Freedom for Sale (2009)

March 24, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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Freedom for Sale: How We Made Money and Lost Our Liberty (2009)
Author: John Kampfner
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Hardcover
320 pp

ISBN-10: 0743275403 ISBN-13: 978-0743275408
Available from
: Amazon.com

Why is it that so many people around the world appear willing to give up freedoms in return for either security or prosperity?

For the past 60 years it had been assumed that capitalism was intertwined with liberal democracy, that the two not just thrived together but needed each other to survive. But what happens when both are undermined? Governments around the world — whether they fall into the authoritarian or the democratic camp — have drawn up a new pact with their peoples.

These are its terms: repression is selective, confined to those who openly challenge the status quo, who publicly go out of their way to ’cause trouble’. The number of people who fall into that category is actually very few. The rest of the population can enjoy freedom to travel, to live more or less as they wish, and to make and spend their money. This is the difference between public freedoms and private freedoms. We choose different freedoms we are prepared to cede. We all do it.

Freedom for Sale will set a new agenda. Mixing narrative from different countries around the world, it breaks new ground in revealing the extent to which the old assumptions and securities have died.

It will crucially ask why so many intelligent and ambitious citizens around the world, particularly among the young, seemed prepared to sacrifice freedom of the press and freedom of speech in their quest for wealth. A new world order may well be upon us, and in this gripping and devastating book John Kampfner reveals how it may just be too late to stop it.


Don’t risk real freedom for short-term material gain
(Times online)

Book Reviews:

Kampfner’s paradigm is Singapore, where subtle but well-understood pressures from the government keep troublesome media and opposition at bay. The consent of the people is won through economic growth and the good life; those who find the atmosphere stifling can leave.

– Robert Cooper, The Sunday Times

John Kampfner’s study of the Singapore style of government – now spreading across the world – chillingly shows how much is lost under this brand of democracy.

– Peter Preston, The Observer


Swap Freedom for Cash, Repression
by George Walden, Bloomberg

John Kampfner, a British foreign correspondent and former editor of the leftist New Statesman, is a man with a theory. The gist lies in the title of his new book, “Freedom for Sale: How We Made Money and Lost Our Liberty.”

His argument runs like this: Peoples around the world, in the democratic as well as the authoritarian camp, have a pact with governments whereby they sacrifice their freedoms and submit to selective repression in return for a measure of prosperity and security.

To prove his point, Kampfner roamed the world, from Russia, China, India, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates to Italy, Britain and the U.S. Though the circumstances differ, he says, the tendency to barter liberty for cash is everywhere the same.

In Russia he shows how, in the guise of the popular Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the country’s historic taste for political brutalism lingers. In China, an autocratic Communist Party seems set to retain power while it produces the goods. And in India, a sense of community has been sacrificed to capitalist development and corruption, he claims.

Grim reading, though there are nice touches, such as Putin’s un-modern remark that the relationship between governments and journalists resembles that between men and women: It’s the government’s role to make advances, and the media’s to resist.

Kampfner is a fine reporter and a stylish writer, yet it’s possible to admire the book and to disagree with his thesis. The snag is that he stretches it way too far Westward.

“The dividing lines between countries deemed to be authoritarian and countries deemed to be democracies are not as clear as people in the West believe them to be,” he writes.

Two plus two

One is tempted to invoke a question posed by the anti- rationalist hero of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From Underground.” What if, he asks, two plus two equals five? One possible answer: Stand your imagined five feet from the railroad tracks when an express train is passing and see how you get on.

So it is with this book. If freedoms in Britain and America have been eroded to the point where there’s little to choose between them and authoritarian lands — an irrational view it seems to me — try writing volumes like this in Russia or China. See what happens.

Yes, the U.S. and U.K. overreacted to terrorist attacks on their soil. But Kampfner overreacts in his turn, notably when describing America after Sept. 11, 2001.

Dragnets after 9/11

“In the months immediately after 9/11, some 80,000 people were rounded up in dragnets across the country. Most were of Middle Eastern origin, many of them ‘illegals,’” he intones. “The notions of guilt and innocence were discarded.”

Sounds scary, but think about it. Why is it unreasonable to detain illegal immigrants from the Mideast after terrorists from that region have incinerated almost 3,000 people in the Twin Towers, many of them, incidentally, from the Mideast?

As for the collusion of America’s citizens in the trashing of their own rights, and their political apathy, how does that square with the millions of new voters who helped elect President Barack Obama in a fine democratic race? Where is the similarity with Russia or China?

Kampfner is on firmer ground when he writes of the rising clout of authoritarian regimes, yet he fails to follow through. Most commentators, even Americans, nod sagely when it’s suggested that the U.S. should be cut down to size in favor of a brave new multipolar world.

