MANILA — Often I begin workshops or classes dealing with liberalism by asking participants to share their definition of that political concept by jotting catchwords on little cards that are then collected and pinned to a moderation board. Not only is this method, as I have come to learn, highly participatory, but it also comes close to a written referendum of the group on the definition of a highly complex and controversial concept.

Always topping the list of catchwords defining liberalism is the term “freedom.” No doubt freedom is at the very center of liberal thinking and ideology. In the exercise, participants frequently annotate the noun freedom: For them, liberalism means freedom of expression, freedom of association and opinion or, very basically, freedom to do as one desires.

When I conduct this exercise with participants from Western countries, the answers tend to differ somewhat. Outside of Asia, emphasis is put on the freedom of the individual and individualism. This differentiation between East and West is not surprising, as most Asian cultures, particularly those influenced by Confucian thinking, put more emphasis on harmony in society than on the right of self-realization of the individual.

Not very long ago, these divergences in political philosophy were highlighted by Asian authors who suggested that, for cultural reasons, liberalism and democracy are unacceptable concepts for this part of the world. Fortunately, this so-called Asian values debate has been laid to rest, as the true intentions of the authors have been exposed: to legitimize authoritarianism by undemocratic (and therefore illiberal) rulers.

While freedom is at the core of liberal ideology, there are other principles and values that are of similar importance. Freedom, in a liberal context, must always be accompanied by responsibility; otherwise, it will degenerate into lawlessness and anarchy. Freedom in the political sense leads to democracy, where liberals uphold the principles of pluralism with checks and balances. Furthermore, a liberal society will always defend human rights and maintain the rule of law. Liberals see this as the best mechanism to strive for equality in society, as the rule of law prescribes that every one is equal before the law.

Admittedly, liberal theoreticians have had problems with the concept of “equality” in the sense of economic and social egalitarianism. Aside from all other differences, here lies the main divergence between liberals and socialists: While socialists tend to favor an order that assures equality of results, liberals insist that equality should be limited to opportunities. In political practice today, these differences have become blurred, as political forces move to the center. Ideologically clear-cut party programs have become the exception.

Nevertheless, you may note, that liberally minded politicians will in doubt opt for solutions that increase the freedom of the individual, while governments influenced by socialist thinking will promote policies favoring equality.

The dialectics of freedom and equality are specifically relevant to economic policies. In this field I have discovered the greatest discrepancies in political thinking between Asian liberals and their Western colleagues. If you ask a European liberal today to define his ideology, it won’t take long before he shoots out the word “market.”

In Asia, I have found, enthusiasm for the benefits of the market economy are far less developed. In this part of the world, even members of self-proclaimed liberal parties regard free trade as a scheme that has made the rich societies more affluent while helping to keep the underdeveloped poor. There exists a general understanding that the present world economic order is unfair, that it helps perpetuate economic inequalities and misery in the Southern Hemisphere.

Interestingly, in the Liberal Party of the Philippines, to give but one example, you may find politicians who favor protectionism. Western supporters of economic liberalization will have problems bringing these basically nationalist forces in Asia to their side as long as rich countries continue their own illiberal policies. Although Western governments advocate free trade, they continue the highly illiberal practice of domestic production and export subsidies. As a result, local markets in the Third World are flooded with cheap imports, damping (and in some cases even destroying) local production.

As the illiberal regime in international trade continues, there is growing evidence that societies that liberalize their economies create more wealth than those that don’t.

“Countries willing to unleash their economies invariably raise their standard of living,” writes the Heritage Foundation in a recent report that ranks the world’s freest economies.

Topping this list of liberalized economies are Hong Kong and Singapore, followed by New Zealand, Luxembourg and Ireland. The two Asian front-runners may have showpiece market economies, but they are surely not models of politically free societies, with Singapore having a specially depressing record of dealing with political dissent.

From a liberal standpoint, the economic success of Hong Kong and Singapore, and also the breathtaking economic development of South Korea, Taiwan (one may also add Indonesia and Malaysia), under former authoritarian rulers poses a special challenge. Liberals don’t accept political suppression as a precondition for economic development; they strongly believe that there exists no better method of creating wealth than the market economy.

Too often, political discussions focus on distributing wealth in society. At this, socialist governments have proven to be the masters. Still, you must create wealth before you redistribute it. In this regard, only the liberals hold the key to a better future for all.

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