The old Indian saying, “White man speaks with forked tongue” would have been more accurately expressed as, “U.S. government official speaks with forked tongue.”
In April, Hong Kong immigration officials denied Chinese-born, naturalized American citizen Harry Wu entry into Hong Kong. Wu’s expulsion was unusual given that Hong Kong has always had an open-border policy, especially for Americans, who are not required to get visas prior to traveling there.
But Wu is not a popular man among Chinese authorities. For the past several years, he has been a prominent critic of Chinese labor camps, partly on the basis of his having served 19 years in them.
Hong Kong’s immigration officials told Wu that he could not enter Hong Kong because of “safety concerns.”
U.S. officials acted shocked and outraged. “This could have the effect of limiting the freedom of association and the free flow of ideas,” U.S. Consulate official Barbara Zigli exclaimed. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker added, “If there are specific denials of entry, we think that could have a bad effect on [the freedom and openness of Hong Kong], which is why we raised it.”
At the same time, however, State Department officials were revoking the visas of Cuban officials who were traveling to North Dakota to negotiate the purchase of food from North Dakota farmers.
North Dakota’s U.S. senator Byron L. Dorgan, who extended the invitation to the Cubans, said, “If Cuba wants to buy dried beans and wheat, and North Dakota’s family farmers want to sell those products in Cuba, the State Department needs to step aside and allow those sales to take place.”
What was the State Department’s reason for revoking the Cubans’ previously approved visas? Edward Dickens, a State Department official said that it is long-standing U.S. policy to discourage travel in the United States by members of the Cuban government. This despite the fact that cash grain sales are now permitted under a law enacted two years ago.
Is there a distinction between the two cases?
Both obviously involve freedom of travel, a freedom that Americans once recognized as an inherent and fundamental right of mankind. In fact, that’s the principal reason that Americans, for more than a century, lived without passports. When our ancestors wished to travel to another country, they just went, without fear that they’d need official documents to reenter their own country. To our predecessors, it was none of the government’s business where they traveled.
The Wu case, U.S. officials would undoubtedly argue, concerns a person’s fundamental right to hold unpopular views. Therefore, the Chinese government is acting illegitimately in excluding Wu from Hong Kong.
On the other hand, U.S. officials would emphasize, no one has the right to enter into economic transactions with others. They would say that the Cubans are being excluded from the United States not because of their communist beliefs but because they wish to engage in trade. Therefore, it is entirely legitimate for U.S. officials to prevent the Cubans from traveling to the country.
The issue raises the distinction between intellectual liberty and economic liberty and also reveals the extent to which modern-day Americans, while fiercely defending the former, have permitted their government officials to trample the latter.
Economic liberty entails the right of people to engage in any economic enterprise without government permission (“free enterprise”), to enter into mutually beneficial trades with anyone anywhere in the world, to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth without threat of the government’s taking it away, and the right to do whatever one wants with his own money — spend, save, invest, donate, or even squander it.
Slavery and protectionist tariffs notwithstanding, our ancestors’ commitment to economic liberty was as fierce as their commitment to intellectual liberty. That’s why Americans, for more than a century, lived without such things as occupational licensure, economic regulations, income taxation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare.
The economic hallmark of communist countries such as China and Cuba is the deprivation of economic liberty. People’s occupations are tightly controlled, no one is permitted to accumulate too much money, and the government takes care of the people through such welfare-state programs as old-age assistance and national health care.
Isn’t it ironic then, that even while criticizing communist officials for denying people intellectual liberty, U.S. government officials endorse the communist principle of denying people the exercise of economic liberty?