Lee Yee: The Idea of Liberty is Western

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Whereas yesterday I discussed the real significance of “colony” for China, today I wish to make a more theoretical discussion. The famous Austrian philosopher Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) once wrote an article entitled “The Idea of Liberty is Western” [American Affairs 12 (October, 1950), 207-211], where he advocated that the idea of liberty today is, and has always been, a unique Western idea which was never developed by Eastern people.

The Greek historian Thucydides said: “The secret to happiness is freedom” [II, 2.43]. There is another line following this one: “The secret of freedom is courage.” The history of Western civilization is an unyielding struggle for freedom.

Human society cannot exist without a coercive mechanism to stop the undermining actions against society of those arrogant people and, likewise, it cannot exist without countries or government. But from here a question arises: How to prevent those in control of the government from abusing their power and make all the other people become de facto slaves? The goal of fighting for freedom is to restrict state, rulers, and police violence. Freedom always means free from the arbitrary acts of police force.

The idea of freedom was first developed in the city states of Greece. Greek philosophers passed on their idea of freedom to the Romans, who later transmitted it to modern Europe and America. The reason behind all modern government and judiciary systems is to protect individual freedoms from government aggression. The purpose of a representative government, the rule of law, court independence, habeas corpus, judicial review, freedom of speech and assembly, division of powers, and many other institutions is only one: to restrain the discretionary powers of officials –such as a returning officer adjudicating eligible candidates– in order to protect individuals from the whims of the officials.

Mises stated that Eastern people had been incredibly successful in the last thousands of years in arts, craft, architecture, literature, or philosophy. Yet, they have been stalled there, with Eastern cultures becoming number and duller; its people losing their vitality and spirit, becoming indifferent to their growing decline and poverty. For centuries, no remarkable books had been produced in the East. The controversies and problems that stimulated the West were unknown in the East. Whereas there were riots in Europe, the East remained stagnated, lazy, and indifferent. The reason is clear: the East lacked the most basic thing: the idea of freedom from state coercion. The flag of freedom never raised in the East. The East never even tried to emphasize the right of individuals to be protected from the power of the ruler. It never doubted the overbearingness of the authoritarian tyrant. It never created a legal framework to protect private citizens’ wealth from its confiscation from the ruler. On the contrary, everybody supported the ruler’s confiscation of wealth from successful merchants. Because of this, large accumulation of capital was suppressed and the bourgeoisie was unable to grow.

The ideas of humanism and freedom once appeared in pre-Qin China, but after the First Emperor of Qin’s unification of China and the implementation of despotism, China continued to have a despotic government for two thousand years, up to this day. The special point here is their “blood politics”: to focus on the transfer of power among relatives or to acquaintances who have an intimate relationship with the ruler. If anyone wished to succeed, the only way is to climb up by serving the ruler. Connections are better than knowledge. Whether the society is calm or not, whether the people live and work in peace or not, it was all up to the ruler’s sincerity. For two thousand years and up to this day, the persistent ghost of slavery has already permeated the blood of the Chinese people; but one hundred or three hundred years of Western colonial education are not enough to clean from their blood their deep-rooted servitude to the ruler.

When Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred, many previously decent people keeled down to power just like clowns –the reason was the failure of the Eastern people’s under a despotic government to realize their lack of an idea of freedom.

 

Originally published in Apple Daily.

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