightwing’s appeal to the working class. It’s a compellingly simple idea that seems intuitive and undeniable, yet it’s completely misguided.
Rightwingers are fond of quoting the Declaration of Independence regarding inalienable rights. But they leave out what comes next: “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men…” It’s government that provides police, education, roads and other services that foster economic and other freedoms, and government that outlaws slavery. Without government, as seen in recent chaos in Cairo with police off the streets and the army present but inactive, no one has freedom.
In the economic arena, Hong Kong and Singapore don’t have competition laws, what Americans call anti-trust laws. Existing companies can legally conspire to prevent competitors from emerging, whether for business or other reasons. In one famous case, Hong Kong’s two major supermarket chains banded together against adMart, a startup founded by Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai, not just a potential competitor but an avowed enemy of Beijing. The incumbents reportedly told Coca-Cola and other brands their products would be unwelcome on their shelves if they supplied adMart.
You might think of that collusion as a blow to economic freedom, but the Journal and Heritage don’t. The established players were simply exercising the fundamental right of the rich to get richer. In their view, fair play – and government is only referee that can ensure fair play – is for losers. The economic freedom index reflects that perspective throughout. For example, the labor freedom category rates the difficulty of hiring and firing workers, legally mandated notice period and mandatory severance pay (counting less pay as more freedom), but doesn’t tabulate the right to organize or bargain collectively. That’s like rating freedom of expression by ease of censorship.
For Heritage and the Journal, what matters is the golden rule: whoever has the gold rules. There are several terms to describe that social order, but freedom isn’t one of them.
Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.