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Libertarianism in Japan

David Boaz

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute. This is adapted from the preface for the Japanese edition of his book Libertarianism: A Primer.

The publication of a primer on libertarianism in Japan is another sign of two heartening developments: the continuing process of the world’s people being drawn closer together, and the worldwide spread of the ideas of peace and freedom at the end of a century of war and statism.

Americans, and especially American libertarians, find much to admire in the Japanese people: their strong families, their commitment to education, their strong sense of individual responsibility, their peaceful and democratic society, and their productive entrepreneurship that has given the world so much material progress over the past 50 years. The Japanese can take much pride in their economic success, and they certainly don’t deserve the criticism they have received from protectionists in the United States and Europe who don’t want to compete in a global economy.

But recent economic problems in Japan and its Asian neighbors indicate that there are problems with the region’s economic policies. An economy largely based on private property, individual initiative, and free markets has been hampered by too much state allocation of capital and too much of what Americans call “crony capitalism.” These policy mistakes have led to the need for currency reform (mostly in Asian countries other than Japan) and deregulation of financial services. Also, Japanese consumers have not always reaped the benefits of economic growth, and deregulation of retailing—particularly a repeal of the laws that impede the opening of large discount stores—might allow them to achieve standards of living commensurate with their productivity. But none of this should obscure the real achievement of the Japanese in dramatically increasing their living standard in scarcely a generation through productive enterprise in a system based on low taxes, free trade, and the rule of law.

The libertarian philosophy has much to offer Japan as we move into a global millennium. But an obvious question may occur to Japanese readers: Are these just American ideas, or at most Western ideas? Do they have any relevance to the people of Japan and Asia?

Universal Values

Some Asian leaders have criticized liberalism and proposed “Asian values” as an alternative. Singapore’s leader, Lee Kuan Yew, has said that his country does not “need the kind of free-for-all libertarianism that we see in America.” But the values of individual rights, limited government, and free markets are universal values. The principles of science are universal, even though so much of the discovery of those scientific principles took place in the West. No one would argue today that mathematics and physics are “Western” ideas or that Asians cannot participate in the scientific enterprise. Liberalism, now known as libertarianism, developed in the West, but it speaks to all people.

But Westerners steeped in the ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith can learn much from Asians who study the traditions of Confucius and Lao-Tzu. Lao-Tzu, who wrote that “without law or compulsion, men would dwell in harmony” and who taught that harmony can emerge from competition, may well have been the world’s first libertarian. A similar concept can be found in Zen.

Today the Asian emphasis on strong families and personal responsibility fits better with libertarian political philosophy than does the unfortunate trend in Europe and the United States toward personal irresponsibility, a sense of entitlement, and reliance on the state. Indeed, Japan and America have more to learn from each other than either of us has to learn from the failing welfare states of Europe or the statist model of France.

Libertarianism is sometimes perceived as a radical philosophy, even in its American home. But in fact it is the fundamental philosophy of the modern world: liberty, equality, enterprise, the rule of law, constitutional government. These ideas have become so commonplace that we forget how radical they were at one time. Libertarians want to apply those principles more consistently than do the adherents of other ideologies. But few people in the modern world would want to reject libertarian ideas wholesale.

Liberalize to Prosper

The largest trends in the world reflect libertarian values. Communism is virtually gone, and few people still defend state socialism. Eastern Europe is struggling to achieve societies based on property rights, markets, and the rule of law. Honest observers throughout the developed world understand that the middle-class welfare states are unsustainable and will have to be radically reformed. The information revolution is empowering individuals and small groups and undermining the authority of centralized power.

Perhaps most importantly, the increasing globalization of the world economy means that countries that want to prosper will have to adopt a decentralized, deregulated, market-oriented economic model. You can’t avoid world markets in the 21st century; or if you do, you will be left out of the phenomenal economic growth that global markets and technological development will deliver.

So one reason that Japanese readers should be interested in libertarianism is very simple and practical: these are the ideas that drive the modern world, and you need to know about them. The other reason is that libertarianism offers to every country the promise of peace, economic growth, and social harmony. I hope Japanese readers will join American libertarians in working to restrain state power and liberate individuals, families, associations, and enterprises.

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