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Time to rethink liberty and laissez-faire

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About a year ago, Steven Tan Ban Cheng raised this issue. Today, with the 1MBD and Mara property purchases, the same question seems to have assumed a force greater than he could ever have imagined.

Originally published on 27 June 2014.

It is incumbent on all freedom-loving peoples to be vigilant and to guard against more and more controls being exercised by any government, says Stephen Tan Ban Cheng.

Power tends to corrupt
Power tends to corrupt

In the raging debate on the monies in the Central Provident Fund in Singapore, we have found ourselves in a classic position to ask ourselves why governments in the West would never get the mandate to collect monies like some of our governments in Asia do in the name of saving for our old age.

The rationale is this and this alone: Always give governments enough power, just enough power to run the country – but never more. Why is this so? The simple reason for this principle to endure in the West is what Lord Acton said about power.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” so said Lord Action whose real name is John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (10 January 1834 – 19 June 1902).

Analyse what Lord Acton said. Power does not corrupt, as we are wont to read or led to believe; power only tends to corrupt. But once absolute power is attained, the corruption is no longer a tendency but a stark possibility. This means that absolute power turns the corruption of power from a mere probability into a sheer possibility!

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It is for this reason and this alone that people in the West, who generally tend to be a lot more combative compared to the relative submissiveness of people in Asia, reject the notion that governments are the best custodians of our money.

The assertive Westerner never attributes their governments with the powers of patronage. Only the submissive Asians believe that their governments should be patron. Note the use of the prescriptive word ‘should’, which I attribute in the Chinese to their Confucian culture.

It is also for this reason that Westerners believed in the concept of laissez-faire, the French term in economics meaning “let them do as they will” that was first used in the second half of the 17th century, specifically in the 1680s.

According to Wikipedia, laissez-faire means “an economic environment in which transactions between private parties are free from government restrictions, tariffs, and subsidies, with only enough regulations to protect property rights”.

Note that there is an expressed curb on restriction as far as governmental power is concerned. And this was in the 1680s. By the time Penang, where I was born, was settled in 1786 by Sir Francis Light bearing the English flag, how did the English treat their colonies?

Almost everything worth doing required a licence or a piece of paper to entitle the bearer to engage in that activity. Trading was curbed by licences. So were various economic development projects such as construction of buildings.

Of course, some of these governmental curbs were intended for the general good, but certainly not all were so designed. In fact, a lot were intended to establish some sort of governmental control over the people.

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Eliding in time to today, we see a vast expansion of such controls over popular activity as evidenced by the growing thickness of statutes, enactments and regulations designed by government gnomes to exert control over the people in general.

Along with that is the total and complete negation today of the principle of laissez-faire where governments in Asia today not just issue licences for various economic activities, but also engage in businesses themselves, pitting their leviathan resources against the fragmented ones of their own private sector.

Given just that thought, it is incumbent on all freedom-loving peoples to be vigilant and guard against more and more controls being exercised by any government, either through their bureaucratic machine or through the extended one in their own private sector.

We are talking about liberty here.

“Liberty is not the power of doing what we like,” said the same Lord Acton, “but the right of being able to do what we ought.” If you can catch the drift, what this means is that it is time for us to ensure that the monies we have remain ours and is not appropriated from us in the name of any law.

I leave all of you with just that thought of doing all we can to secure our own liberty as I surrender to the night in sleep.

Stephen Tan Ban Cheng, 64, is a veteran Malaysian journalist turned New Zealand-trained lawyer. He now runs his own boutique practice in his home state of Penang.

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