By: Bryan Cheang
Numerous critics of the PAP government are left-wing liberals, who advocate for the welfare state and its attendant policies. This position – which I will refer to as ‘welfare statism’ – broadly calls for any combination of the following: the imposition of the minimum wage, increased taxes on the rich to facilitate greater redistribution to the poor, increased social spending for the poor and needy, as well as regulations on big business to rein in ‘corporate greed’.
Such a position held by numerous Singaporeans – including Dr Chee Soon Juan, blogger Roy Ngerng, and various members from opposition parties and civil society groups. At the same time, these are also individuals who criticise the incumbent government for its heavy-handedness, and hope to see greater political competition in Singapore, and more protections for civil liberties.
I insist that their position is disingenuous and downright inconsistent.
Welfare statists like them are simply authoritarians in another guise – they are economic authoritarians, against the rich and productive in society. The minimum wage is an excellent case in point. By calling for such a law to be imposed, the welfare statists are in effect prohibiting businesses and workers from entering into a consensual, contractual relationship at a wage rate that falls below the mandated minimum. If the minimum wage is $10/hr, its legally forbidden to hire a worker at $9/hr, even if it was freely chosen. Its interesting to me that the advocates of such an authoritarian law are also defenders of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This is disingenuous.
As much as they, the welfare statists in Singapore, decry the authoritarianism of the PAP government – a sentiment I share – they are guilty of the very same government heavy-handedness through their advocacy of such government interventions into the otherwise free-market economy.
A truly liberal society is one where the power of government is limited. The liberal tradition has always adhered to this basic tenet: that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. A welfare state vitiates this goal by giving more power to the state. With more power to tax, regulate and direct economic activities, left-liberals are only concentrating more power in the hands of the government.
A free, unhampered economy is a pre-requisite of a free, open and democratic society. Political freedom requires economic freedom. It is a point made by the Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek, in “Road to Serfdom“, which trenchantly argued that increasing degrees of state control over economic activities lead societies towards authoritarianism, and potentially, totalitarianism. The aims of redistribution to eliminate inequality may be well-intentioned, but they unavoidably require authoritarian means that will create unintended consequences.
Sadly, this is a point lost on Dr Chee Soon Juan, who recently wrote a good piece on the Huffington Post titled “Authoritarian rule and the impending crisis in Singapore“, but who also elsewhere defended illiberal policies like the minimum wage, and increased social spending. Such is the illiberal liberalism of his position.
Anyone interested in defending freedom and democracy must do so consistently. If one should be free to make personal choices regarding his sexual preferences, speak freely in public, and associate with others as he pleases, he should also be free to enter into voluntary, consenting capitalist acts with other individuals. Defending civil liberties, but not economic liberties is silly. What does it mean to have the freedom to publish freely if there are restrictions on the type of printed material that can be bought and sold? How can Singapore achieve freedom of press if the media companies are not in private, capitalist hands? The true liberal must defend economic liberties as robustly as that of free speech and political competition.
For the sake of consistency, I urge the opposition leaders in Singapore to cease their advocacy of more government intervention, to stop asking for the minimum wage, and all the authoritarianism that a welfare state requires. Singaporeans deserve to be free, that is, to live and choose as they please, as long as they respect the rights of others to do likewise.
I’m currently a graduate student at King’s College London (UK) pursuing my MA in Political Economy. I’m particularly interested in libertarian political philosophy and free market economic thought, namely, Austrian-school economics and public choice theory. I previously graduated in 2014 from NUS in the fields of Political Science and History.
Republished with permission from ‘Libertarian Society Singapore‘.