For economic freedom, trust self, not govt


“Remember, remember, the 5th of November

the gunpowder treason and plot.

I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.”

Animal rights are a logical development from the advent of civil liberties in Democratic South Africa. One subject bound to spark vigorous debate is the use of fireworks on 5 November to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. It is not so much the glitz of a thousand multi-coloured bursting stars lighting up the night sky, but rather the piercing noise which creates distress for many sentient creatures.  The South African constitution recognises the right to be free of unwarranted suffering. This is reflected in the development and advancements in common law and statutes.

What about economic liberty? What of the freedom not suffer and to lawfully prosper without intervention from the state or economic authorities?  In a recent article in Toronto Life by Robert Maxwell, ‘A Restaurant Ruined My Life,’ the avid restaurateur relates how endless red tape and bureaucracy contributed to the failure and eventual forced sale of his top-rated restaurant.  From liquor licensing and business certification, to registering a company, lawyer’s notarisations and tax registrations. None of these requirements created wealth or jobs – they just created work  for bureaucrats who are paid to expend effort; not for to necessary services, but due to legislation that created the need for them to be employed in the first place

Guy Fawkes was one of 13 conspirators caught trying to assassinate King James I of England and blow up the Houses of Parliament in what became known as the Gunpowder Treason. His intentions on entering Parliament may have been honest, but they certainly weren’t virtuous. Fawkes was a zealot who wanted to replace the monarchy with a theocracy and earnestly believed the Catholic church should rule England through an anointed ruler.

Fawkes was found below the House of Lords with dozens of barrels of gunpowder. Arrested, tortured into a confession and sentenced to be ‘hung, drawn and quartered’ – a grizzly punishment involving hanging a convict to just before the point of death, cutting open the abdomen, removing the intestines and genitalia and then cutting up the corpse into quarters.

Civil liberties and zealots aside, the Gunpowder Treason was fundamentally about economic freedom.

At the time, the English monarchy controlled nearly every aspect of the economy and the lives of their subjects. “Sumptuary laws” which regulated private behaviour were common. Elizabeth I, for example, re-introduced a beard tax on all facial hair grown for more than two weeks. She also published lists categorised by social class, dictating precisely what colours and types of clothing her subjects were required to wear. These sumptuary laws were just an early form of state-sponsored corporate welfare; the English textile industry had paid the Queen huge sums of money in exchange for royal decrees about knitted caps and woollen socks. As a consequence, a high percentage of labour and disposable income was miss-allocated towards unnecessary clothing instead of being put to more productive uses. England was in a state of financial stagnation.  English finances deteriorated under Elizabeth. By 1600, state expenditure was 23% higher than tax revenue, (the equivalent of a R320 billion annual budget deficit in South Africa today). King James I, Elizabeth’s successor, continued to spend extravagantly and further indebted the English economy. James showed bias and nepotism, using taxpayer funds to bestow gifts and money on a small, favoured elite. By the time James’s successor Charles I came to power, the monarchy’s credit was so perilous that Charles had to force his subjects to loan him money. Those who refused were imprisoned and had their property confiscated.

Unsurprisingly, civil war broke out in 1642. Charles I was executed in 1649, and for the next 10 years, the genocidal dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell ruled England.  Economic collapse was inevitable. For decades prior, the English economy was under the control of an individual who massively indebted the state, impeded growth, and reduced people’s individual freedoms.

The Gunpowder Treason of November 5, 1605 may have been a failure for the conspirators, but given enough time, a system so unsustainable was destined to collapse anyway.

If you substitute the names of these monarchs and edicts for the names of our current rulers and statutes, South Africa is not so different.  We have our own rigid taxation and civil laws, regulating everything from tobacco consumption to how much money may be paid for work done (minimum wages) and what foods we can or cannot eat. We have our own state-sponsored corporate welfare monopolies such as Eskom and Transnet. Corporate welfare also extends to the automotive, liquid fuels, pharmaceutical and electricity distribution industries, where high import duties, supply regulations and fixed prices, dominate.  Indeed, as Moeletsi Mbeki points out, just like the English monarchs of centuries ago, we have a tiny elite that controls absolutely everything about our economy; taxation, regulation, and the supply of money.

History shows that these types of systems collapse under their own inefficiency and wastefulness.

What sense is there to pay an annual license fee on a vehicle, or hundreds of rands for identity documents, birth certificates or annual permits? Why does the fuel used in a stationery generator attract the several rands per litre in road accident fund and road building levies? These examples of unnecessary costs are ultimately passed onto consumers who pay more than what it should cost to supply or produce a local item. In turn, duties and levies may be charged to protect the local industry from imports – employing thousands of people in generating work, which is quite different from job creation. The spiral of higher costs and reduced competitiveness endures.

As South Africans with the potential for economic freedom, it is up to all citizen to understand that their best hope to achieve success is to trust their own initiatives and support civil society organisations which promote self-sufficiency and true economic liberty.

To paraphrase Don Freeman, ‘If you trust political parties or the government to deliver liberty, you’ve obviously failed your history class.’

*Ron Weissenberg is an international citizen and Grahamstown resident who started his first business at age 7.  He is a Certified Director (SA) and mentors people and their enterprises.

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