January 28, 2005

EITHER IS ACCEPTABLE, NEITHER ISN'T:

The Market Shall Set You Free (ROBERT WRIGHT, 1/28/05, NY Times)

LAST week President Bush again laid out a faith-based view of the world and again took heat for it. Human history, the president said in his inaugural address, "has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty." Accordingly, America will pursue "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world" - and Mr. Bush has "complete confidence" of success. Critics on the left and right warned against grounding foreign policy in such naïve optimism (a world without tyrants?) and such unbounded faith.

But the problem with the speech is actually the opposite. Mr. Bush has too little hope, and too little faith. He underestimates the impetus behind freedom and so doesn't see how powerfully it imparts a "visible direction" to history. This lack of faith helps explain some of his biggest foreign policy failures and suggests that there are more to come.

Oddly, the underlying problem is that this Republican president doesn't appreciate free markets. Mr. Bush doesn't see how capitalism helps drive history toward freedom via an algorithm that for all we know is divinely designed and is in any event awesomely elegant. Namely: Capitalism's pre-eminence as a wealth generator means that every tyrant has to either embrace free markets or fall slowly into economic oblivion; but for markets to work, citizens need access to information technology and the freedom to use it - and that means having political power.

This link between economic and political liberty has been extolled by conservative thinkers for centuries, but the microelectronic age has strengthened it. Even China's deftly capitalist-yet-authoritarian government - which embraces technology while blocking Web sites and censoring chat groups - is doomed to fail in the long run. China is increasingly porous to news and ideas, and its high-tech political ferment goes beyond online debates. Last year a government official treated a blue-collar worker high-handedly in a sidewalk encounter and set off a riot - after news of the incident spread by cell phones and text messaging.

You won't hear much about such progress from neoconservatives, who prefer to stress how desperately the global fight for freedom needs American power behind it (and who last week raved about an inaugural speech that vowed to furnish this power). And, to be sure, neoconservatives can rightly point to lots of oppression and brutality in China and elsewhere - as can liberal human-rights activists. But anyone who talks as if Chinese freedom hasn't grown since China went capitalist is evincing a hazy historical memory and, however obliquely, is abetting war. Right-wing hawks thrive on depicting tyranny as a force of nature, when in fact nature is working toward its demise.


Except that the President has quite specifically supported liberalized trade with China as away of fostering freedom there and is working with Libya, as it liberalizes, rather than reflexively including it on the Axis of Evil. The problem for Mr. Wright's theory is that those we're treating as enemies are no more liberalizing economically than politically, while no one who's doing either is being treated as an enemy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 28, 2005 7:38 AM
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