‘Every nation gets the government it deserves”. So wrote the 18th century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre. South Africa is at a critical crossroads in its political history.
At the heart lies the question: What ideas inform the decisions that govern our everyday lives?
Ideas have inspired most political and economic arrangements at different times and in different places. Some arrangements promote creativity, innovation, peace and prosperity, improve quality of life and enable people to fulfil their myriad needs and goals.
Other political and economic arrangements undermine creativity, inhibit innovation and lead to civil unrest, oppression, starvation, poverty and misery.
History demonstrates that economies based on personal and political freedoms have been, and still prove to be, the most prosperous.
Before he was beheaded in 1535 for refusing to accept the king as the supreme head of the Church of England, Sir Thomas More, in his closing argument, said: “Some men think that the Earth is round, others think it is flat. But if it is flat, will the king’s command, or an act of parliament, make it round? And if it is round, will the king’s command, or an act of parliament, flatten it?”
Sir Thomas More appealed to the idea that humanity was fundamentally free and believed that this freedom was a “natural law” rather than a freedom granted by laws made by a government or passed by a king. In other words, the argument was that there are limits on government power.
People create governments, not the other way around, and therefore, the powers that people give to the government can be taken back - most often by democratic elections, but in extreme cases by revolution.
When it comes to revolutions, the American Revolution was fought in the latter half of the 18th century by patriots opposed to British rule in America. They fought with the intention of freeing individuals from colonial rule based on the idea that all our rights come from our humanity and not from the government.
The American Revolution devolved power. It recognised the supreme rights of the individual and the fact that all men are created equal.
The French Revolution was supposed to be about liberty and equality, but, ironically, it merely ended up transferring power from one group of elites to another - who then, without hesitation, set about killing anyone who disagreed with them.
The ideological movement known as the American Enlightenment, a critical precursor to the American Revolution, essentially, was based on the observation that “natural rights” come from our humanity. The American Enlightenment promoted the ideas of liberalism, democracy and religious tolerance and taught us that ideas have consequences.
These ideas, evident in the US Declaration of Independence, are captured in the well-known phrase "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".
The phrase gives three examples of the “natural rights” that the declaration says have been given to all human beings by their creator and which governments are created to protect.
South Africa has had its own revolution. Ordinary South Africans stood up against the repressive apartheid government to reject the draconian legislation that marginalised black people.
The common cry was amandla, meaning "power". Broadly speaking, one could say, the ideas behind South Africa’s revolution were along the lines of the French Revolution, which sought to transfer power from one group to another, rather than those of the American Revolution, which truly sought to free individuals.
If our revolution had been centred on the cry of inkululeko, meaning “freedom”, rather than amandla, South Africa today would be following a very different path.
South Africa needs its moment of enlightenment where individuals realise and believe that they can succeed despite the government. Far too many South Africans believe that they can get ahead only if they are given a hand-up from the government.
Over two decades, the state has continued to expand, while unemployment has grown and frustration boiled over. People have forgotten that whatever the government provides, it can take away. We do not need more government - we need less.
The South African constitution protects property rights from arbitrary confiscation by the government and individuals. However, given the ideas being loudly and widely touted about the “expropriation of land without compensation”, which ultimately seek to undermine all South Africans individual liberties, it is patently obvious that we face a crucial decision.
At this critical juncture, will the people of South Africa continue the clarion call for amandla and keep pushing on down the entitlement path, or will they decide that a better future is possible and choose inkululeko and put pressure on the government to follow the enlightenment route?
* Urbach is an economist with the Free Market Foundation.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
The StarThis article was first published in The Star on 11 May 2017