The Bear’s Lair: The ever-more blurred line between free and unfree

Like any good child of the Cold War era, I was brought up to believe there were white hats and black hats: democratic countries that respected freedoms, even though one might disagree with particular governments, and non-democratic countries, at that time mostly Communist but historically also Fascist, who violated human rights and individual freedoms with impunity. Now we have a democratically elected international bully who is corrupt and tyrannical, yet runs a pretty admirable economic policy, and a democratically elected darling of the media who behaves like a tyrant when opposed. The freedom line is growing awfully blurred and may disappear altogether if some possible dystopias eventuate.

Justin Trudeau was unquestionably elected, albeit at the head of a minority government. A man of infinite self-satisfaction and uncertain temper, he was provoked by a protest of truckers against his draconian Covid mandates to invoke an emergency legislation that was intended for war or terrorism and use it to freeze the assets of some hundreds of Canadian citizens foolish enough to leave their savings in Canadian banks.

The first implication of this action is to reinforce this column’s long-held view that a numbered anonymous Swiss bank account, subject to Swiss banking secrecy laws that alas no longer exist, is a key civil liberty. A holding in the crypto-currency Monero may provide some of the same protections, though in practice it is more vulnerable to private-sector theft than a Swiss bank vault.

However, the attempt by Trudeau to deprive several thousand of his political opponents, mostly ordinary people with no political position, of their means of survival is tyranny by any stretch of the imagination. Add Canada’s high level of taxation, its intrusive “climate change” regulations imposing massive costs on its citizens, its Draconian restrictions on free speech and its attempt to implement a China-type “social credit” score, and I put it to you that Canada today is not a free country as we have traditionally understood the term. The satirical “Babylon Bee” suggested the U.S. should invade Canada to establish a democracy – they have a point!

President Vladimir Putin is a very unpleasant man, no question about that even prior to this year. However, he is not technically an autocrat – he was elected most recently by a questionable election and his habit of violently eliminating his opponents has not made him unelectable, as it would in Britain or the United States. Russians have always tolerated a greater amount of thuggery in their rulers than we would find acceptable. Last Sunday, I watched a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, based on the poem by Alexander Pushkin. I was struck by the story’s similarity to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” – except that, these people being Russian, Mr. Darcy kills Mr. Bingley in a duel, after which everybody’s lives are ruined and the happy ending disappears altogether.

Putin does not appeal to us; he does appeal to many Russians, giving them government similar to that of their traditional rulers, with fewer remnants of Communism than in many Western “social democracies.” Economically, he has done a comparatively decent job; since Russia’s last debt crisis he has built up the country’s reserves and pared state spending, so that public debt is now less than 25% of GDP – a measure growing increasingly distant in the rear-view mirror everywhere in the West. What’s more, Putin has achieved this while running a 13% flat tax income tax and relatively little state regulation – in other words, a level of freedom and competent economic management, however corrupt, utterly unequalled in the West. While he may be determinedly following Stalin in his foreign policy, he has been closer to Ronald Reagan in his economic policy.

Back in my banking days, I visited Argentina in the days of the military dictatorship and had a very pleasant lunch with the late Roberto Bullrich, President of the Banco de la Provincia de Buenos Aires. Naturally, we discussed current Argentine politics, and I tentatively mentioned reports in the U.S. press that various journalists had been “disappeared.” “Ah, but you must remember,” responded Bullrich, “under the previous regime (democratic, led by leftist Isabela Peron) their left-wing allies used to kidnap and torture bankers.” That being before my foray into journalism, I naturally agreed that the current state of affairs was greatly preferable. Freedom can most usefully be looked at from a number of angles!

As for Britain and the United States, I love both countries dearly, but their devotion to freedom is today not what it should be. In Britain, freedom of speech appears to be a dead letter, as there are continual reports of careless rough-tongued Brits being subjected to terms of imprisonment. Without a referendum, the British are being forced to pay untold costs to support Boris Johnson’s ”Net Zero” fantasy. (China is a thuggish and unpleasant police state, far more of a danger to the West than Russia, but its citizens are not made to pay excess taxes for climate change fantasies – on the contrary, President Xi’s regime is building ever more cheap, efficient coal plants.)

As for the United States, apart from similar attacks on liberty to Canada and Britain, it has just sequestered $6 billion of the Afghan Central Bank’s assets, to redistribute to doubtless thoroughly corrupt charities of its choosing. I really do not see why the Afghan people changing their government, in a process that was full acquiesced to by the U.S. military who were on the ground at the time, should thereby be forced to lose their central bank reserves, which they could make good use of right now to restart their economy. The United States has always been careless of property rights, left out of the Declaration of Independence, which was shortly followed by mass looting of innocent Loyalists; a country that persistently does this cannot properly be regarded as free. Using the wokies of tech to impose speech restrictions is also not within traditions of U.S. freedom and should be resisted and if necessary made illegal.

Finally, there are the Covid restrictions, imposed almost worldwide and apparently almost entirely useless. Naturally, the original demand for “two weeks to flatten the curve” was willingly accepted by most people, but the prolongation of restrictions far beyond their use has shown us a very ugly side of most Western governments. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau are the worst offenders, whose main joy in life appears to be imposing costly restrictions on their people, but few governments are entirely guiltless in this area.

There are still some genuinely un-free countries in the world – Iran and Venezuela are good examples – but there are today no substantial genuinely free ones. EU countries have been corrupted by the central bureaucracy, which has imposed leftist governments on Italy, without the locals having any chance to vote them out. Britain since Tony Blair and the United States since George W. Bush and Barack Obama have fallen far below their fine previous levels of freedom. The Anglosphere countries, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have all behaved especially badly during the Covid pandemic. Economically also, regulation grows like bindweed, while taxes only do not increase because budget deficits and “funny money” do.

Drawing distinctions between “partly free” and “mostly unfree” countries seems pointless – certainly not worth starting wars for.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)