Adam Smith once said, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.”  People with the good fortune of living in a highly successful country often have little sense of how much worse things can get.  Perhaps you’ve met Americans who think Mexico is a “poor country”.  That would certainly be news to residents of Haiti!

This problem came to mind recently when I saw a news feed from the South China Morning Post (SCMP):

The third article is exactly the sort of propaganda you’d expect from a Mainland Chinese news source.  The first two are the sort of news stories you’d expect from an independent minded Hong Kong newspaper.

In recent years, the Chinese government has cracked down on dissent in Hong Kong, and the city has lost much of its independence.  Hong Kong is a much more repressive place than even 5 years ago.

At the same time, when I read the SCMP I am reminded of Adam Smith’s famous maxim.  Despite a rather draconian crackdown by the Chinese government, Hong Kong seems to remain much freer than the mainland.  Recent trends at the SCMP are disappointing, but the mainland papers are far worse—just pure propaganda.  It will be interesting to see if the SCMP continues to deteriorate over the next few years, or levels off somewhere intermediate between the China Daily and a US or European media outlet. (Even if you hate the mainstream media because of bias, they are willing to criticize their own government.)

The following statements are all true:

1. Today, Mainland China is vastly freer than when Mao ruled China.

2. Today, Hong Kong is vastly freer than Mainland China.

3. The Hong Kong of 2018 was vastly freer than the Hong Kong of today.

4.  The Hong Kong of 2018 wasn’t even a democracy.

Don’t think that things can’t get any worse.  In 1918, I imagine lots of people thinking that the “Great War” was as bad as war could get.

A common mistake is to fixate on one fact about a country, which a person might read in the media, and draw sweeping conclusions from that fact.

“Did you hear about the Covid policy in Australia?  It’s become a police state.”

That Covid policy you read about was probably bad, but I doubt that, by itself, it would have caused an otherwise free country to become a police state.  There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.

A second mistake is to pay more attention to abuses elsewhere than at home.  I would never deny that the Russian government’s imprisonment of Brittney Griner on drug charges is an outrageous violation of her human rights.  Nor would I deny that her punishment is more severe than she would have received in the US.  Even so, it’s a bit odd to see so much attention paid to this one case at a time when nearly 400,000 Americans are in prison for drug charges, often for doing things that would be completely legal in at least a dozen American states.  That strikes me as pretty grotesque, but our news media doesn’t seem to agree, as they focus all their attention on Griner.

This is why we should never give up.  A libertarian utopia may be out of reach, but even preventing things from getting worse would be an achievement worth celebrating, with vast consequences for human welfare.