Releasing the positive energies of all South Africans

Fundamentally, there are only two types of society. The first allows the people to make their own decisions about their own lives. In the second, an individual or special elite makes their decisions for them. The first method results in a free society – the second in tyranny. In most societies supporters of these alternatives are locked in a constant struggle for ascendancy. Not unexpectedly, the extent to which freedom or tyranny dominates determines the general happiness or unhappiness, affluence or poverty of a society.

Middle-of-the-roaders suggest that a mix of freedom and tyranny will produce the greatest general happiness and material benefits while ‘extremists’ constantly argue that their preferred option will do so. Fortunately there is now ample evidence to inform this debate. All aspects of human welfare are improved by greater freedom. Most of the world’s people have greater freedom than they had a century ago and their living standards have improved immeasurably. Those that still live in poverty and misery live under varying conditions of tyranny, subject to the whims of whatever politicians happen to be in power.

Freedom is not synonymous with chaos; in fact nothing could be further from the truth. For freedom to prevail there has to be total respect for property and persons, the greatest degree of freedom is found where that respect is largely voluntary, and the rule of law prevails. Switzerland is a good example of such a free country, yet it is also a country of strict rules of behaviour instituted by the people themselves. In Switzerland the people make the rules. Elected politicians do not impose the rules on them and by referendum citizens can change most policies at community, canton or national level if they can generate sufficient support. They can even recall politicians before their terms expire.

Tensions and discords in most societies have to do with the question of who is to curb whose behaviour and who is to serve whom. Is it the government that must serve the people and the people that must curb the excesses of government? Or must the people serve the government, which in turn must curb the excesses of the people? While the Swiss people are clearly in charge of their democratic processes, even in free and democratic countries such as the USA, checks and balances incorporated in the constitution to protect people from the excesses of government are being eroded. At the outset the purpose of constitutional protection is clear but unfortunately becomes blurred with time.

The most important function with which the people entrust their governments, and the one that is too often abused, is the collective use of force. The peoples’ wishes are clear; they want to be protected from foreign invasion and the use of force or fraud against them or their property. However, handing over this power to government has dangers as well as advantages. Every effort has to be made to circumscribe the use of that power in constitutions, laws and the establishment of strong countervailing institutions, but the danger of misuse always lurks in the shadows of government corridors.

The often-quoted abbreviation of the statement made by the Irish judge John Curran in 1790 is “The condition of man’s liberty is eternal vigilance”. The less well-known part of the quote is “which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt”. In other words, the only real protection the people have against misuse of power is their own vigilance and if they fail to take due care they become slaves to others. On the other hand, if the people properly protect their liberty, they can concentrate their energies on improving their material condition.

South Africa is at a critical juncture in the process of determining whether it will have truly democratic or largely autocratic governments. We have what we never had before, a constitution that limits the power of government. Yet the experience of many countries has shown that no constitution can withstand the onslaughts of politicians that are determined to increase their own power at the expense of the people, unless the people themselves protect their rights

Without a doubt, democratic governments are required to serve the people. However, the form that service should take is hotly debated. Maintenance of peace, including security of property and persons, would probably be at the top of most people’s list of things they want government to do. No one likes to live in fear, have their property stolen, and be constantly looking over their shoulders. A sound legal system, based on the rule of law in the sense of general rules applicable to everyone, would probably also be near the top of the list. There is a great deal of comfort in knowing that the law treats everyone equally, whether you are the President of the country or a struggling young street trader. People also want impartial courts to punish criminals and adjudicate in civil disputes. Beyond that, people generally want to be left alone, with government intruding into their lives as little as possible as long as they themselves show due respect for the property and persons of their fellow citizens.

Empirical evidence shows that strictly limited but effectively executed government activity has great economic benefits. The 2004 Economic Freedom of the World Report, co-published by the Free Market Foundation, shows that countries that have the greatest economic freedom also have the greatest improvements in human welfare. Measures of improvements in human welfare include higher per capita incomes, reduced poverty, greater life expectancy, reduced unemployment, lower crime rates, better health care, and higher literacy rates. An important factor in achieving economic freedom is the effectiveness of government in carrying out its law and order functions but freedom is diminished when government imposes unnecessary and costly red tape and bureaucracy on the people.

The positive energies of all South Africa’s people will be released in a dispensation in which the politicians and government officials serve the people impartially, the rule of law is applied in its proper context, government efficiently carries out its law and order functions and economic freedom prevails. Currently South Africa just scrapes into the top 40% of economically free countries and needs a higher rating if the human welfare of its people is to improve more rapidly. Improvements can be achieved by following the dictates of empirical economic evidence rather than ideology, concentrating on the core functions of government ahead of peripheral and dispensable functions such as attempting to run businesses, and above all, by applying without exception section 9(1) of the Bill of Rights which states that “Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.”

Author: Eustace Davie is a Director of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article / 17 August 2004 - Policy Bulletin / 01 September 2009
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