But these tough, newly rich and nationalistic regimes are mostly the governments that Kampfner so eloquently chastises. If the U.S. declines to deal with such regimes, it gets accused of being confrontational. If it does have truck with them, it is charged with sharing their cynical values: We’re as bad as they are, the argument goes.

There’s good stuff in this book, and the author is as well read as he is widely traveled. Too bad his bibliography doesn’t include “The Case for Goliath,” a cooler, non-partisan look at America’s place in the world by Michael Mandelbaum.

George Walden, a former U.K. diplomat and member of Parliament.

Global Undemocratic Revolution

Book Review by James Bovard (
The American Conservative)

While many Americans know that chewing gum is illegal in Singapore, they are unaware that until recently oral sex was punishable by two years in prison. The government has almost totally repressed political opposition. When journalists or others criticize, they are bankrupted by volleys of defamation suits. Kampfner notes, “People confide only in their good friends here; meaningful opinion polls do not exist.” But as long as the economy has boomed, there has been little or no resistance to authoritarianism.

Kampfner spent two stints as a journalist in Russia, one before and one after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He writes, “The West’s overall approach during the 1990s was a mix of condescension, ingratiation, and insensitivity.” Perceived U.S. government meddling in Georgia in late 2003, which helped install Mikheil Saakashvili in power, was a turning point for the Russians, compounded by the U.S. intervention in the Ukrainian election the following year.

Freedom flourished in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed, but has faded in the new century. Media criticism of the Russian regime is tempered by routine assassinations of bothersome reporters. According to the Russian Union of Journalists, “more than two hundred journalists have been killed in 10 years. In not a single case has the mastermind been arrested.” Putin and his cohorts routinely refer to “zhurnalyuga—journalist-scum.” Even organizations that merely document the crimes of the Stalin era have been targeted for police raids and repression, since they interfere with Putin’s effort to revive patriotic fervor.

Putin’s power has been practically unlimited since Boris Yeltsin crowned him as his successor. The Russian parliament has rubberstamped laws punishing “antistate behavior” that grant “the security services the right to kill enemies of the state at home and abroad. Another gives law enforcement agencies the right to view acts of dissent as forms of extremism or treason, crimes punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Treason has been redefined to include damaging Russia’s constitutional order.”

India is the world’s most populous democracy, but it is far more authoritarian than most Westerners recognize. “Police encounters” is the colloquial term for police killings, which are routinely open-air executions followed by the ritual planting of a weapon on the deceased. Kampfner writes, “For nearly 30 years, these shoot-to-kill encounters have been a regular occurrence in the major cities, and, according to public opinion polls, they are highly popular with the public.” The Indian parliament passed sweeping anti-terrorism legislation in 2002 that gave the government power to detain terrorist suspects for up to a year without bail. Other anti-terrorism laws entitle authorities to arrest “relatives as hostages when a person wanted by the police absconds.” India’s democratic pretensions have not stood in the way of horrific attacks by Hindu mobs on minority Muslims, sometimes aided and abetted by the police.

In some democracies, governing is indistinguishable from looting. In Italy after World War II, “a system of state larceny was enshrined.” Until the early 1990s, Italian politics was “denuded of respectability and credibility, and rotted to the core by corruption,” Kampfner remarks. After a two-year crackdown on thieving weasels, Italy reverted to form. This worked out well for Silvio Berlusconi, the media baron who snared three terms as president. He showed contempt for any limits on his own power and repeatedly pushed through parliament laws giving himself total legal immunity, regardless of what crimes he might commit. He vigorously pressured the media to stifle criticism, including successfully pressuring one television channel to cancel a late night political satire that mocked him.

Kampfner wonders, “In a democracy, how can a leader who has openly set about to destroy an independent media and independent judiciary, and whose personal finances are murky at best, command such popularity?”

Yet as long as Berlusconi denounces Communists and socialists, many Italians accept him as the incarnation of freedom. Last year, he broadened his political base by incorporating another political party into his own and naming the combination The People of Freedom. “We are the party of Italians who love freedom and who want to remain free,” he declared. And Berlusconi must have absolute legal immunity so that he will have unfettered power to fight the enemies of freedom.

The chapter on the United Kingdom is the strongest part of the book. During the decade of Blair’s rule, Parliament created “more than 3,000 new criminal offenses. That corresponded to two new offenses for each day Parliament sat during Blair’s premiership.” British citizens are treated like a mass of unindicted criminal conspirators. The UK is now the most surveilled nation on earth, with over 5 million closed-circuit televison cameras sweeping the streets, waiting to detect anyone publicly urinating or committing any of a long list of other offenses. The cameras automatically recognize license places and faces, as well as “suspicious behavior.” New software issues an alert when “people are walking suspiciously or strangely.” The CCTVs in some places are equipped with loudspeakers to permit government officials to shout at people who litter. In Liverpool, drones hover 100 yards above the ground lurking for scofflaws. Their loudspeakers startle Brits foolish enough to believe no one is watching their mischief.

