The theme of July’s FreedomFest held in the United States, Las Vegas was: “Are we headed for another American Revolution… or a French Revolution”. Although this theme was specifically formulated to answer questions about the direction of policy change in the US, it asks a number of fundamental questions, which are no less pertinent concerning the direction of policy change in South Africa. At the heart of the debate lies the question: based upon what are the ideas that inform the decisions that govern our everyday lives?
A speech at the FreedomFest by Judge Andrew Napolitano related the testimony given by Sir Thomas More before he was beheaded in 1535 for refusing to accept the King as the supreme head of the Church of England. Sir Thomas More’s closing argument was: “Some men think the Earth is round, others think it 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?” (author’s emphasis added).
Sir Thomas More appealed to the idea that humanity is fundamentally free and that this freedom is a “natural law”, as opposed to the idea that freedom is granted by laws made by a government or passed by a King. In other words, he was arguing that there are limits on government power. People created government, not the other way around, and therefore, the powers that people give to government can be taken back – most often by democratic elections but in extreme cases by revolution.
The ideological movement known as the American Enlightenment, a critical precursor to the American Revolution, was essentially 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. Indeed, ideas influence the political, economic and social systems that govern our actions and affect the way we live our lives.
Ideas have inspired many of the political and economic arrangements that have existed at different times and in different places. Some of these arrangements have promoted creativity, innovation, peace and prosperity, leading to improvements in quality of life and enabling people to fulfil their myriad needs and goals. Other political and economic arrangements have undermined creativity, inhibited innovation and lead to civil unrest, oppression, starvation, poverty and misery. History demonstrates that economies based on personal and political freedoms have been and are the most prosperous.
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 of 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.
South Africa has had its own revolution. Ordinary South African citizens stood up against the repressive apartheid government to reject the draconian legislation that marginalised black people. A common cry among those who opposed apartheid was “Amandla” meaning “power”. Broadly speaking, therefore, 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 would today have been on a very different path.
SA needs its moment of enlightenment where individuals realise and believe that they can succeed in spite of government. An idea in stark contrast to that of entitlement, whereby people expect the government to provide everything and believe they cannot succeed in life without receiving a hand-up from government. However, it must be remembered that whatever a government provides, it also can take away. Was that not tragically demonstrated by the apartheid government?
South Africa’s revolution is still raging to some extent, but one feather in its cap is that it has a relatively advanced constitution which protects property rights from arbitrary confiscation by government and individuals. However, given the ideas that are being loudly and widely touted about nationalisation that ultimately seek to undermine our individual liberties, it is patently obvious that we face a crucial decision. Will the people of South Africa stick to “Amandla” and keep pushing on down the entitlement path or will they decide that there is a better future and choose “Inkululeko” and put pressure on the government to follow the enlightenment route?
Author: Jasson Urbach is an economist with 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 Foundation.
FMF Feature Article / 2 August 2011