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Dictating success

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America's top business newspaper has put out a fascinating document called the 1997 Index of Economic Freedom. It's a thick book that illuminates the priorities of Wall Street Journal editors, who teamed up with the influential Heritage Foundation to rank the countries of the world. So, which sovereign nation scored highest in economic liberty? The answer: Singapore. In Singapore, the indexers of "economic freedom" have seen the future, and it works: "an efficient, strike-free labor force ... no minimum wage ... no antitrust regulations." But some facts go unmentioned. For instance, chewing gum has been illegal in Singapore since 1992. The government recently warned that ordering gum from foreign mail catalogs could bring a year in jail and a fine of $6,173. The crackdown came after authorities blamed wads of gum for jamming subway doors. Nor do financial liberties on the Asian island extend to anyone who might want to buy or sell -- or read -- a copy of Watchtower magazine. The Jehovah's Witness religious group and its literature have been banned in Singapore for a quarter of a century. Throughout last year, at least 40 Jehovah's Witnesses were behind bars in Singapore for refusing military service on religious grounds. Amnesty International calls them "prisoners of conscience." The unfettered commerce that dazzled the "economic freedom" indexers does not include the exchange of ideas and information. As the Associated Press reported last spring, Singapore "has some of the world's strictest media controls." And Singapore's methods of punishment remain harsh. Not surprisingly, dictator Lee Kuan Yew has scorned "decadent" notions of civil liberties. Ranked just behind Singapore -- and also classified as "free" in the Index of Economic Freedom -- is Bahrain. The small Persian Gulf country wins profuse accolades: "a free-market economic system...no taxes on income or corporate profits ... no capital gains tax ... few barriers to foreign investment ... a vibrant and competitive banking market with few government restrictions." Overall, in Bahrain, "businesses are free to operate as they see fit." To investors, that's high praise indeed. But you wouldn't know from the report that Bahrain is a traditional monarchy. Long ruled by the al-Khalifa family, it's a nation that gives plutocracy a bad name. A royal decree abolished Bahrain's parliament 22 years ago, and since then the government has suppressed dissent. During the mid-1990s, several thousand people were arrested for pro-democracy street protests. In Bahrain, the past year has brought "large-scale and indiscriminate arrests," says Human Rights Watch. "Serious, extensive and recurrent human rights abuses continued in the form of arbitrary detention, abusive treatment of prisoners and denial of due process rights." Torture has been common. But "there were no known instances of officials being held accountable." Clearly, political tyranny can be quite compatible with the kind of economic order favored by folks at The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation. The touting of countries like Singapore and Bahrain is proof that one-dimensional fixations are foolish -- and dangerous. All too often, terms like "economic freedom" get defined in ways that just so happen to favor the interests of the wealthy few. In the process, such definitions set aside democratic values.

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