So much of governance in the world today is devoted to directing our resources via decree and technocracy so that we can “actively” achieve “just” ends. Not to act is not to care, the common assumption goes, and heaven forbid government should be inactive.
Conservatives have rightly fought this notion. But in doing so, they have often been labeled callous and heartless, caring for profits over people. Obviously, the message that economic liberalism embodied in a limited government provides the greatest material and moral benefits of any known economic system is not being properly conveyed and needs reiterating (and probably re-reiterating). And to do this, conservatives need more than statistics, which, while necessary, tend to reinforce the notion of right-wing insensitivity when offered without stories of how real people gain when simply given a chance.
Swedish author, economist, and commentator Johan Norberg narrates the tale of five families across four countries and as many continents who experienced transitions from living under illiberal regimes to having economic independence. From Chile to South Korea and Slovakia to Zambia, their stories make a case for the benefits of economic freedom in human terms. Economic Freedom in Action focuses its energies on these human stories, using informative statistics from the Economic Freedom of the World report to support, but not drive, the narrative. It takes the debate to the plane of the personal and empathetic, where statistics act as a backdrop to real people.
To the skeptic, this personal-narrative style may seem insufficient to prove the thesis of the documentary: that economic freedom provides material gain and moral dignity unmatched by any other method of economic organization. And the skeptic would be correct. The documentary offers no solid proof of its central claim, and the evidence it does provide can be refuted as either anecdotal or inadequate.
But however necessary statistics and proofs may be, few people are convinced by such methods alone. Most change their minds by virtue of an emotional force and are moved to act by strong feelings, not analyses. Like the atheist unreceptive to arguments for God’s existence who converts upon feeling an ineffable presence, people will feel inspired by these stories, and that inspiration will do much more than mere numbers.
Take, for example, the story of Sylvia Banda, now a Zambian restaurant owner and entrepreneur. Banda went from being a small restaurant owner who offered meals in a hut with no chairs to being a nationwide food entrepreneur who teaches farmers improved agricultural techniques. Her partnership with these farmers allows her to sell their produce and them to send their children to school. Her success was possible only after Zambia threw out its socialist government and elected a democratic, pro-business administration that vastly increased its economic freedom.
Or take Daesung Kim, a North Korean defector and now a venture capitalist in Seoul, South Korea, who helps his fellow North Korean refugees to secure loans and start businesses. Daesung’s story is harrowing. He was put on a government watch list because he traded across the Chinese border to provide food for his family. Traveling over a mountain range by night without food over the course of a week, Daesung managed to escape from North Korea. Arriving in South Korea, separated from his family, alone and broke, Kim was amazed at that country’s economic prosperity, which allowed its citizens never to worry about when they would next get a full meal. When North Korea falls, he hopes to lead entrepreneurs back home to revitalize the economy.
In each story in Economic Freedom in Action, the individuals profiled moved from a controlled regime of socialism, Communism, or authoritarianism to an economically free country or government, and the difference could not be more stark. They were able to grow and achieve as their countries relinquished control of the economy or they escaped to a free nation, going from privation and hardship to stability and hope.
Though it was filmed around the world and makes a case for the benefit of economic freedom for all people, the documentary has particular relevance for America. When speaking with the directors of the Economic Freedom of the World report, Norberg learned that by their measures of economic freedom, the United States has moved from the third freest country in the world to the 19th in just 13 years, by expanding government control as most countries have become more free. According to the report, property rights in America are being undermined by greater use of eminent domain, the War on Drugs, and a plague of regulations, all while the size of government has increased dramatically.
The creators of the report worry that by limiting economic freedom in these ways, America is allowing entrenched special interests to continue to receive preferential treatment at the expense of others. If there’s one thing to learn from this documentary, it’s that America is heading directly down the wrong path.
Economic Freedom in Action is an uplifting and informative film. At times it brushes over large movements of history for the sake of brevity (though the historical representations are mostly fair), and there is a decided lack of counterexamples to the wholly positive image it paints of economic freedom. Nevertheless, it accomplishes its purpose of promoting the understanding and appreciation of economic freedom in a clear and enjoyable fashion, while simultaneously showing just how bad the alternative can be.
— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.