I was having a conversation with a friend the other day. We were enjoying a beautiful summer day in one of Kiev’s outside restaurant terraces.
“You, know”, he said. “Ukraine is one of the freest countries on this planet.”
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
“Well, you can do pretty much anything you want here. Of course, they have laws and all that, but unless you do something really stupid or piss off important people, nobody will care.”
He certainly didn’t need to convince me too hard; I immediately understood his point. The more time I spent living abroad, the more I realized that most of the countries that I enjoyed a great deal were squarely outside the West; they were mostly what one considers “third world,” such as Latin America, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.
I spent many years living in Latin America. One of the things that I liked about that part of the world is the element of unpredictability and adventure. It was evident every time I went out. It was common to go out with your friends, meet some new people along the way, go out with them to some interesting and crazy party, meet more new people, and then wake up the next day, reflecting an seemingly random and interesting experience. There’s a greater chance of that happening in an “unpredictable” city like Mexico City than, for example, in super orderly and conservative Spain, a country that shares the language and culture with Latin America.
This element of unpredictability is the result of less societal structure and more individual freedom. Last year in Thailand, while driving a rental car from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai in the northern part of the country, in over three hours of driving I didn’t see a single policeman anywhere. I was free to drive as fast as I wanted without worrying whether a policeman hiding behind the next bend with a radar gun (as often happens in big American cities and on interstates in the middle of nowhere). I also didn’t notice many people speeding. Everyone drove in an orderly way, never speeding or overtaking others. (Try driving from New York to Miami or San Francisco to Los Angeles and see how many eager highway patrollers would pull you over for going few miles over the speed limit.)
Get out of the water!
A few weeks later, I wrapped up my Thailand adventures and flew back to New York City. The summer was in full swing, so the very next day, I headed to the beach. I immediately noticed something very strange. City employees (part of the NYC Department of Parks) were harassing anyone who was swimming or was about to swim telling them that they needed to get out of the water immediately.
The reason? There were no lifeguards on duty. And without lifeguards on duty you couldn’t swim.
I was shocked. Never in my whole life had I seen something like this. I couldn’t believe that someone could forbid someone else from taking a nice swim in the scorching summer heat. I was wrong. Apparently the beach is under city government’s jurisdiction so they can do what they want, including deciding whether you had the right to bask in the crystal clear waters of Atlantic Ocean.
Furthermore, I actually don’t think I’ve ever been to any country—and I’ve been to some amazing beaches on this planet—where the government forbade people from swimming. I could never imagine this happening in Brazil, Thailand, Italy, Ukraine or Indonesia. I don’t even think I’ve seen police or city employees on a public beach (unless they were cleaning the trash). On the other hand, I can certainly imagine this to be a regular occurrence in places like Germany, England or Scandinavia, countries that are deemed to be “free” but where governments exercise much greater control over people’s lives.
Rich democratic countries are more “predictable” chiefly due to an organized legal structure and the rule of law. As a result, you know exactly where you stand in terms of whether you’re above the law or not. This black and white divide is a huge advantage because you can create courts with judges who interpret these laws along with prosecutors and defenders who either bring these offenses against someone or defend someone from these offenses, respectively. For example, if you don’t pay me, I have a recourse: I can sue you in a small claims court.
In the developing third world, things work a bit different. Instead of the government writing every single rule and law that dictates how people should eat, drink and breathe, common sense takes over. This means that nobody really cares about trivial things that don’t adversely impact others. When I visited the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa last week for a little summer vacation, the beaches were packed and there weren’t any lifeguards on duty (or maybe they were invisible because I didn’t see any). Naturally, people were swimming without some city employees kicking them out of water. (As to whether there’s a Ukrainian law that forbids people to swim without lifeguards is another story.)
Drinking beer in parks is ok. Swimming in the water is ok. If you steal something, that’s not ok. If you hurt someone, that’s not ok. Depending on the severity of the latter, there will be either little to no repercussions, or you might have some serious people after you (if you steal lots of money, for instance). You don’t need judges, courts and prosecutors for this (although they also exist). This is just common sense.
This unspoken freedom is one of the main reasons that people generally travel from developed countries to less developed ones. It’s also a chief reason why people make money in the former and then eventually move (or retire) in the latter. Developed countries are great for making money—this is the reason they were created in the first place—but not so much when it comes to quality of life. I’ve noticed this pattern happening when immigrants come to USA or the UK, work their asses off, save money and then return back to their homelands, buy property or whatever.
The Nanny State
There’s an interesting concept called Nanny State. It’s when the government basically assumes the role of a parent figure and tells you what you can or can’t do. It’s chiefly a Western phenomenon; it doesn’t exist in non-Westernized countries like Russia, Thailand, Ukraine or Brazil. (When I visited Russia a few years ago, I’ve talked about how you have to essentially fend for yourself because no one will hold your hand in Russia, something I initially found confusing but eventually very refreshing.)
