Libertarianism in Japan

By Boaz, David | Freeman, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Libertarianism in Japan


Boaz, David, Freeman


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.

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