Political Freedom vs. Personal Freedom
Stephan Livera: I was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Australia. I am an Australian citizen, and essentially, the hysteria over the last two years and the culture in Australia drove me away. I was very, very disappointed with how things went in the country, and I was extremely disappointed at the attitude of what I thought were my fellow Australians. If you are an outsider looking into Australia, you have this perception of Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin and these tough Australian men who don’t take any nonsense from anyone, and they’ll have this sort of rebel outlaw culture. But unfortunately, it seems like that culture is very much gone or deteriorated. I think the culture in Australia is that it went very complacent. They had it too good for too long. They got wealthy. They were the lucky country, as the saying goes. And that essentially drove me away because I was being shut down and stopped from participating in the bitcoin world of attending bitcoin conferences and bitcoin events, obviously representing Swan Bitcoin. I’m being shut out, and I’m paying a very high tax for that privilege of being locked down. It was very, very disappointing to me.
I’ve been a libertarian for most of my life, since I was about fourteen or fifteen years old, and so, if you had asked me before this hysteria, I would have very much said, “Hey, come to Australia, it’s a great country. The taxes aren’t great, but overall, it’s pretty free and the people are nice and it’s good.” But basically, from 2020 onward, that all changed, and I thought, What is the point? Why am I paying this high tax? Obviously as libertarians, we want taxes to be low or zero, but I thought, it’s tolerable. I can tolerate this for the certain freedoms that I’m getting. But in reality, 2020 showed that it was like the tide had gone out and Australia was shown swimming naked. Unfortunately, a lot of Australians do not value freedom. They became complacent, and that drove my search for an alternative.
I’m based in Dubai at the moment for a few reasons. Its low tax, its flight connectivity, its good infrastructure, and it’s ironic, but it ties back to our theme as well, this idea of political freedom and economic freedom, because in Dubai, it’s not like you all vote. The rules are there, and you choose it or you leave. And I saw something appealing about that because at least I can earn and pay very, very low tax or zero income tax. Obviously, there are other little taxes that you pay, things like license fees, sales tax, and so on, but the point is, I viewed it as a much better deal. And yes, obviously, it was a big move in terms of separating from friends and people I knew back in Australia. Obviously, I had my libertarian friends, my bitcoin friends, and obviously some family and friends there, but other than that, I saw myself missing an Australia that does not exist anymore. The Australia of the ’90s and the 2000s is no longer there.
JD: That’s so true. The past is a foreign country, as they say, and the other thing we learned, Stephan, over the past couple of years is that the Anglosphere—Canada and the United States, Australia and New Zealand—didn’t react any better than countries in the East. We think of China as a particularly authoritarian country, and I think that’s true, I think that’s fair. When we think of places like South Korea, when we think of places like Singapore, they were far more rational, in my opinion, in their approach to covid—both on the economic side and the lockdown side, the human side.
There’s so many different ways of looking at this. As you’re in Dubai, there’s actually a small bruhaha over here in the US: like other sports leagues, the National Basketball Association is attempting to increase its footprint around the world and is planning some games coming up in the next season in Dubai, and there’s some pushback on that because apparently Dubai has some pretty draconian antihomosexuality laws. And so, this is where these two things interact. You are able to live fairly freely in a way that you enjoy in Dubai, in terms of your personal work, your personal life, your taxes, but then other people come along and say, “Well, if you happen to be gay and you live in Dubai, you have a tougher time of it.” These things always have to be weighed against one another, but I think this distinction between personal freedom and economic freedom is really quite overblown.
If you look at some of the surveys that different groups have produced—the Fraser Institute and Cato produce what’s called the Human Freedom Index, Heritage produces something called the Index of Economic Freedom, Freedom House produces Freedom in the World—they tend to create an x-y axis with personal freedom as the x and economic freedom as the y. I think that when it really comes down to it, every country has elites. This is just a natural part of life. The question is how can an average person lead their life in that country? That’s really the question, and for you, anyway, the calculus in Australia turned negative.
