Free Societies

Is liberty an Asian value?

Mural painting of Yogeswar Temple in Patora, Orissa, India, depicting Krishna and Arjuna, the master archer. Photo credit: Frederic Soltan/Getty Images.
Tom G Palmer

Tom G. Palmer | Executive Vice President for International Programs

A frequent challenge raised against classical liberalism is that it is not suitable for Asian people or Asian countries, because of “Asian values” that are allegedly unique to Asian countries. Is Asian liberty different from European or American or African Liberty? Or, if liberty is being used in the same way in those regions, is it a reasonable principle for Asian governments and laws, or are Asian values incompatible with liberty? One could also ask whether there is one core of values that are common to all Asians, who inhabit a vast region encompassing billions of people speaking hundreds of languages, professing a wide variety of religions, and heirs to thousands of years of multifarious cultural developments.

Liberty, license, and social order

Let’s start with the question of whether liberty might have different meanings in different places. Yes, of course “liberty” does. It’s a word, to begin with, and words are not eternal essences, but human constructs that are used variably in different places and circumstances. A word may mean different things in different contexts, so let’s focus on the constellation of ideas known as liberalism — or, to differentiate it from what is sometimes called “liberal” in the United States and a few other countries, let’s focus on “classical liberalism.”

What is liberty for a classical liberal? Is it just doing your own thing, being purely willful, defying the law, and indulging whatever impulse might cross your mind? That’s what many anti-liberals have alleged. Let’s take a famous example, Sir Robert Filmer, an advocate of royal absolutism in England. According to Filmer, the king of England had all the rights of dominion over the world that God had given to the first man, Adam, because Adam, being a proper English gentleman, had given the world to his eldest son. That eldest son had given the world to his eldest son, and so on, until one reached … amazingly enough, the king of England! That argument was effectively disposed of by John Locke in the first of his Two Treatises on Government. Filmer had also stipulated, however, that “liberty” would lead to chaos, because with liberty anyone could do whatever he “lists” (“lists” is an old-fashioned English way of saying whatever one is inclined to do, as a ship “lists” this way or that), no matter how destructive to others, and thus that liberty is incompatible with law, with government, with order, and with social cooperation generally. With liberty gotten out of the way, that left, of course, the option of vesting the eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son of Adam with absolute and unquestionable power — or so Filmer hoped.

The classical liberal response

There was a response from the advocates of constitutionally limited government, of course. Locke stipulated another meaning of liberty and shaped the liberal understating of liberty and law for centuries. As Locke argued:

[T]he End of law is, not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge Freedom. For in all the States of created Beings capable of Laws, where there is no Law, there is no Freedom. For Liberty is to be free from Restraint and Violence from others; which cannot be, where there is no Law: But Freedom is not, as we are told, A Liberty for every Man to do what he lists: (For who could be free, when every other Man’s Humour might domineer over him?) But a Liberty to dispose, and order as he lists, his Person, Actions, Possessions, and his whole Property, within the Allowance of those Laws, under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary Will of another, but freely follow his own.

Rules applicable to all

To enjoy liberty means not being subjected to the arbitrary will of another, but to be governed by the law, that is, by rules that are applicable to all and that guarantee to all the right to follow their own wills in those matters regarding their own property. Property referred not only to one’s physical possessions, in the terms of Locke’s day, but referred to your “life, liberty, and estate,” that is, what is proper to you. What is especially striking about Locke’s comment is the connection of liberty with law. The two are not opposed, nor is liberty opposed to order. Arbitrary and unaccountable power is the enemy of both liberty and of order. Liberty requires and is grounded on the rule of law, rather than the rule of man. Those who think that liberty and law are incompatible confuse liberty with license and law with command. Liberty is not license and commands are not law. Law is the enterprise of subjecting human conduct to the governance of rules, as the jurist Lon Fuller put it, and not the enterprise of issuing arbitrary commands and edicts backed by threats of violence.

The presumption of liberty

The core of the idea of liberty under law is the presumption of liberty. That presumption is analogous to the presumption of innocence. Both have a common epistemic feature. To be required to prove that one is innocent of a charge is to ask for the near impossible. Each time one managed to show, if that were possible, that one was innocent of a crime, another charge could be brought, and the burden would be on the accused to demonstrate a negative yet again. Similarly, one cannot show why one should be allowed to do every single thing one might wish to do — to wear a hat or not wear a hat, or to wake up at 7:30 a.m. or at 7:15 a.m., or to read this book rather than that; it would be impossible.

Instead of being required to justify and ask permission for all of the possible things we could do, the presumption of liberty requires that the burden rest not on the one who would exercise freedom but on the one who would restrict it. In the permission society, everything that is not permitted is forbidden, whereas in the society of liberty everything that is not forbidden is permitted. That’s not only a principle of the English common law, but before that it was a key principle of Islamic jurisprudence that “the original state of matter is its permissibility unless there is a specific provision that prohibits it” (in Arabic: al-aslu fil shyai’ al-ibahah ma lam ya’ti dalil ‘ala tahrimih).1 The rule of law, rather than arbitrary power; and the presumption of liberty, rather than the presumption of power, are at the core of the classical liberal ideal of liberty.

