The importance of the role played by economic freedom in the rise of western civilisation cannot be over emphasised. One of the difficulties of assessing the importance of economic freedom is that it is inextricably connected to political freedom. Both from logical and historical standpoints, it appears that the two types of freedom represent the two sides of the same coin. The importance of political freedom is fundamentally linked to the conviction that an individual should be at liberty to pursue his or her own ends in a manner that he or she thinks fit. This is the essence of economic freedom. Conversely it is economic freedom which makes independent political action possible.
Political freedom, by which is meant rights such as the right to vote, the right of free association and the right to free expression, enables individuals to determine who their rulers shall be and how they shall be ruled. This freedom has been decisive in the rise of western civilisation but it would have amounted to little except for the fact that it enabled society to be organised in such a fashion that individuals were left with the autonomy to pursue their own happiness. This freedom to seek self fulfilment generated the tremendous prosperity that we now enjoy. Milton Friedman says:
"The preservation of freedom is the protective reason for limiting and decentralising governmental power. But there is also a constructive reason. The great advances of civilisation, whether in architecture, or painting, in science or literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralised government. Columbus did not set out to seek a new route to China in response to a majority directive of a parliament, though he was partly financed by an absolute monarch. Newton and Leibniz; Einstein and Bohr, Shakespeare, Milton and Pasternak; Whitney, McCormich, Edison and Ford; Jane Addams, Florence Nightingale and Albert Schwietzer; no one of these opened new frontiers of human knowledge and understanding, in literature, in technical possibilities, or in the relief of human misery, in response to governmental directives. Their achievements were the product of individual genius, of strongly held minority views, of a social climate permitting variety and diversity." (Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, Chicago (1962) pp 3-4).
What Friedman refers to is not the freedom or the privilege of electing leaders. He refers to the freedom to be left alone to pursue one's own ends for one's own motives. In the early history of liberalism, the value of political freedom was considered to be its ability to limit governmental power and to protect individual autonomy. In other words, political freedom was considered to be the means by which economic freedom was realised. It is ultimately economic freedom which inspired mankind to the achievements on which modern civilisation is founded.
Today, regrettably, a very different view of political freedom is in vogue. It is taken to mean the power whereby we may compel governments to provide people with material benefits. Pressure groups - especially those having strong media backing may successfully influence governments to provide their constituents with material and other benefits at the expense of the rest of the community (the vast majority). Political freedom is used to empower governments. What is happening is a surrender of individual autonomy to an authority which is incapable of satisfying the demands placed upon it.
The prosperity that western countries enjoy today is not the result of governmental action. Governments have succeeded in maintaining order and providing welfare for the needy and not so needy. The system can legitimately be asked to provide welfare for the genuinely needy. But the expansion of services and activities which governments have undertaken in modern times has occurred at enormous cost to economic freedom, which formerly served as the engine of advancement in science, in culture, and in material prosperity. By the misuse of political freedom, in making demands on governments, those economic freedoms which in the past helped in the conquest of poverty, ignorance and misery are being slowly undermined.