SL: Absolutely. And I think you’re right to point out that these indexes are interesting. In preparation, I had a look at some of the indexes, the Heritage one, the Cato and Fraser index, and it’s really interesting if you look at who they rate highly. They say, “Ah, these are the free countries.” And guess what? Canada, New Zealand, Australia all rank very highly, and yet they did not look at freedom of movement, which is one of the things these indexes should be looking at. They conflate democracy with freedom. We, as Austrian libertarians, we see it more as private property rights are rights and democracy is cutting against that. Imagine if we just get nine out of ten people to vote to steal the tenth guy’s property, that makes it … well, democratic. Obviously, it’s a little bit of a caricature, of a strawman, but in the Western world, they conflate democracy with freedom as though that’s really the meaning of freedom. You can go and protest for the right to free speech and all of these things when really, I think, the Austrian libertarian aspect or way of thinking is more like “No, whose property is it and who’s the rightful owner of that, and you should be able to decide what happens on that property.”
JD: If you think about your personal body and the property you own, everything flows from that, everything stems from that. If those two things are inviolable, then you are protected. But look, if you held a pure democratic vote in Saudi Arabia on gay marriage, it’d probably lose, right? This idea that democracy and freedom are inextricably linked, is of course, hugely faulty.
I want to tell listeners a little bit about some of the countries that did the best. So here’s the Heritage ranking, which is an economic freedom ranking. To their credit, this is about economics. They have four categories rule of law, government size, the regulatory efficiency, and open markets. And this data’s a little more current from ’21, so this would include the covid years. Singapore comes in number one. Remember Lee Kuan Yew? A lot of folks in the West viewed that guy as an authoritarian, and no one would call Singapore a democratic state today per se. Then Switzerland, Ireland, New Zealand, Luxembourg, Taiwan, Estonia. So I thought that was interesting. But when we go to the Cato- Fraser Human Freedom Index, it checks out a little bit differently. They have Hong Kong in the top position. Now, this data is precovid, so I think that makes a big difference. Then Singapore, then New Zealand, Switzerland, Georgia, United States, Ireland, Lithuania, Australia, and Denmark. So, what good is a freedom index if a virus comes along and all these little protofascists turn into actual fascists and tell you you can’t go to work?
SL: Absolutely. I think it’s very challenging. In some of these indexes, you want to also look at things like the freedom of doing business. Now, of course, in these indexes, they’ll look at things like how quickly can you set up a business if you are starting from scratch, but here’s the problem: If you’re under a lockdown or if there are mask regulations or other restrictions that stop you from actually doing your business, then it’s not really that free to do business, is it? That is a challenging thing to wrestle with because on one hand, we want people to have that freedom to do trade, but then on the other hand, there are these people who—they’re public health technocrats or medicrats of the world—are coming out and making these proclamations. I’m hopeful that this hysteria over the last few years is waning and we can start to see more economic actual freedom.
JD: I think, first and foremost, all these indices have to be updated to have a medical freedom component. Are you subject to so-called public health experts every time there’s a sniffle or a virus or a bird flu or whatever? That’s important. I want to read a bit from the Cato-Fraser Human Freedom Index because they actually break it down into what they’re weighing in far greater detail. They have some categories you would expect, like rule of law, but they have safety and security, things like homicide rates and no gang violence. They have freedom of movement, freedom of religion. Then they have the assembly, association, civil society, the expression of information, so you get into more of what we would consider the political or social rights. They have relationships, like same-sex marriage. So that’s all sort of on one axis. On the economic freedom, there’s size of government, the legal system, the tariffs, the regulations, the taxes. But what’s interesting is they have a sound money category, and this goes to inflation and money growth. I took a quick gander at the top ten countries with the least inflation in 2022 and the only major one there is Japan. The rest are very small, like the Maldives and Vanuatu and Bolivia, Saudi Arabia, but Japan actually has low inflation despite all of their other problems. So, that’s very interesting, to view inflation as injurious to human freedom. I think that’s very important.
SL: Absolutely, but as I’m sure you and listeners are aware, they always play with these metrics. There’s hedonic adaptation, and it’s a subjective thing. As we saw recently, the recent CPI, Consumer Price Index, statistic in the US is 8.3 percent, off the top of my head. Obviously, nobody believes that. It’s obviously much higher than that. And then, it’s not just that. Even in the Japan case, the yen seems to have gone down a fair bit because it seems like a lot of people want the US dollar instead. So, even in the case when there’s supposedly low inflation by the government, that doesn’t necessarily mean the value, the purchasing power, the buying power is staying stable. Of course, in general, I would agree with you that having low inflation is a good thing. It’s a time where people need to be thinking more carefully about where they store their value.