Is liberty just a Western value?

Is liberty so understood an Asian value? Do Asians, any more than others, like to be ordered, commanded, threatened, and assaulted with violence for not obeying arbitrary commands? Well, certainly not the ones who actually are threatened or punished. I am sure that they don’t welcome it any more than people in Europe, Africa, or the Americas. Those who are suppressed are unlikely to uphold as a supreme or definitive value their own suppression. Perhaps those who assert that uniquely “Asian values” are incompatible with liberty argue, however, that liberty is by origin a Western value — or European — and thus, by stipulation, could not be an Asian value.

I am sometimes asked about my work “defending Western values.” I respond that I do not defend “Western values.” The response is puzzlement and sometimes shock. That’s because the questioners assumed that individual liberty, the rule of law, toleration, limited government, property rights, and freedom of exchange are uniquely Western principles. Moreover, they assume that collectivism and dictatorship are somehow not Western. They have a point — when you go into Chinese state buildings, you see the images of such venerable Chinese sages as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin, each a formative figure in traditional Chinese culture.

Enough sarcasm. In actuality, the most influential movements for dictatorship, socialism, and one-party rule were germinated and first took root in Europe, not in Asia, Africa, or elsewhere. Most of the modern dictatorships around the world have been inspired by ideologies formulated by European collectivist thinkers. Marx and Engels were German, Lenin was Russian, Stalin was Georgian (but acted as a Russian dictator), Mussolini was Italian, and Hitler was Austrian.

There is no geo-cultural monopoly on liberty

Lin Yutang, a Chinese writer, translator, linguist, and inventor.

Asian socialism is a Western import. Lin Yutang, in his study of the life of the 11th century Chinese sage and poet Su Tungpo, noted the influence of “Western ideas of collectivism” in his discussion of contemporary reinterpretation of the policies of Wang Anshi during the 11th century. In his classic book My Country and My People, he described the philosophy of Lao Tzu as “laissez faire in government and naturalism in ethics.” For Lin, although Chinese legalism expressed elements of socialist thinking, collectivist ideology was an invasive Western species, not a homegrown Chinese plant, and China had its own tradition of limited government.

Is liberty an Asian value? Is it a Western value? Does any region of the world, any linguistic group, any culture have a monopoly on liberty? I don’t believe so. Indeed, it is an illiberal and collectivist notion to think so. Ideas don’t come with little flags on them, as if one could only believe them if one were a citizen or a subject of the country of origin.

Antoine Lavoisier, one of the great pioneers of chemistry and the identifier of oxygen, was born in France and wrote in French. Someone inclined to limit the application of ideas to their cultures of origin might conclude that oxygen (or, at least, the theory of oxygen) cannot be useful to people from other countries, or those speaking other languages. Koreans and Canadians (except, perhaps, for the Québécois) could not then invoke the theory of oxygen, because the applicability of the concept would be limited to the French. The same would go for the use of zero as a placeholder for mathematical calculation, and the use of yoga as a spiritually and physically healthful activity. (Hindus only, please!) The fact that an idea has a history, with names, places, and times specified, is no reason to limit its applicability or usefulness to people with those names, or to people who live in those places, or to people who lived at those times.

So what about Asian liberty? Liberty is as Asian as it is European, as Northern as it is Southern, as Chinese as it is English, as Thai as it is Greek. It is a human value, the value to be ourselves, to be governed by law, to enjoy the dignity of equality with others. No civilization has a monopoly on those human values, and all contain expressions of them.

Moreover, living in the modern world demands liberty. We no longer live in small bands that can be subordinated to the alpha male of the troop. Complex societies, and certainly those with billions of people, require not more state control, but more self-control. Coordination of the actions of billions of people emerges as a form of spontaneous order, which is a product of the rule of law and not of capricious interventionism.

Self-control and “active non-activity”

The choice between state control or self-control happens to be the theme of my next book, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about and researching the topic of self-control. I started with the texts I knew best, namely, the Stoics from Mediterranean culture. I was led rather quickly, however, to texts from Asia, notably India and China, and their ideas of self-control; of mindfulness; of good behavior; of dharma — of doing the right thing; of jen, li, and yi — of human-heartedness, well ordered behavior, and moral sense. These ideas are not exactly imports to Asia. Traditions that germinated and were nurtured in Asia have much to teach the world. As The Analects of Confucius states in chapter 12.1, “To master and control the self and return to li, that is jen.” In 15.24, we also find the famous articulation of the “Silver Rule”:

Zigong asked, “Is there one expression that can be acted upon until the end of one’s days?”

The Master replied, “There is shu ‘恕’: do not impose on others what you yourself do not want.”

