Freedom vs health and safety: which is more important when it comes to quality of life?

By Brett Fafata, Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong

Americans value liberty above so many other factors, yet people mainland China are better off in many ways

By Brett Fafata, Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong |

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America sees liberty as a virtue. China less so.

As an American, the concept of valuing liberty has been so thoroughly ingrained in me through my upbringing, it seems like an almost unquestionable proposition. Freedom is righteous and just – how could anyone think otherwise? It is self-evident. But not everyone thinks that way, and only after experiencing life in China am I beginning to fully comprehend why that is.

Liberty, as a political concept, describes the various freedoms – social, political, and economic – that citizens of a country are entitled to enjoy. Unlike America, in China, liberty is not a concept that the government values or respects. The mainland political system is built around a strong government that controls many aspects of its citizens’ lives.

Many Westerners denounce the Chinese model as an oppressive, terrible way to live. I, too, once had this conception but, through my first-hand experience of the country, I learned that things may not be so black-and-white.

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If you compare the quality of life between normal, middle-class citizens in the major metropolises of China and the United States, you will find that their quality of life is not actually that different, and in many ways, the Chinese quality of life actually surpasses its American counterpart. Another worthy comparison is the Chinese-majority city state of Singapore, which far outstrips America in nearly all quality of life measures – despite its more authoritarian social policies.

America is currently facing many problems that Singapore and China are not. The homeless population in America is skyrocketing in west coast cities such as San Francisco and Seattle. San Francisco is currently facing an epidemic of used-needle litter and public defecation on its streets. American infrastructure, particularly public transport, is in a sorry state of disrepair and compares poorly to other developed nations. American cities have been stricken with an drug epidemic that has crippled working-class communities. In Baltimore, for example, 10 per cent of the population is addicted to opioids. Compared to China, America has per capita six times as many robberies, 18 times as much gun crime, and four times as many homicides. Mass shootings attacks in America also far exceed those in China and Singapore.

So, what is the point of all of these statistics? The point is that respect for liberty does not always translate to a better quality of life for citizens in a country. If freedom and democracy truly make a vastly superior system to single-party authoritarianism, then why aren’t the citizens of America experiencing a vastly superior quality of life compared to their Chinese counterparts?

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When it comes to the average person just trying to build a good life for their family, I would argue that real, immediate living conditions are far more important than any abstract philosophical ideal. If stronger government control could stop shootings and make the average citizen feel safer in their city, then there are many people who would be inclined to take that deal.

The frightening thing is that as authoritarian nations surpass the United States in these various quality of life metrics, more people will start to question the efficacy of the anti-authoritarian political system and feel increasingly sympathetic to a more authoritarian option. Would you rather be free and miserable, or oppressed and blissful? This question would give many people pause – understandably so.

What I have written about so far is still somewhat hypothetical. Currently life in Chinese society is not stunningly preferable to America. There are still many metrics in which America is superior; however the current trend of the degradation of some of the greatest Western cities coupled with the rise of Chinese cities is a worrying trend. It is not unreasonable to think that in the near future, Western society could degrade to the point where its people might ask themselves the question, “Is strong authority really that bad, after all?”

In this article I have purposely highlighted the bad things about America to prove a point. I am not doing this because I dislike America; quite the opposite actually. Despite the problems with my country, I still believe in the value of liberty to create the best kind of society. I would actually argue that American society, in its current form, does not protect liberty as the Founding Fathers intended it to, and that is the cause of many of its problems – but that is a discussion for another day. Faced with the looming threat of China and its efficient, safe society, it is more important now than ever that we who desire liberty work even harder to improve our countries, and resist the increasing appeal of an authoritarian alternative.

Edited by Ginny Wong