JD: Well, obviously, the US federal government was doing anything and everything it had to do to make sure that that number was not double digits. It wasn’t going to be a ten or an eleven. It’s probably eighteen or something like that in reality, but nonetheless, it’s interesting to think about economic freedom and personal freedom and what you’d be willing to trade individually. For example, when Fraser and Cato talk about religious liberty, a lot of people are atheists or agnostics and would say, “I don’t really care about that. That’s not an important value to me. I’d gladly trade that for maybe some other kind of freedom.” So I guess the question, the rhetorical question for our audience, is would you give up voting, for example, in exchange for paying zero taxes in a jurisdiction. Would you give up any kind of political expression, even mouthing off on Twitter, about politics in your country or any other in exchange for zero taxes? Would you give up other kinds of political freedoms in exchange for zero taxes? I think a lot of people, myself included, would take that.
SL: Right, if we really think about the impact of taxation over the course of your lifetime, especially if you did this when you were young, and you went overseas and you started making money—imagine once you compound it: if anyone just runs a basic compounding calculation on a spreadsheet, you’ll find that the saving for you is massive. By the time you get to the later stage of your life, you have all this additional wealth that you could then put into whatever cause you believe in, whether it’s Austrian economics education or whether it’s bitcoin opensource development. There are all kinds of resources that you could devote and put into causes that you believe in. I think that’s something we all have to really think deeply about, is what do we really see as a life purpose, a life mission. And of course, family is a big part of that too, for many of us, but you have to trade that off because at the end of the day, even if you were in one of the Western supposedly free countries, where you are meant to be able to be more free, well, guess what? In Australia, there was a pregnant woman in Victoria who got arrested on camera because she was organizing an antilockdown protest. What kind of freedom of speech is there, even in the so-called Western free nations, when that is the case?
JD: I think many of the freedoms which are being measured in a lot of the countries which are scoring well are shallow. The important point here is that these freedoms go out the window the minute there’s a crisis, the minute there’s a stock market crash, the minute there’s a terrorist event, the minute there’s a war, the minute there’s a virus. So, freedom really matters when politicians are under the gun and public officials are under the gun, and that’s when they dispense with them. We’ve always had wartime emergency suppression of speech and that sort of thing. This isn’t new.
Let’s talk about voting rights. Fast-forward to 2022. Women have been able to vote for quite a while. Black people have been able to vote in the United States for quite a while. What has that given us? Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton? This is not a great value for most people. If we look at freedom of speech in the United States, which is, to be fair, I’m going to argue, far more robust than in most countries in the world and certainly more robust even than in most Western countries. Judge Andrew Napolitano, a great friend of the Mises Institute, in his talk about the First Amendment in America said, “You know, if you look at the Supreme Court jurisprudence surrounding it, it’s been a lot more robust than surrounding the Second Amendment or the Fourth Amendment or some of these other important freedoms we thought we enjoyed.” So, the First Amendment has been pretty good overall in the United States, but again, what has that gotten us? It gets us this political class. Look at Twitter, look at woke, look at clown world. What does speech get us at the end of the day? So, the idea that freedom of speech is more important in a country than, let’s say, the tax rate I think is arguable.
SL: To echo a point I believe you’ve made as well, a lot of people are just overly fixated on the social. They don’t really think about the economic part, so they just get caught up in the issue of the day, whatever that issue is, as long as it’s a social issue. It’s very, very rare that people will really get up in arms about an economic issue, worry about taxation, about currency controls, capital controls, business tax rates. If anything, people are getting riled up about all kinds of things, whether it’s the climate or other issues, but it’s always done in a social context. It could be that there’s some kind of mental aspect to it or a sort of natural biological thing where these issues are more interesting to a lot more people and so that plays more on the news, on the media, and so then people just get riled up about it. Obviously, in our case, we should rightly be getting riled up about economic freedom too. Where’s the outrage? Where’s the outrage over the high-tax nations of the world?