Such traditions of good behavior are very much about self-control, which is at the heart of the free society. As the sociologist Norbert Elias noted in his study of what he called The Civilizing Process:

As the interdependence of people increases with the increasing division of labour, everyone becomes increasingly dependent on everyone else, even those of high social rank on those people who are socially inferior and weaker. The latter become so much the equals of the former that they, the socially superior people, can experience shame-feelings even in the presence of their social inferiors. It is only in this connection that the armour of restraints is fastened to the degree which is gradually taken for granted by people in democratic industrial societies.

Greater social coordination in a complex social order requires more self-control, not less. And more self-control requires less state interventionism. State interventionism undermines good character and ethics, and disrupts social order. Self-control means having the freedom to guide our own actions and to realize our own purposes. It also cultivates the ability to think about our goals, to act in our long-term interests, and to resist acting on transient impulses that may be harmful to self or to others. Simultaneously, a society of free and responsible individuals requires greater attention to wu wei “无为”, a vitally important idea expressed in Chinese that is of universal importance. It is not merely non-activity, as it is sometimes translated, but as political scientist Liu Junning and others insist, it entails active non-activity — that is, setting the rules and then letting the order emerge. As Lao Tzu noted more than 2,000 years before Adam Smith:

The more prohibitions there are,
The poorer the people will be.

The more edicts are promulgated,
The more thieves and bandits there will be.

Therefore a sage has said:
So long as I ‘do nothing’ the people will of themselves be transformed.
So long as I love quietude, the people will of themselves go straight.
So long as I act only by inactivity the people will of themselves become prosperous.

As Lao Tzu is also reported to have commented, governing a great country is like frying a small fish. I do not fry small fish, but I understand that if you violently handle them, they will be ruined, and if you stab at them with a fork very much, they will not cook well. Interventionism and violence are poor means to generate great societies, just as they are poor means to cook small fish.

As Lao Tzu and others who wrote on the idea of wu wei understood, government has an important duty. It is not to direct and manage the affairs of the people, to give them commands and edicts, to confiscate their goods or intrude into their homes. Government has the duty to create good rules and help the people to coordinate their actions peacefully. When property rights are well-defined, legally secured, and easily transferrable through an efficient legal system, the people themselves create order, and do so on a scale never dreamed by the planners and autocrats — those who would gut and scale and stab at us.

Universal principles for social harmony

Dr. Tom G. Palmer and Jungie Ma of the Unirule Institute in Beijing at Asia Liberty Forum 2016.

Freedom requires an ethical framework of self-control, whether we use words of Asian provenance, such as dharma or jen, li, and yi; or Greek and Latin terms, such as ἀρετή or virtus. Morality withers when the state goes beyond its bounds, but morality and good behavior can regenerate when the state secures the freedom of individuals to control themselves. That creates a virtuous circle. Good rules in society create good behavior among individuals, and good behavior creates good order in society. As Gurcharan Das noted in his essay on “The Dharma of Capitalism,” which opened the Indian edition of The Morality of Capitalism, “When individuals behave in accordance with dharma there is order, balance, and trust within society.”

Doing the right thing, following dharma, is not something applicable only in heroic circumstances. In the great philosophical discourse on duty known as the Bhagavad Gita, “Dharma” is the first word. Arjuna, the protagonist of the epic in which the discourse is set, must decide whether to fight his own family members in a terrible war. It is an occasion for examination of one’s duties, but we should not think that dharma is applicable only to great moral problems. Indeed, such heroically wrenching moral choices tend to be the odd cases, when dharma may be much harder to discern. Being able to do the right thing applies to everyday life, where in fact it is really more important, because when the rules are known and dharma informs our characters, we do the right thing without heroic exertions. Those who assert that free societies, free markets, and spontaneous orders are amoral and disordered free-for-alls fail to grasp the importance of freedom’s ethical framework to social harmony.

We are told that classical liberalism is never “from here.” In England, I was told that classical liberalism is not English, but American; and in Germany that it is not German, but Anglo-Saxon; and in America that it is not American, but European — or even a sneaky Asian stratagem to trick Americans into opening their markets to all those wickedly low-priced goods that Asians force Americans to buy. It turns out that classical liberalism is always a sneaky trick from somewhere else to get “us” — whoever “we” are — to abandon our traditional deference to our rulers.

Liberty allows us to be ourselves, not to be forced at gunpoint to follow the model of others, but to live as we choose, to exercise self-control, rather than being subjected to the arbitrary will of others.

Is liberty Asian? Is it European, or American, or African? It is all of those and more. We can all enjoy liberty, because your liberty does not diminish mine, but enhances it. When we both have liberty, we can cooperate, freely and for mutual benefit. Liberty is the global framework for prosperity, peace, and harmony. Liberty in Asia is good for Asians, who make up some 60 percent of the world’s population — but not only for Asians. It is good for everyone else, as well.

1 I am grateful to my friend Wan Saiful Wan Jan for pointing this out to me.

This essay was adapted from a keynote speech titled “Asian Liberty Rising,” given by Dr. Tom G. Palmer at the third annual Asia Liberty Forum, Feb. 18, 2016, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.