A REVEALING insight into the way some of our government officials think was on offer last week when Home Affairs Secretary Lam Woon-kwong said that economic development has priority over human rights and rule of law in Hong Kong. Here he is in his own words: 'Our competitiveness has been threatened. That's why we have implemented a series of policies to strengthen competitiveness and ensure our economy continues to develop. 'Otherwise there will not be sufficient resources to improve human rights, rule of law, social justice and individuals' dignity as these will take up a lot of resources. To an economic society like Hong Kong, economic development is therefore our priority and an important target.' What this implies is that Mr Lam thinks of human rights and rule of law as social conveniences, things we all want to have - like good homes, a portion of meat with every dinner and car below in the car park. The reasoning here is that we get these sorts of things when we spend our money rather than invest it, something we can afford to do when the investments are working well and there is money to spare. But, every now and then, it happens that the investments are not doing so well and our economy's competitiveness is threatened. It is then time to change course and put the money back into investments that will restore competitiveness and bring us to where we were before. This means that we have to make some hard choices about what to keep of the things on which we spent our money when times were good. Perhaps we will forego the car. Perhaps it should be human rights. Something has to go. What should it be? It is false reasoning. Mr Lam's argument could perhaps be made in a miserably poor country wracked by extreme political turmoil. It is remotely possible, in such cases, to argue that justice must be a bit rough in the interests of getting ahead, that everyone knows what must be done to improve the standard of living and self-interested troublemakers should not be allowed to obstruct it. This was Senior Minister's Lee Kuan Yew's argument in Singapore in the 1950s. But in almost all other circumstances, and certainly ours, the whole point about human rights and rule of law is that they are inseparable from economic performance. One of the difficulties a wealthy society such as ours faces is that no one really knows the way forward. Mr Lam, for instance, speaks confidently of implementing 'a series of policies to strengthen competitiveness' as if he is sure these policies will work. But think of what they have been. Huge giveaways of land for Disney, CyberPort and other such schemes, an expensive technology initiative entirely unsuited to the traditional strengths of our economy and market-busting cheap rents for selected tenants of government-sponsored homes and offices. The evidence is already building that they have not improved our competitiveness, that such intervention is as flawed as anywhere it has been tried around the world. What we need to move ahead is to give every member of our society full scope to explore his or her own abilities. The real opportunities are inevitably found this way, and economic success follows, as surely as night follows day. But what this requires, first of all, is human rights. Individual opportunity can only be given free rein when freedom of speech and association come first. Civil liberties and free markets are flip sides of the same coin. Rule of law is also essential. No thriving economy can exist for long without it. You are wrong, Mr Lam. Please do not pursue your line of reasoning at work.