Expanded version of closing remarks at the
Seminar on “Liberalism: It’s All About Freedom”
arranged in Ulaan Baatar by the Civil Will Green Party of Mongolia
together with the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats and the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung
May 24th 2012

I was not expecting to conclude this seminar, but it is a pleasure to do so since the interaction between liberal thought and the situation here in Mongolia has been most stimulating. I suspect that the biding image I will take with me is the comment by Mr Demirel, with his distinguished leadership of your dynamic Chamber of Commerce, that Mongolia is a nomadic country, and the essence of the nomadic life is freedom.

This freedom that we value so much is freedom not only to think and speak and act as each individual wishes, so long as they do not limit the freedom of other individuals; it is also freedom from the restrictions that limit the exercise of that freedom. For this last purpose the State is needed, which is why, though Liberals want a small state, they also require, as perhaps the most important leader of the FNS, Count Otto von Lambsdorff put it, a strong state. In that sense, to expand the sporting metaphor introduced by Rainer Adam, who has done so much through the FNS to promote Liberalism in Asia, we have to make sure that the state as referee is not also a play, but we also need the state to ensure that there is a level playing field. While pursuing equality is a mirage, we need to promote equality of opportunity, though through positive measures that expand opportunities for the deprived, not negative ones that restrict opportunities for the more fortunate.

Promoting both types of freedom can sometimes lead to tensions when different liberal thinkers place different priorities on the various freedoms we need, but perhaps for that very reason one of the freedoms we should value most is freedom from dogma. This freedom to think outside the prevailing box when circumstances require it lies at the heart of the history of liberal thought, which was so ably expounded by Lito Arlegue, Executive Director of CALD, in the first session.

If I may add to that, the different strands of liberalism seem to me best exemplified in the manner in which the leading Liberals of the earlier part of the 19th century expanded the role of the state not only to provide basic education and health facilities for those who would otherwise be left behind in the developmental process, but also to ensure reasonable conditions for workers when they were basically at the mercy of employers. This however was followed by leading Liberal thinkers noting that the State was controlling too much, as denounced eloquently by Herbert Spencer in ‘Man versus the State’. This did not prevent Liberals later on doing even more to develop the Welfare State, introducing pensions and unemployment benefit and expanding health care, all measures taken for granted in civilized modern society. But Liberals must always be aware of the need to stop the State becoming a restrictive nanny, intervening in a manner that limits freedom, and the benefits to all that the freedom of each brings.

The succinct account by Dr Oyun, the Leader of the Civic Will Party, and former Foreign Minister of Mongolia, brought out clearly the dilemma of Liberals in defining the role of the State in the context of vibrant development such as Mongolia now enjoys. Most understandably, Mongolia entrusted economic activity to the private sector when you got rid of Communism and the Statism it had continued to promote here when it was crystal clear that State monopolies preclude growth. But, though growth was achieved, too much freedom also led to many problems. There was not enough concern for the Environment, as entrepreneurs simply pursued profits. The growth did not filter down to all your people and, though certainly many are more prosperous than before, disparities increasing to unpleasant degrees can fuel deep social dissatisfaction. If the bulk of the profits seem to be going outside the country, resentments can develop which could lead to efforts to restore Statism.

Other parties seem to have reacted to this situation in classic, potentially disastrous fashion. One response is to give handouts, as with the blanket grants to all citizens that both major parties in Mongolia have proposed – only to find that the sums involved are so huge that such handouts are unrealistic, as well as being non-productive. A second is to allocate to the State a greater role in business, and in particular in the more lucrative businesses which your extraordinary mineral wealth nurtures.

Avoiding these extremes, whilst ensuring responsible private sector activity that benefits your people to whom this wealth belongs, will not be easy. But listening to Dr Oyun I realize that you understand the need to regulate sensibly, with participation if necessary, but not through state ownership or control. You understand too the need to facilitate redistribution of wealth, in a manner that ensures sustainable benefits for the worst off, not just handouts that are ephemeral. I hope however that, in expressing the difficulties your country now faces, while listening to a range of descriptions of liberal principles and practices, you understand how the need to ensure balance has been so important to Liberals through the years, and why Liberalism is a constantly developing creed.

Crucial to all this is one core value of Liberalism which has been implicit in what was discussed today, but which perhaps should be spelled out. That is the need for better information, and transparency. For people to be free to choose, they should know what the options are. When decisions are made as to economic activity, the details of those decisions, the consequences for those with a stake in assets and activities, should be open to all. When the State engages in welfare activities, in line with its obligation to enhance opportunities for the deprived, the rationale for such activities and their possible consequences must be studied and understood.

Liberalism is indeed all about Freedom. But it is Freedom based on knowledge and ability and understanding. I do not think it is only because my profession is education that I think that Liberalism is also all about Education, in the widest sense of the word, just as Freedom too has to be understood broadly.