South Africa needs a paradigm shift in how we view the role of the state, and more importantly how we view the importance of the individual and their freedom. Freedom brings with it individual agency and responsibility. People will often make decisions with which we disagree, and we have to make peace with that possibility. If we are serious about realising the kind of radical economic growth many want, we need to realise that such growth can only come about when there are as few barriers on human life and economic activity as possible.
Nowadays when you use the word ‘freedom’, people immediately think of the government-imposed lockdowns implemented to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While I am strongly opposed to the hard, nationwide lockdown that has been implemented, it is not my focus in this particular piece. I will say that the lockdown (and the way in which it has been implemented by the government) is indicative of the extent to which people have been infantilised by the state, and indeed the large extent to which many have accepted the ever-growing role of the state in our lives.
The focus here is on the myriad regulations and restrictions that destroyed a lot of wealth in South Africa before COVID-19, that made it exceedingly difficult to create wealth before the lockdown, and that resulted in countless small businesses and entrepreneurs being in the perilous position they occupy at the moment.
The freedom to trade with whoever you like. The freedom to build any business you like, to hire (or not) whoever you need. The freedom to work for whatever wage or experience you deem best. The freedom to keep most of the wealth you create. The freedom to invest in your life, to create as much wealth for yourself as you can manage. These are the kinds of examples I have in mind, of the kind of freedom South Africa needs after the lockdown. Reverting back to the ideas and policies of the pre-COVID-19 era will only ensure that grinding poverty becomes more and more widespread. A radical step – adopting freedom as a true ideal – is what’s needed for South Africa heading out of the pandemic.
Another aspect of the state’s paternalistic inclinations is how it dictates how much (or how little) of some things we may consume, and indeed that we may not consume some things at all. The state has assumed the role of telling people what they may, or may not, put in their bodies. A huge reason for this is because the state has assumed that its proper role is to provide healthcare for everyone. The healthier it can force people to be, the lighter the burden on the state.
Or at least, that’s been their reasoning.
However, all government interventions and policies have consequences much wider and deeper than even the most enlightened central planner could ever consider.
When some people try to make decisions (that don’t harm others) that deviate from what the state has decreed ‘appropriate,’ they are met with swift, harsh, and often deeply destructive responses. The fear of such responses either drives people into underground/black markets, or becomes internalised to the point where many don’t want to act differently without some sort of physical or psychological permission slip from the state.
The blindness and indeed massive hubris of people who think the state should define each person’s role in society has led to millions being mired in poverty in South Africa. Some of the ‘smaller’ decisions we may not make, snowball into larger decisions regarding such things as vital as our work and our productiveness. Speaking of the consequences of government policies, I think it’s too kind to call such consequences ‘unintended.’ Many in government know very well the disastrous effects that will be caused by their policies, but that is indeed part of the goal: Restrict people’s freedom to earn a living, for example, and you make them more dependent on the goodwill of the state.
At some point in our lives, we (hopefully) accept that it is right to treat each other with respect and to treat each other as adults. Those who control the levers of the state need to come to this realisation as well. This would require something that will terrify the tiny egos of those in government. Retract your tentacles from education, and let as many schools as possible compete to give children the best education possible. The systematised way of schooling does not teach children critical thinking, and even more importantly, it instills in them a sense that they must always ask for permission from some authority figure before they try something new and creative. When children grow into adults, their potential must not be inhibited by a gut reaction to get some sort of approval before they try to live.
We must decriminalise individual agency in South Africa. It’s time to decriminalise freedom.