Civil and Economic Liberties Under the Shah
By Bryan Caplan
Here are two striking passages from Abbas Milani’s The Shah.
Civil liberties under the Shah:
The Shah’s crucial decade from 1965 to 1975 was also critical for the regime’s cultural politics. Iran in this period was a discordant combination of cultural freedoms and political despotism – of increasing censorship against the opposition but increasing freedoms for everyone else. It is far from hyperbole to claim that during the sixties and seventies, Iran was one of the most liberal societies in the Muslim world in terms of cultural and religious tolerance, and in the state’s aversion to interfere in the private lives of its citizens – so long as they did not politically oppose the Shah. Indications of this tolerance were many: from the quality of life of Iran’s Baha’i and Jews to the artistic innovations and aesthetic avant-gardism of the Shiraz Art Festival…
Much to the consternation of the Shiite clergy in this period, the Baha’i enjoyed freedom and virtual equality with other citizens. The same was true about Iranian Jews – some 100,000 of the them, who had lived in Iran for over 3,000 years. In the words of David Menasheri, it was the Jews’ “golden age,” wherein they enjoyed equality with Muslims and in terms of their per capita incomes “they might have been the richest Jewish community in the world.” Some of the most innovative and successful industrialists, engineers, architects, and artists were either Jewish or Baha’i…
Economic liberties under the Shah:
In a fascinating speech on the floor of the Senate, he [Iranian senator and industrialist Qassem Lajevardi] offered a de facto manifesto for Iran’s nascent industrialist class…
Lajevardi began his remarks by pointing out the startling fact that 103 of the 104 government-run companies were losing money – the only one that showed any profit was the oil company. He also talked of the dangers or price control, knowing well the Shah’s proclivity to use force to control prices, going so far as deputizing an army of students to identify and, if necessary, arrest businessmen accused of price gouging. The policy angered not just modern industrialists like Lajevardi but also members of the bazaar, long a bastion of support for the moderate opposition and for the clergy. Nowhere in the world, Lajevardi said, had the effort to forcefully control prices led to success. He went on to also criticize the government policy of arbitrarily deciding workers’ wages. Wages, he said, must correlate with productivity and cannot, as was the case in Iran, be treated as a political bonus. Industrialists will invest, he said pointedly, only if they are allowed to make a fair profit. By then, a massive flight of capital from Iran had already started – a flight that would be redoubled when the political situation deteriorated.
Strong on civil liberties, weak on economic liberties – it almost seems like American liberals should have liked the Shah. The favorable theory is that liberals cared more about democracy than getting their preferred policies. The unfavorable theory is that liberals knew next to nothing about the Shah’s actual policies, and opposed him chiefly for the traditional authoritarianism he symbolized rather than what he actually did – or how he compared to plausible alternatives.
HT: Mehi Haghani