Milton Friedman used to say that economic freedom is a necessary but not sufficient condition for political freedom. The case of China seems to prove the Chicago School economist right. The Asian country’s successful attempts to increase living standards through free-market policies over the last four decades haven’t been accompanied by reforms aimed at democratizing the country.
Yet it is undeniable that economic freedom exerts a positive influence on the attainment of political and civil liberties. Or put differently, those countries implementing free-market reforms are more likely to transition towards a political system that respects political and human rights.
There are many examples in recent history that support this idea. For instance, free-market-oriented reforms during Franco’s dictatorship contributed to economic growth and the emergence of a middle class, paving the way for democracy in Spain. Similarly, Pinochet started digging his own political grave in the early 1980s when he decided to introduce liberalizing reforms in the Chilean economy. Few years later, in 1988, Pinochet lost a plebiscite on his rule and Chile became a democracy.
The most recent example can be found in Botswana. However, in this case, it isn’t a country transitioning to democracy, but an already-democratic nation expanding the scope of civil liberties. The Supreme Court has recently ruled in favor of decriminalizing homosexuality in the African country. The law in question, which dates back to the colonial era, forbids “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature" under threat of imprisonment.
It is no coincidence that Botswana be one of the few African countries where LGBTI are most respected. According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), “in recent years, LGBTI people have become more visible and numerous initiatives to celebrate diversity, share experiences and address issues pertaining to LGBT people have been developed.”
This can be in part attributed to the country’s economic track record. Botswana has experienced tremendous economic growth in per capita terms over the last two decades, facilitating the emergence of a consolidated middle class, a conditio sine qua non for a well-functioning democracy that respects political and civil liberties. In fact, it was a 21-year-old university student, Letsweletse Motshidiemang, who took the government to court in 2016 to protest against a law that clearly discriminates the LGBTI minority in the country.
The other side of the coin is Kenya. The country’s high court recently ruled in favor of the constitutionality of homophobic laws, which punish sexual minorities with up to 14 years in prison. ILGA has denounced cases of mob violence and arrests in Kenya on grounds of sexual orientation. Unsurprisingly, Kenya’s economy is ranked as the 130th freest economy in the world. Its income per capita has barely grown since 1990, it has a weak middle class, and a majority of waged employees belong to the low-income segment of the population.
Friedman was right when he pointed out that economic freedom isn’t enough to achieve political and civil liberties. However, it does play an essential role in the emergence of inclusive political institutions as well as an educated middle class willing to fight for its right to live in a political system that respects fundamental freedoms.