Atanu Dey On India's Development

The Iron Lady who Fought for Freedom

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“Freedom, freedom, freedom . . . Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, A long way from my home,” sang Richie Havens at Woodstock. Lots of people struggle for freedom. What are they seeking freedom from? From other people. We have to remember this: People need to leave other people alone. Do what you will and don’t impose your will on others. That should be the totality of the law.

Below the fold, the text of my recent column at NitiCentral.com, “The Iron Lady who Fought for Freedom.” But first here’s Richie Havens in 2009 singing that song which he sang in the 1969 music festival held on Yasgur’s farm near Woodstock, NY.

After 40 years, the man still retains his voice. Watch him at Woodstock here.

The Iron Lady who Fought for Freedom.

Margaret Mead, the American anthropologist, is claimed to have said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Though the veracity of that attribution can be doubted, there is no doubt that all significant changes in the world are brought about by committed small groups of people or even just individuals. Not all who toil are rewarded by success but every successful change is claimed by many who had nothing to do with it. But, thankfully, sometimes it is easy to credit those individuals who actually worked hard and the world was much improved as a consequence.

I was reminded of this when I learned that Baroness Thatcher – former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – passed away on 8th April at the ripe old age of 87. What she did for the UK required fierce conviction, an iron will, unremitting labor and immense political savvy. She fought on the side of human freedom and fortunately for her people, she won handsomely.

In all our toils great and small, we always need the help of others. Everything of consequence we achieve is always rooted in ideas that we adopted from thinkers much superior to us. We are not so intellectually tall that we don’t have to stand upon the shoulders of giants to see where the path ahead lies. Thatcher’s accomplishments owe much to ideas of classical liberals who themselves toiled hard for freedom.

I should hasten to add here that “classical liberals” are cats of an entirely different breed from present day “liberals”. The essential difference between the two as I see it is this: the classical liberals valued human freedom and therefore promoted the idea that people should be free from coercion by others—including government coercion. Present days liberals lie on the other end of the line: they want the government to decide how people should live their lives.

Two classical liberals who had an impact on Thatcher are Friedrich August von Hayek and Milton Friedman.

Born in Austria-Hungary, British economist and philosopher F. A. Hayek (1899 – 1992), who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1974, is best remembered by the public as the author of the book The Road to Serfdom published in 1944. I consider it to be one of those books every person who has any claims to being well-rounded must read and understand. The ideas contained in that book, if properly understood and internalized by those who wield power over others, can prevent immense human misery, pain and suffering.

Thatcher steered the UK away from the socialist path – the road to serfdom – that it was on in the 1970s. Hayek’s work influenced her profoundly. In her book, The Downing Street Years, (1993), she had this to say about Hayek’s Road to Serfdom:

. . . Such books not only provided crisp, clear analytical arguments against socialism, demonstrating how its economic theories were connected to the then depressing shortages of our daily lives; but by their wonderful mockery of socialist follies, they also gave us the feeling that the other side simply could not win in the end. That is a vital feeling in politics; it eradicates past defeats and builds future victories. It left a permanent mark on my own political character, making me a long-term optimist for free enterprise and liberty . . .

She was a great proponent of human freedom. In her 1995 book, The Path to Power, she traced her ideas about freedom thus: “. . . all the general propositions favouring freedom I had . . . imbibed at my father’s knee or acquired by candle-end reading of Burke and Hayek . . .”

The Burke she refers to is the Irish statesman and political theorist, British Member of Parliament Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) who supported American independence. He believed in the benefits that arise from free markets. As an aside, we should remember that Burke pursued (unsuccessfully) the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal from 1772 to 1785, for charges of corruption. Sounds very contemporary, doesn’t it? Which only goes to show that the Indian rulers of today are continuing a tradition of looting the land that goes back centuries. Borrowing the modern technology naming convention, I call the post-independence government of India as “British Raj 2.0.”

But let’s get back to Thatcher.

For centuries, the worldly philosophers (as Robert Heilbroner called economists) have been pondering the causes of worldly wealth and prosperity. The grand-daddy of them all in the Western tradition is the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith. His magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published 1776, launched modern development economics. Although very few people read that book (it’s too long, the language impenetrable), Smith’s ideas influenced powerful people, including our Baroness Thatcher. About Adam Smith, she wrote, “ . . . the greatest exponent of free enterprise economics till Hayek and Friedman.”

Which brings me to Milton Friedman. He was born in Brooklyn NY just over a century ago in 1912 to immigrants from Austria-Hungary. Must be something in the Austria-Hungary waters: first Hayek and then Friedman. Uncle Milton (as he is affectionately known by those who love him and his ideas) is credited to have started the “Chicago School” of economics. He won the 1976 Nobel Prize in economics.

Friedman influenced many world leaders. He tried but failed to get Indian leaders to pay attention. That’s another story for another day. In any case, he was a great guide to not just Thatcher, but to Ronald Regan too. He advised Thatcher’s government from 1979 to 1990. His formula was simple: limited government, economic freedom. When Friedman passed away in San Francisco in 2006, Lady Thatcher said, “Milton Friedman revived the economics of liberty when it had been all but forgotten. He was an intellectual freedom fighter. Never was there a less dismal practitioner of a dismal science.”

Thatcher accomplished a lot because she stood on the shoulders of giants. Thanks to them for pointing the way to freedom, and thanks to her for following the path and improving the lives of her people. As an Indian, I can only hope that one day India gets leaders who can appreciate the value of freedom.

Goodbye Lady Thatcher.