JD: Well, the capital controls issue is very real, and I think covid accelerated it. The idea of unbanking people, whether it’s because they’re gun manufacturers or because they’re Canadian truckers protesting covid— if you look at countries like Turkey, which had a nasty currency crisis over the last few years, they have absolutely imposed capital controls on money headed out of the country and on bank deposit withdrawals. That sort of thing is not unthinkable in the West at all. And if you ever had to become an expatriate and leave your Western country, that might be very, very difficult. You may not be able to move money electronically as easily as you thought. You may not be able to move physical gold as easily as you thought, and I think that’s why a lot of bitcoiners make the argument that in a really ugly situation, bitcoin is able to be transportable in a way that other stores of value are not. I think that’s a valuable consideration. I’ll tell you what, I think Americans care more about social issues until it really hits them. I think Americans are very soft and fat and weak and lazy. This is just a fact. I think the slightest material hardship is going to cause a lot of Americans to have a real meltdown, and we’re seeing that. Gas prices have nearly doubled. Inflation on groceries and other necessities is rising. Now we have a baby formula shortage in this country, so it is going to happen. But somehow, the social issues just engage our brain in a certain way. Nobody’s out there protesting in front of a Supreme Court justice’s house over abuses of the Commerce Clause.
JD: Abortion just triggers that hindbrain. I wonder how much longer that’ll be because whatever divisions or fissures we have in society are going to be far, far worse if we have a really nasty economic meltdown.
SL: I think education is so important here, economic education, and that’s why I am a big fan of the Mises Institute. I owe a great intellectual debt to the Mises Institute and the scholars of the Mises Institute. Things will break down and they will look to blame somebody, and because the populations are not economically educated, they’ll just believe what they are told. For example, the common one: “Oh, the prices are rising. Why is that? Oh, because of the corporate greed.” Wait, corporations have been around for how many hundreds of years? How is it that all of a sudden they just became greedy? When we study Austrian economics, we can understand that no, no, it isn’t like they became greedy all of a sudden, in the last month. It’s that they stopped resolving their own issues. And so, supply chain issues. These and other issues have been caused by other problems, things like lockdowns and stopping business and commerce. I think maybe that’s part of it, that economic issues can manifest, and then the root cause might be economic, but then downstream, the impact is a social one, and that’s what gets people triggered per se. That triggers the hindbrain more than “Oh, I can’t feed my baby because no baby formula.”
JD: Yes, I think that’s what René Gerard describes when he talks about scapegoating. I think it’s easier to scapegoat the other on social issues than it is on pure economic issues. If we have widespread unemployment, rising prices, homelessness, starvation, that sort of thing, certainly people will probably coalesce along nasty groups, whether that’s racial, regional, territorial, ethnic, or religious. We certainly don’t want that in the West, and we’ve been free of that in the West for more than one hundred years and I think we take that for granted. We forget how close most people really are to the bone, in terms of their personal saving or their ability to live without a paycheck or the degree to which they would be dependent on neighbors or charity or government very, very quickly.
Let’s take a quick look at Singapore because I’ve read a few different Lee Kuan Yew biographies, a very fascinating guy, and Singapore has been called fundamentally undemocratic in the Press Freedom Index. It has a Public Order Act, which means you need to have a police permit to have any kind of organized protest or to even hold a conference which has political elements to it. Actually, Singapore ranked 151st out of 180 countries in this Press Freedom Index. And of course, it’s infamous for some of its draconian criminal laws, with respect to littering or just spitting out your gum or vandalism or graffiti, and there have been some Western tourists who have been ensnared and had harsh treatment by caning. A lot of people would look at that and say this is an authoritarian regime. But it’s been called a competitive authoritarian regime. What do we make of Singapore? If you go there, it’s unbelievably modern and apparently prosperous, but not free in a Western conception.
