Freedom

January 26, 2007

The titles of panel meetings at the World Economic Forum can sometimes be pretty dire. Frankly, “Strategies for a New Power Equation” or “The Future of Urban Mobility” do not really set the pulse racing. So it was with some delight that I came across this gem being moderated by Laura Tyson, Bill Clinton’s former economic adviser — “Is Freedom Overrated?”

The mere idea is enough to raise the hackles of any self-respecting civil libertarian and could get Davos sceptics mumbling deep thoughts about what all these powerful people really want. But the issue that really lies behind the catchy title is not that clear-cut and has been exercising great philosphical minds such as those of Hobbes and Locke for centuries. It’s all about individual rights versus the common good.

The DavosRTR1LLWC.jpg debate was not expected to solve the problem, of course. But some of the ideas expressed at the panel were worth noting. Cheng Siwei, vice chairman of the Chinese congress’s powerful standing committee, opined that individual freedom could not be put above the national benefit. But he then said that this applied mainly to security issues and should not be used by governments as an excuse.

Israel’s vice prime minister, Shimon Peres, said he reckoned there was a difference between the right of a person to be equal and the — more important in his view — right of a person to be different. He got a big laugh quoting his old nemesis Yasser Arafat as once joking: “Democracy… who invented it. It is so tiring.”

Shimon Peres at Davos. REUTERS/Sebastian Derungs

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