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Jakarta post

by Jennie S. Bev

John Basil Barnhill once said about socialism, “Where the people fear the government, you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people, you have liberty.” Barnhill’s definition evolved from Aristotle’s, which was “a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only”. The Greek term “tyrannos” itself means “absolute ruler; illegitimate, cruel and oppressive ruler”.

What a simple definition of “tyranny”. Whenever you “fear” a government or the ruling elite, then you live in an authoritarian regime. Interestingly, “tyranny” also occurs where you enjoy freedom, where most likely you don’t find authoritarianism in action. In the United States, for instance, freedom can be found in the form of individualism based upon self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, over time and with a high dose, freedom can be another form of tyranny. 

Today in Indonesia, both the government and the people are afraid of each other, which is a good step toward a healthy democracy. 

On paper, the US is a free country. Yet, “being free” is what most Americans are lacking. The Occupy Movement started three-years deep into a recession after more than five million houses were foreclosed and the unemployment rate reached all-time high. Compared with Indonesia, an announcement of gasoline-price hike is sufficient to trigger rage among the people. 

Why did it take Americans so long to articulate the rage over economic inequality and social injustice? Because Americans have been accustomed to the dichotomy of “either you’re pro-freedom or pro-authoritarianism” and certain terms have been closely related to pro-totalitarianism, such as “fairness” and “social justice.” And by “totalitarianism,” it refers to all of its variants, including socialism, communism and fascism. Many Americans are imprisoned by terms that are perceived as “taboo” in a liberal community. 

Of course, “liberal” here also comes in various shades, even in this Uncle-Sam country. Conservative Republicans may not want to be perceived as “liberals” and prefer to be perceived as “conservatives,” yet their economic and political agenda may as well be more liberal than that of the Democrats. 

Within the minds of most Americans, including politicians, the ingrained “anti-tyranny” notion also translates to “anti-anything that is based on social collectivism.” In The Path to Tyranny: A History of Free Society’s Descent into Tyranny, Michael E. Newton stated, “Because of the various forms of collectivism are no longer popular, the collectivists instead advocate public welfare, social justice, government compassion, consumer protection, progressivism, liberalism, environmentalism, and a whole host of other pleasant sounding programs. 

They use this new terminology to make their collectivism sound more appealing, just as others have in the past.”

Most Indonesians, on the other hand, boast of their collectivism and “high sense of virtuousness.” Many Indonesians believe that Indonesia should have been a welfare state, despite all the drawbacks and enormous requirements. “Individualism” and “liberalism” already have bad names in Indonesia, thus most people tend to shy away from anything that would make them want things for themselves and want things to be free, although they didn’t understand the true meanings. 

Despite the misconceptions, the notions of individualism and liberalism refer to self-sufficiency that comes with responsibility, not selfishness. 

In the US, the ongoing recession triggered by 2008 financial implosion is an example of how both individualism and liberalism have reached poisonous levels. It doesn’t mean, however, that collectivism and totalitarianism and their various derivatives are naturally the antidotes. And it certainly doesn’t mean that high doses of collectivism and totalitarianism can cure everything that failed individualism and liberalism have caused.

A good amount of responsible and self-sufficient individualism and liberalism is preferred instead of a high dose of collectivism and totalitarianism. Everything is a matter of dosage, realistically speaking. It would be more efficient for Indonesia, for instance, to cut back spending for hiring and maintaining the massive size of government, which accounts for 51 percent of the state budget. And by having a slim government, the level of totalitarianism is also being reduced, giving more space for the private sector to contribute more to the country with their mindsets of efficiency and effectiveness. 

At this point, judging from Indonesia’s impressive economic growth and relatively “stealth” performance against the global economic crisis, for which we should thank the huge local market and low exporting activities, we owe much of the country’s success to the private sector. The private sector should be given a larger portion in order to encourage further economic and social development. 

Canada and Australia so far are enjoying relatively unshaken economic and political stability, which is partly thanks to adopting a good dose of social collectivism, responsible individualism, and an abundance of natural resources. It is something that Indonesia can learn from. We should start with that awareness and mindset. 

The thing is, we need a Copernican paradigm-changing awareness to start and finish strong. “What a good dosage is” cannot be easily determined beforehand, it can only be felt afterward.[]

The Jakarta Post, April 26, 2012

Reprinted in Pakistan Observer, April 27, 2012

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