The Blair regime also helped unleash a tidal wave of wiretaps. Government agencies are requesting approval for more than 300,000 wiretap operations a year—probably a hundred times more than the corresponding rate of administrations in the United States. (Illicit wiretaps are another story: the U.S. may far surpass Britain on that score.)

This issue flared up briefly in the election campaign that ended on May 6. Blair’s successor as prime minister, Gordon Brown, was wearing a microphone for a TV network as he went out and talked to commoners. He ran into one elderly widow who complained about immigrants. After he returned to his chauffeured car, he groused that the woman was a “bigot” and wanted to know which aide allowed her to talk to him. Typical stuff for lordly politicians—except that his microphone was still on. One Twitter user quipped, “Gordon Brown has created a total surveillance society. Glad to see he got caught out, now he knows how we all feel.”

Once a government has become committed to achieving omniscience over its subjects, any half-witted justification for expanding the dragnet suffices. After the British government created the largest DNA database in the world, ministers urged that “police be allowed to take the DNA of anyone stopped for not wearing seatbelts.” When people balked at a mandatory national identification card with extensive biometric data, Charles Clarke, the home secretary, declared that the proposal was a “profoundly civil libertarian measure because it promotes the most fundamental civil liberty in our society, which is the right to live free from crime and fear.” After promising freedom from fear, a politician can always invoke polls showing widespread fears to justify seizing new power. The more people government frightens, the more benevolent its dictatorial policies appear.

But nowhere is the recent decline of democracy more evident than in the United States. After the 9/11 terror attacks, President George W. Bush effectively suspended habeas corpus and claimed a right to detain anyone in perpetuity on his own say so. The National Security Agency launched a massive illegal wiretapping program that eavesdropped on thousands of Americans’ phone calls and e-mails without warrants. After the New York Times exposed the program, Bush bragged about it in his State of the Union address and received a standing ovation from Republican members of Congress.

The more oppressive U.S. policies became, the more servile the media acted. Even after the Abu Ghraib photos and John Yoo’s “presidential torture entitlement” memo surfaced, most newspapers and magazines ducked the issue. This pattern was locked in place by late 2001, when Attorney General John Ashcroft declared, “those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty … only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and … give ammunition to America’s enemies.” Even if the critics were accurate, they were still traitors.

One of the nation’s most prominent pundits, Michael Kinsley, admitted in 2002 that he had been listening to his “inner Ashcroft”: “As a writer and editor, I have been censoring myself and others quite a bit since September 11.” Kinsley conceded that sometimes it was “simple cowardice” that sparked the censorship. Kampfner notes the intense pressure on American commentators during the war on terror and observes, “the most sensitive issue of them all was policy toward Israel.” Criticizing Israel after 9/11 was as prudent as praising Stalin during the Cold War.

Freedom for Sale places much of the blame for democracy’s decline on the pursuit of wealth at any price. Politicians who praise free markets often receive carte blanche to abuse constitutions. But free markets by themselves are not inherently depraving. Democracy is floundering in part because politicians gorged on power for decades.

This is the age of Leviathan Democracy. The bigger government grows, the more clueless citizens become. The contract between rulers and ruled is replaced by a blank check. Government becomes an elective dictatorship, and elections merely signify whose turn it is to trample the Constitution. Because people have been taught to expect their rulers to save them from all perils, they cheer any action that either boosts their benefits or assuages their fears. Because the media relies on government “news” handouts, it ignores most official abuses and instead whines about the perils of citizens distrusting their masters.

Kampfner complains about the collapse of “redistributive democracy” in recent years. But politicians are buying more votes than ever before. At the state and local level in the U.S., government employees and pensioners often have a death grip on everyone else’s paychecks. Government entitlement spending is pushing nation after nation towards insolvency.

He also contends that politicians have “opted out of economic rule-making.” Maybe in Singapore, but not in the United States. It was politicians and political appointees who poured far too much credit into the housing sector, causing one of the biggest boom-and-busts in American history. It was politicians who created a new ad hoc “rule” that entitled them to bail out Wall Street and a host of financial institutions that richly deserved bankruptcy. It is politicians who empower and shield the Federal Reserve, permitting it to manipulate everyone’s finances according to secret rules that provide the greatest benefit to insiders.

The ultimate threat to democracy’s survival may be the fact that many people simply do not value their own freedom. When elections degenerate into a search for benevolent caretakers and cage-keepers, authoritarianism is almost guaranteed to win on Election Day. Freedom for Sale is a powerful wake-up call for anyone who still believes in the inevitable global triumph of democracy.

James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy, Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty, and seven other books.