SL: I think you’re right. I recall my visit to Singapore around December 2019. I thought it was really cool. Changi Airport, the Singapore airport, it’s rated as one of the best airports on earth. The infrastructure is excellent. The service is excellent. I had a great time in my short visit there. It’s really interesting to see that parallel. When I’m in other countries, I make sure I respect their culture, their rules, but as long as you do that, you can get by. Setting the covid stuff aside, they’ve been a little more authoritarian, but Singapore has been relatively prosperous. It has been very prosperous for its citizens and people who go there to work, and it’s quite a common expat working destination. I think maybe the last years have kind of shifted that a little bit, but on the whole, it’s still a really great place. I think what happens is there’s a little bit of a cycle, almost like a pendulum swing, to these things, because it might have been much easier to get set up there, say, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago than today because now you need more money to get in or you need a company to sponsor you to get in. Then what happens is that people get richer, and maybe that is what causes the downswing. That said, it’s not that I think Singapore is going to go on a downswing, but you want to find the places that are on the upswing and see if that is where I’m going to place some of my chips.
JD: That is interesting. You want to find places that are on the up, and that’s what Jimmy Rogers said about Asia at the turn of the twenty-first century. You look at a place like Singapore and how things work. Everything works, everything is clean, everything is modern. Subways … It’s safe. If you fly Singapore Airlines internationally, let’s say, and then compare that experience to a domestic flight on a thirty-year-old 757 from Detroit to Seattle, where the tray in front of you is half rattled off … You look at some of these countries in the East and you say, “What is it?” It’s not just explainable by what you and I would consider unfettered or free market capitalism. It doesn’t explain everything about why things just sort of work. And things work in Dubai too. Now there’s an underbelly to that. There are people who suffer to make things work, and we understand that. We don’t want to discount that. But nonetheless, if we’re increasingly becoming authoritarian in the West, it’s like you could have authoritarian and nothing works or authoritarian and things work. I hate to think that that’s the choice in the twenty-first century.
SL: It’s a big world out there. There’s two hundred countries or so. You can choose where you go. And even for me—I’m bullish on Dubai— as you were saying, it’s this idea of what’s on the up. I think Dubai is on the up in terms of people coming here, business going on here, favorable regulatory environment, for the most part. I think ultimately everyone has to choose what jurisdiction that is, and maybe if you’re an American listening, well, that’s which state am I going to be in, as an example. And I’m bullish on that idea because that’s really what rewards the jurisdictions that do well. Take yourself out of the bad jurisdictions and go for the good ones. I think that’s the high-level idea, but perhaps to your point as well, some of it is circumstances, as you were saying. Singapore, it’s not just that they had relatively low taxes and so on. It could also be the proximity to China, because they were able to do a lot of trade there. Some of the Middle Eastern countries, like the UAE, have a lot of their business from oil and gas, so maybe some of that is the luck of the draw. But, at the same time, you look at other countries that were so-called blessed. Venezuela has obviously gone very down. They had a lot of natural resources, and at least in the recent years, it has not been a great place.
I think there are always pros and cons, and you just ultimately have to look at where things are going and look at the culture, look at the overall picture, and decide “Well, look, you know what? Given my choices I could either (and I said this to myself) sit in Sydney, Australia, stay in a high-tax nation where the culture is just going down—all these people, they believe in the state, they believe in lockdown-ism. If you tried to argue these things with them, they would say, “No, no, look how many lives were saved,” despite the analyses that were being done. Maybe we might not fully agree with this, but there were analyses, and actually, there was a recent one put out by Gigi Foster. Now, to be clear, she’s not even a libertarian, but she’s an economist, and she put out an analysis showing that even on a quality-adjusted-life-years basis, the lockdowns cost far more than they saved. And this is obvious, right? To anybody who’s studied economics, it’s obvious, but unfortunately, what the people believe matters because there’s a lot of the people around you—maybe they got invested in the lockdown belief early, and now it’s hard for them to change because they were kind of already committed. It’s like a sunk cost fallacy. So, for me, it was either stay in Australia, pay this really high tax, and amongst people who basically hate your freedom or go to another country where it’s low tax and they don’t really care that much about your freedom. You go and do your thing and they do theirs, and maybe that’s about as much as we can reasonably hope for, given the situation and given the world we’re in.
