' ... if the Liberal Party has seemed to focus exclusively on business, it is simply because we recognise that a sound economy brings benefits to everybody. 'We should reach a conclusion on the question of full democratisation only after wide consultation with our members, the functional constituencies we represent and the general public. At present, no political party is sufficiently financed or experienced to run Hong Kong.' - Liberal Party chairman James Tien Pei-chun. TO PUT SOME perspective on these sentiments, which we published last Thursday as part of an opinion piece ('A new beginning'), let us remember they come from a political party which was busy back-pedalling on democratisation before the big march on July 1 and whose eight members in the Legislative Council have no mandate from the general electorate. They represent only those narrowly based functional constituencies. For further perspective you might recall the old Churchill dictum that democracy is a very bad system of government but all the others are much worse. It simply is not true that a sound economy brings benefits to everyone. The Old South of the United States, for instance, had a very sound economy in the early 19th century and it did indeed bring benefits but not to everyone. It was based on slavery. We do not have slavery but we do have plenty of examples of what happens to costs of living when politicians focus on business. Invariably they focus on the pet complaints of businessmen, almost all of which come down to their preference for operating on wide rather than narrow margins. The result is pricing cartels condoned by government, big projects negotiated on a word-in-your-ear basis without public scrutiny and greater opportunity for bribery. As a rule, corruption exists in any business in proportion to government involvement in that business. Here is the big question for you, Mr Tien. Why is it that the world's most successful economies are also ones in which genuine full democracy prevails and the biggest economic failures are characterised by the absence of democracy? I shall tell you why. It is because free markets and democracy go hand in hand. Both are reflections of respect for individual choice and civil liberties. If government wishes to bring benefits to everyone then its best route is not to focus exclusively on business but to establish an equitable framework of law on which all social activity can be secure. Set the rules and then let business run itself on rules that apply to everyone. That is how you spread the benefits widely. Focus on business alone and a select coterie of businessmen will do well but on the backs of working people who will get only a small slice of the benefits. You may say it does not have to be that way and I admit that I, too, sometimes find it a mystery why income inequality always seems to grow when government thinks of business first. It is the way of the world, however. Government does not do well when it tries to guide commercial enterprise. An economy is much too complex and dynamic for that and pledges of opportunity for all are easily subverted. Thus I can appreciate the reticence of the general electorate towards the Liberal Party. The voters see it as a party of big business and, however much Mr Tien may protest that it has wider social aims, they think big business will win and they will lose by its exclusive focus on business. I think they are right. It may not be what Mr Tien intends but it is what will result. And that suspicion of the Liberals can only harden when he then waffles about whether to introduce full democracy. You say you wish to consult the general public on the question, Sir. Is that not exactly what democracy does? Why then is it a question to you whether to introduce democracy? Do you really think people on the street will tell you in large numbers that they are too ignorant to be entrusted with the vote? What perverse form of self-inflicted racism would suggest that Hong Kong people are not as competent as Americans or Europeans to have a direct say in their own affairs? And if no political party is sufficiently experienced to run Hong Kong, what are to we make of the political experience of the ship owner who was given the job of doing so in 1997? When you place so little faith in your own people, Mr Tien, do not expect them to place faith in you.