Monday, February 10, 2014

Enslaving the born frees.

Through the shackles of expectations and dependence.

In the hype that has accompanied the grand seduction of the so-called born frees into registering and voting in this year’s national elections, the seduced may want to heed the words of one of the most profound political observations ever made: “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”.

They were written by the 18th century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose political thoughts, many historians believe, influenced the French Revolution as well as the development of modern political thought. They ring true with thunderous clarity in South Africa today against the bizarre irony that political freedom achieved two decades ago has spawned large scale and frequent civil protests as well as the birth of the “economic freedom fighters” now contesting the elections.

At the very least this reflects the self-evident reality that freedom itself is never an absolute, contradicting much of the large promise that underpins the election spin. Rousseau’s context expounded in “On the Social Contract” still holds true: that in the name of freedom we subject ourselves to a contract with others – customs, conventions, laws, rules and regulations which in turn inhibit freedom.

Those are obvious restrictions to freedom. But there are many other less obvious: imposed and self-imposed, that not only constrain freedom but lead to a vague inner agitation that often spills over into blaming of others, or misguided responses that have very little to do with the initial constraints or simply replace one set of constraints with more onerous others.

Nature, climate, living conditions, health, and access to basic life satisfiers all play some role in our inner experiences of freedom. Political freedom itself extends far beyond the franchise. Democracy may be the best system we have but as the Greek philosopher Plato observed centuries ago, it has some severe flaws which modern technology and sophistication have done little to assuage, indeed perhaps they have been highly exacerbated.

Majorities seldom rule. That rule is far more strongly influenced by personal expediencies of political incumbents, external vested interests and lobbies than by the expression of the popular voice every 5 years. Majorities more often than not contain as many dissenters and detractors as can be found in opposition parties.

None of this detracts from the importance of the vote and the need to exercise this right at every occasion. The danger lies in the creation of unrealistic expectations. The banner under which all the election hype is paraded, the seductive call of the concept of freedom and the extravagant promises which mesmerise followers, persuade large numbers into surrendering their destiny to others. In that, the born frees submit to the greatest enslavement of all: dependence on others and an expectation that things will and must be done for them. It is the addictive substance that governments use either directly or by implication to gain power over subjects and keep them subjugated and more often than not exploit them for self-gain.

Throughout time, politics and economics have been virtually indistinguishable. The relationship between them has been the predominant theme in virtually all debate and thinking on how societies are best structured.

What is perhaps less understood, measured and appreciated is how the political process itself, the election roll-out and political conduct within it shapes and drives individual behaviour that has a lasting and profound impact on economic destiny. The popularity contest that marks most democratic elections globally and the inordinate influence of money and media, make it increasingly difficult to attract the best leaders into government. The unpalatable reality that you can’t help people permanently by doing for them what they can and should be doing for themselves simply gets lost in a fantasy world of false promises.

South Africa has a particular challenge in the burgeoning youth vote. It’s a group that by and large has far fewer opportunities than before and are most vulnerable to political seduction and exponentially adding to that toxic mix where rights override responsibilities, expectations overwhelm aspirations, dependence is preferred over self-help, government becomes bigger and the number of people dependent upon it increasingly exceeds the number contributing to it.

It is perhaps an understandable global trend in a world clamouring for a change in the rules of the economic game against a backdrop of increasing concentration of wealth in hands of a few, the sheer size and behaviour of capital and the misbehaviour of large global financial institutions including banks. This has detracted attention away from lessons of history which, in broad brush strokes have shown that wealth creation is best achieved in the hands of free and private initiative, that the primary role of government is not wealth creation itself, but creating the conditions for others to do so.

While governments have a role to play in the wellbeing and development of citizens, they become counter-productive and nationally destructive when the former overshadows the latter, when indeed the two are seen as different. Anything that detracts from the willingness and determination of individuals to take charge of their own lives contributes to their enslavement. None are as free as those who are accountable for themselves in any circumstance.

What the born frees most likely will not hear from any politician is this: others cannot give you freedom; they can only remove restrictions to your freedom. The rest is up to you.

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