Recently a friend of mine, who also happens to be a libertarian, asked me why I would like to move to Hong Kong, given the increasing loss of liberties at the hands of the zealots of the Chinese Communist Party. He also suggested a couple of alternative places, one of them being Singapore. In fact, many libertarians see Hong Kong and Singapore –the former less and less referred– as some kind of free-market utopias because, for the most part, these are good places to do business. They are also known, as many socialists love to remind us, for their lack of freedom, especially freedom of expression, which includes criticism of the government, ethnic groups, and a wide range of different topics. The media is almost controlled by the government and the Internet is heavily controlled and slightly censored. And the same can be told about Hong Kong.
Many libertarians think that promoting free-market is enough, either because other liberties will naturally follow (not always) or, simply, because freedom of speech does not affect their business. They are happy if they have open frontiers, low taxes, respect for private property, and a minimal trade and investment freedom. I would like to argue that societies losing those secondary liberties (freedom of speech, freedom of religious association, etc.) will also lose their economic-related freedoms on the long run.
Take the example of Hong Kong, which still ranks #1 in the Index of Economic Freedom of the Heritage Foundation. We all know about the erosion of liberties in the ex-British colony. Hong Kong ranked 90.1% in 2014, 89.6% in 2015 and, this year, it has gone down to 88.6%. According to the Heritage Foundation, Hong Kong has lost freedom in different economic areas, including freedom from corruption, fiscal freedom, and business and labor freedom.
Singapore, on the other hand, usually ranks #2 in the same index. It was 89.4% last year and it’s been down to 87.8% since. Likewise, Singapore has lost freedom in the same economic-related areas Hong Kong did. I think it is a question worth asking whether constraints on freedom of speech are somehow related to these numbers.
But even if we accept that the philosophical dimension of libertarianism (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and so on) is subsidiary to other “economic liberties” such as the ones listed by the Heritage Foundation, there is a big hole in the reasoning of those who only care about the later and disregard the former. Our ideas, our speech, our beliefs are also monetizable and capitalized. I can write a book or an article to express my own ideas on a given topic, and I can make money with that –and, in fact, for those of us who are against intellectual property, anyone can make money with those ideas after they are out of our heads–. Likewise, I can make money with my beliefs, or create a small religious community of fellow believers who voluntarily support my cause. Ideas and beliefs are just like apples and oranges: you can make money with them. When a government limits freedom of expression through censorship or intervention, in any form, it is also limiting the possibilities of the market and, hence, it is attacking the free market theory.
This is why I entitled this post “On Intellectual Cronyism.” Cronyism is the practice of favoring a given group of people though political appointments. In Hong Kong, many entrepreneurs complained about the 2014 Hong Kong protests because they affected their (free market) business. They did not care about freedom of speech as long as they could make money, and the protesters were affecting their possibilities to do so. But, how about the possibilities of the protesters to monetize their freedom of speech, as the five missing journalists were trying to do? Those who are willing to engage in business that do not require freedom of expression and disregard (note the emphasis) the limitations imposed on other fellow libertarians by the same governments that allow them to carry on their business, are guilty of “intellectual cronyism.” And if they take away one of your liberties, do not think they are going to stop there.