JD: There’s definitely psychological sunk cost to the covid narrative. It’s going to make it very hard for a lot of people to ever give up the idea that lockdowns and vaccines were good and necessary, and I understand. I admire your choice in saying “I’m not going to sit here and just argue with crazy forever. I’m going to take my life in my own hands and go out into the world and go where I feel like I can find greater freedom.” But here’s the fly in the ointment. When you move to Dubai, you are at least at the outset a guest and you’re not going to throw your gum out your Lambo as you’re rolling down the street, you’re not going to go graffiti some mosque, and you’re probably not going to pen letters to the editor denouncing the local government in the newspaper, right? You would feel as a new person and a guest that’s not your role.
But universalism, I think, is the dominant political ideology of the twentieth century. And it’s not dead, and it manifests as political globalism—not the good kind of globalism, where you can get a Diet Coke everywhere. I’m talking about political globalism, the idea that the whole world sort of needs to have a Western-style social democracy. And this mindset of universalism never sleeps. It is relentless. It’s like rust. And so, when Stephan Livera goes to Dubai, he wants to be a good neighbor and do business and be successful and enjoy the freedoms that Dubai offers, but when some people go to Dubai, they look around and say, “Well, this is a place I have to fix.” This is how all the trouble in the world comes to us, because America especially, but the West more generally, has decided it’s our job to police the world and their political arrangements. I think there will always be arbitrage, there will always be young people like you, who are going to go out and go someplace else in the world, or maybe eventually go to Mars or wherever it might be. I just wonder, whether this arbitrage between jurisdictions is going to be challenged in the twenty-first century, in a digital world.
SL: Well, you’re right in that it is being challenged in certain ways, but here’s the question. Will they be successful? The supernational international organizations, they hate this sort of thing. The OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] and other organizations, they’re trying to do things like “No, you should have minimum tax thresholds.” It’s a similar thing in each. They might be in a situation where they can’t afford that because the way that they are competitive is by having low tax. We see that dynamic as well, that there are challenger nations who want to try something different. El Salvador, trying to go and be the bitcoin country where you can freely go as a tourist and spend your bitcoin or set up a business and such.
I see it like it’s a big world out there, and the Western propagandists don’t want you to understand that. They want you to think that only the US, Australia, UK, Canada, and New Zealand are the only countries that you would ever go to, so just stay put, you little plebs. No, just stay put and just take what you’re given. We’re going to tell you the truth. We’re going to tell you what you’re allowed to say on social media, and yet there’s a pushback. We’re saying, “For all these flaws and for all the subsidies, Elon Musk is at least trying to push back on Twitter,” for what it’s worth, right? We’re seeing people like Jack Dorsey come out and be fully bitcoiner and fully try to promote this alternative money.
So, I think it’s just an ebb and flow. There will, of course, be ways that people are trying to control, but then there’ll also be competition, and there will be other places that you can go and other places where they just don’t get as riled up about politics. There’s not protests on the street here. People just, they assess the country and say, “Look, is it going to be a good fit for me? Work, tax, business, other family, friends, etc.—on those dimensions, is it working for me?” And then, yes or no, am I going there? That’s the high-level way that I’m seeing it.
Of course, that overall battle for heart and mind, it still matters. It still does matter that we try to promote sound ways of economic thinking, sound ways of thinking from a political philosophy point of view. I owe you to not aggress against you, and what you owe me is to not aggress against me—and that we promote that basic ethic. I agree that some of that is going to be a cultural battle, and to the point about what they will get outraged about, socially and culturally, yeah, some of that is just what people get outraged about.
JD: Well, maybe we need an index of the least political countries in the world.
SL: That’s a good idea.
JD: Wherever politics does not dominate, that’s where I want to live. I’ll leave you, Stephan, with this note. Economics is social cooperation. Economics is human beings dealing with each other, hopefully absent force or fraud, and that’s it. And so, the idea that there are personal liberties or social liberties or political liberties, which are somehow different from economic liberties and ought to be tracked differently and plotted on two different axes, I think, is false. I think everything flows from economics, from our desire to improve our material well-being and our desire to interact with other human beings in a win-win manner. I think that’s what it comes down to. Stephan, how can people keep in touch with you and see what you’re doing these days?
SL: People can search me online, Stephan Livera, StephanLivera.com, and if they want to find a place to buy and learn about bitcoin, Swan.com is the place. And Jeff, thanks again for hosting me. It’s always a pleasure to chat with you.