Economics 101 & Public Square

Freedom and Flourishing in Hong Kong

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By now you’ve probably heard the term “Umbrella Revolution” or “Umbrella Movement.” Since October 1st, students in Hong Kong have gathered in Central, the main financial district, and in Causeway Bay and Kowloon, as summarized by Time.

These students seek greater democracy in Hong Kong’s political process, and they do not want a revolution – they call their protests a “civil-disobedience movement.” According to The Economist, The protests were “triggered by a decision by China in late August that candidates for the post of the territory’s chief executive should be selected by a committee stacked with Communist Party supporters.”

When Britain ceded the territory to China in 1997, they bequeathed a legacy of democratic freedom, a legacy students feel is being dishonored.

Hong Kong has retained some institutions that set it apart from Communist China. Its inclination toward greater trade and free expression has generated a level of prosperity that the mainland cannot attain with its burdensome regulations.

The protests highlight a dichotomy that Communist Party leaders must reconcile if they are to resolve the demonstrations peacefully.

Different Visions of Freedom and Equality

Competition is an equalizing force. James Gwartney, Richard Stroup, and Dwight Lee talk at length about this principle in their book, Common Sense Economics. In the marketplace, it’s easy to recognize the essential role competition plays. If a producer doesn’t make the best use of the resources he or she has at their disposal, consumers will choose to purchase goods elsewhere. Ideally, this would happen in government as well.

Unfortunately, the government is not a private market disciplined by profit and loss. Agencies face incentives to spend recklessly to use budgets they don’t or shouldn’t use, and officials manipulate elections to stay in office.

This is further exacerbated in China by the Communist regime’s grip on all appointments. Rather than allowing a multiplicity of views to be represented, other voices are stifled, and fear and silence replace peace and open dialogue.

In 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that,

Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.

Hong Kong has tried to walk a fine line by allowing some measures of liberty, but corruption and cronyism in certain areas reveals the irreconcilability of the two regimes. You can’t scramble the elements of De Tocqueville’s definitions of equality.

Freedom and Flourishing

Mainland China’s current definition of equality does not mesh with the definition of equality bequeathed to Hong Kong by Britain. On the mainland, censors are sifting through any tweets on Wiebo – China’s version of Twitter – that even distantly refer to Hong Kong. The Communist Party cannot entertain the idea of dissent for fear of responses on the mainland, and the images of students shielding themselves with umbrellas from pepper spray launched at them by police officers hearken back too vividly to the Tienanmen uprising in Beijing in 1989.

True flourishing can’t exist if some aspect of God’s design for our freedom is being stifled. Freedom must extend to all spheres, including the economic and political ones. Man’s selfish nature will manifest itself in government, just as it will in business.

Each realm requires accountability. In The Poverty of Nations, Barry Asmus and Wayne Grudem outline the biblical precedent for forms of government chosen by the people. Many modern governments have retained the traditional trappings of monarchies but are effectively democracies because the power rests with the people. Regardless of the method of government Hong Kong protesters seek, they will not realize flourishing unless that regime is both held accountable and competitive.

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  • Tim Weinhold

    This paragraph got my attention: “Unfortunately, the government is not a private market disciplined by profit and loss. Agencies face incentives to spend recklessly to use budgets they don’t or shouldn’t use, and officials manipulate elections to stay in office.” The implication seems to be that competitive markets are a superior form of human organization and endeavor and that’s it’s just too bad that government can’t behave more like business. This is foolish and unbiblical. God gave government to humankind as a gift, just like he gave marriage/family, and the church — as well as the ability to create wealth, i.e., business (Deut. 8:17-18). How foolish if we expected either church or family to operate like a market or a business, much less measured their efficacy by those standards. Business people often look down on government, and resist its God-given role, out of a belief that a competitive market represents a superior form of organization and behavior. This is hubris. Family is a divine gift that God never intended to work like a business. The same for the church. And the same for government. To disdain government because it doesn’t ‘measure up’ to business performance standards is to fail to understand the divinely-intended differences between the ways in which government and business are each meant to foster human flourishing. And to those who would argue that, regardless of the theory or theology, actual governments often fall abysmally short of being the blessing God intended, I would simply point out that we business people would hate to have the value of business judged by the behaviors of Enron or Countrywide Financial.

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