Economic Liberty and Democracy in East Asia

Political democracy, in the sense of majority rule, has had virtually nothing to do with the rapid growth of East Asian economies. Rather, growth has been achieved primarily by economic liberalization and limiting the role of government in economic affairs, or by what one might call “economic democracy”; that is, the widening of freedom of choice in economic life. When the government has gotten out of the way of the market, so that economic liberty could be cultivated, participation in economic life has spurred the growth of the non-state sector and helped bring about the East Asian economic miracle.

Yet, as economic liberalization has proceeded, the demand for political democracy has grown. People desire democracy as part of their overall freedom. The right to participate in political life and to shape the future course of government is essential in a free society, but unlimited democracy can undermine freedom and attenuate rights. The tyranny of the majority is to be feared as much as any other tyranny. That is why it is important to consider not just the form of government but the substance as well.

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