Do you live in a democracy and does it matter?

This is my review of Freedom for Sale: How We Made Money and Lost Our Liberty by John Kampfner.

The journalist John Kampfner examines in turn a wide range of modern states which have to varying degrees traded personal freedom for the promise of increased security, prosperity or both.

He opens with a fascinating chapter on Singapore, the self-styled "most successful state in the history of humanity" where Lee Kuan Yew has micro-managed his state to create a well-behaved, conformist population, in which extreme poverty has been eradicated, people are kept happy with shopping and recreational facilities, and alarm bells only begin to ring when you realise that free speech is trammelled, dissenters are harshly punished, and the rate of capital punishment is "regarded as secret" but said to be among the highest in the world. As a local sociologist observes, "Understanding the limits of freedom is what makes freedom possible". As Kampfner adds, "perhaps it depends on which freedoms and which limits."

Subsequent chapters cover China and Russia, where the West made the cardinal error of assuming that the encouragement of the free market after the collapse of communism would automatically lead to greater democracy. Then we move on to the "consumer excess" of the United Arab Emirates, supported by near-slave immigrant labour, the "functioning anarchy" of India, and Italy under Berlusconi.

The next section on Britain with a focus on the development of the "surveillance state" under Blair, seems the least successful, perhaps because the details are already familiar but too condensed and partial.

The "tainted dream" of the United States provides the final case study, with the Bush regime's sharp clampdown to minimise the terrorist threat after the shock of 9/11: in one case, a dragnet based on tip-offs which rounded up 80,000 people, mostly illegal immigrants, did not lead to a single conviction for terrorism.

All this shows that the "difference.. between countries roughly in.. the `authoritarian camp', and those who pride themselves on their `democratic' values may be one of degree".

The author notes in his interesting postscript how he has been attacked as "anti-capitalist" on one hand and an "apologist for dictators" on the other – a misreading of his argument on both counts. He simply presents the facts in a lively style, and leaves us to reflect on the nature of our freedom, and whether we have as much as we think, or need.

Offering ideas, but no easy solutions, he ends with the sad irony that many nations' freedom has been "bought off with a temporary blanket of security and what turned out to be illusory prosperity" after the economic crash which has affected Singapore, China and Dubai as well as the US and Europe.

For a readable book of this length, Kampfner has done a good job. My reservations are twofold. Firstly, he glosses over what freedom and democracy really are, tending to assume that readers will already know – unlikely if few of us really have them! Secondly, this book (which needs to be updated regularly) would benefit from a fuller and more realistic analysis of how countries facing economic collapse could take the opportunity to re-align the balance between wealth-creation, security and liberty.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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