Freedom is not a uniform and static phenomenon. Within the same jurisdiction, at different times, rules may be enforced upon some more than others creating undeclared castes. Nor is Freedom an objective and standardized formula. Rather, it is a relative assessment and to find the true measure of Freedom, one must compare the plight of the poor in different places. The diversity of options available through which the great majority can improve its lot constitutes a substantial amount of the liberty present in a society. In 2013, I spent 9 months in China where I observed the greater degree of freedom in which the poorest urban Chinese live compared to my own supposed freedom back in Canada, and I discovered that it is better to be poor and ignored in a dictatorship than be poor and cared for by a democratic government.
China is no longer a Communist country but is still ruled by the party of that name whose membership, by a strange coincidence, includes the richest people in China. The party no longer directs industrial and agricultural production, contenting itself merely to exercising a fascist-like influence over the biggest enterprises and the wealthiest individuals according to a sliding scale of control: The more money one has, the more the government notices one. This means that poor people (like the proles of 1984) are largely ignored by the state allowing them a freedom of self-sufficiency which low-income Canadians can only dream off.
Any employment licenses, regulations and restrictions there may be are completely ignored. People are free to do what they can in exchange for money. A man with a chair and clippers cuts hair on the sidewalk, a family collects scrap or fixes bicycles in the one-room storefront which doubles as their home, a women sells chicken eggs hatched in her backyard, moped owners haul freight or passengers, street vendors supply myriad other goods and services, and all without government intervention. For example, I remember seeing people pressing pomegranates into juice and selling it on the street. Someone grows and packs the fruit which is then transported to the location where a vendor, with simple table and juice press, squeezes the input into a cup ready for consumption. Many people are employed in this endeavor and the only requirement is a desire to work. No appeal to the government is necessary, no special permission or code of rules hampers the ingenious and ambitious. If such enterprise can easily be conducted in a supposedly repressive police state, then surely it should be encountered on a much larger scale in an advanced Western democracy like Canada… Right?
In Canada, the poorest are often victims of the Welfare State: i.e. people who cannot apply themselves for their own benefit due to innumerable state impositions like licenses, the minimum wage, regulations, quotas, labor unions and the thousand-and-one ways the government increases employer costs.
The economic anarchy enjoyed by the urban poor in China is strictly illegal in Canada: One cannot simply provide a service or product in exchange for money. One cannot sell things on the sidewalk or use a space contravening zoning laws. One cannot provide a service without permission and supervision from the authorities. People’s options are literally criminalized by the state. Unless one breaks the law, the poor in Canada must live on Welfare and those born in that situation face overwhelming obstacles. The government castigates an entire class of people unable to obtain legal requirements and forbidden from making money otherwise.
At all levels of employment, the individual must navigate through a labyrinth of prerequisites and jump over numerous hurdles. For example, to practice law, one must earn the scholastic credentials necessary to apply to an expensive law school, then undergo a long and expensive licensing program, including passing such ancillary qualifications as a Good Character Assessment as well as obtaining insurance in order to join the Law Society (which is a fancy name for labor union), purchase equipment, fulfill mandatory legal aid and apprentice-type positions, and all other requirements to finally emerge as a full-fledged lawyer who will continue to pay union dues, obligatory “continuing training” courses and various subscriptions.
If one instead contemplates a career in the trades, at least legally, one must embark an a convoluted application process to a designated trade school, pay fees, spend years acquiring “on the job training”, pay for a union card and mandatory equipment as well as find a sponsor to finally be allowed entrance into the lowest rank of a government controlled trade where one must then continue paying union dues, perhaps buy insurance, spend more time in grade before paying for an application to matriculate to next level.
The cost of training and licensing alone effectively bars anyone from a low-income background. Furthermore, one must also contend against the ideological policies of the licensing bureaucracy and compete against quota-hires for an artificially low number of licenses and jobs. This leaves only the unskilled labor market available and as noted above, the Welfare State initiatives ostensibly designed to help the poor actually work against them. Public school, at the very least, does not prepare young people for employment, assuming they don’t drop out to evade the drugs and violence… Even if one bothers to graduate from high school, minimum wage laws effectively place a tax on the young and unskilled while a plethora of labor diktats makes it almost necessary to hire workers under-the-table, giving hard-pressed employers a choice between citizens who must report their income to the government and illegal aliens who don’t.
These obstacles also exist in China, although it may be easier to outflank them through networking and bribery, but the important difference is that those at the bottom are not blocked by the kinds of government controls which stifles the Canadian underclass.
A further discrepancy I noticed concerns community life. Not lucrative enough for the Communist Party to shake down, the poor in China organize themselves into communities where resources are pooled and families help each other. Although one would not see it at first glance, there are chambers of commerce, investment groups and people who lend out money like banks, they simply do not look like bankers and their services are limited to a small, localized clientele. Not subjected to government micro-management, individuals exercise are greater freedom to choose how they wish to better their lives. All of this was destroyed in Canada by the Welfare State: The mutual assistance groups which used to be a pillar of community life had their functions nationalized, health care is an unspeakable monolith, education became indoctrination, financial services are regulated, employment is controlled and Welfare has broken the family.
There is no political freedom in China and certain opinions are prohibited; the same is true of Canada. In China, one is arrested for directly opposing the state but simple criticism is commonplace and no one fears informally lamenting government policy. Whereas in Canada, there is a strong religion of Diversity, Feminism and Canada-Worship under which people do fear espousing even informal criticism, looking over their shoulder lest someone claim to be offended and never publicly disagreeing with media propaganda for fear of persecution not unlike the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps the penalty is not as overtly severe, i.e. a prison sentence in China might be worse than unemployment, destitution and possible homelessness in Canada, but by how much…? As Milton Friedman stated, economic freedom is the most important aspect of human liberty and in this regard, the urban poor of China enjoy a far greater freedom than the welfare slaves of Canada. Any offset in civil or political liberty Canadians might exercise seems paltry at best. It is a sad indictment when it can be claimed that in substantial ways, at least for the poor, there is relatively more freedom in China than in Canada.