To be sure, there are times where government control is welcomed. I don’t smoke. And one thing that drives me absolutely nuts is when people smoke in public and the smoke blows in my face. Couple of years ago, I was relaxing on the beach in southern Turkey. I had just rented a comfortable beach chair and was set on enjoying a supremely gorgeous day on the beach. Unfortunately, I would not be enjoying anything that day. On that fine afternoon with clear blue skies, almost every single person who was on the beach seemed to be smoking. That meant that instead of gazing out into the Black Sea, the only thing I was enjoying was the disgusting smell of tobacco. Every single person on that beach smoked at one point or another. If a person to the right of me finished his cigarette, the person on the left started theirs. This continued throughout the day. Although not as bad as in Turkey, it’s also a huge problem here in Eastern Europe. Lots of people smoke. I don’t care what you do to your body, but I certainly care about being exposed to carcinogens and catching cancer.
This is one thing that the West got right. In New York City, smoking has been completely outlawed in public places. That means not only you can’t smoke in outside terraces in the restaurants, but you can’t even smoke on the sidewalks and in the parks.
So, what’s the difference between outlawing smoking in public venues and outlawing ocean swimming when there are no lifeguards present? The very fact that when you smoke, I’m directly affected, but when you swim without a lifeguard, I’m not affected at all. It’s your choice to swim in the open ocean, so you better know what you’re doing. If you can’t swim, then you die. That’s life. Your reward for poor decision-making is the removal from the gene pool. Smoking is different. Not only are you stimulating cancer cells in your body, you’re also doing it to others. In economic terms that’s called an externality: it’s when you do something, gain a benefit (the pleasant effect of nicotine), but the rest of the society (like myself) is worse off as the result.
While I’m fortunate that I can live on the fringes of Western civilization while enjoying a traditional society where the government doesn’t treat its residents like a bunch of retarded children who don’t know what’s best for them, I don’t believe such societies will still exist in the future. Government control of society is correlated to its level of economic development. The poorer the country, the more pressing are the problems that need solving. That means there is no money for highway patrol with expensive radars to catch speeders or salaries for city employees whose job is to ruin your day at the beach. But as countries gradually develop, governments will have more cash and a greater mandate to control their citizens lives.
Bigger problems than dogs
This reminds me of a time when I was sitting with a friend in sea town of Burgas, Bulgaria a couple of years ago. Bulgaria is a poor country on the southeastern edge of Europe; it felt even poorer than Ukraine. On the next table over, there was a confused-looking German girl who didn’t understand Bulgarian and needed help ordering. My Bulgarian friend graciously volunteered to help her out. After my friend helped her choose a meal, she looked around and asked him why there were so many stray dogs in Bulgaria. She told him that the government should solve this problem by funding some animal shelter like they do in Germany. My friend chuckled, looked at me, and then told her that in this country, we have much bigger problems to solve than to worry about stray animals. After all, Bulgaria isn’t exactly Germany. Given the fact that the German girl even suggested the need for more government involvement tells you everything you need to know about her views on the government’s participation on all aspects of individual’s life.
If you’re a long term reader of this blog, you’ve probably heard me mention that the key to happiness is living in corrupt countries. The more corruption, the better. I know it sounds sinister, but hear me out. Power is like energy, it can’t be destroyed, so it doesn’t simply disappear but instead moves from one area to another. Corruption simply means that instead of the government having a monopoly on power, it’s diffused with various other factions of the society (i.e., mafia, cartels, gangs, organized crime, etc). Essentially, the more corrupt the country, the weaker its government, and the less resources it has devoted to telling people where to swim and where not to swim.
Brazil, Thailand, Argentina and Indonesia are all countries that have relatively high levels of corruption. It’s no coincidence that they’re also very fun places with tons of expats who are searching for ways to extend their visas. Singapore, Denmark and Iceland are countries with relatively little corruption. Thus, it’s no surprise that my year living in Denmark can be categorized as nice and comfortable—and that’s pretty much it. I have zero motivation to ever return. Singapore is nice and orderly, but the fact that you can get caned for overstaying your visa or pay five hundred dollars in fine for feeding pigeons is rather severe.
Just don’t go to Venezuela
Of course, everything must be done in moderation. I’m not advocating that you move to Zimbabwe, Somalia or Venezuela where the corruption is so extreme that the entire economy is nothing more than the transfer of entire wealth from the people to the government state. (In these countries, even the word “economy” is an oxymoron). You don’t want to be stuck somewhere where you need a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a loaf of bread or needing to find some shady money dealers to exchange your dollars into local money that’s worth anything. Even Rio de Janeiro, a gorgeous city, requires some caution and street smarts. Because of the huge gap between the rich and poor, I had a rule to never leave my apartment with anything I wasn’t willing to lose like my nice smartphone or a watch, something that I’ve completely taken for granted in the West.
Nevertheless, the pattern holds. The more wealthy and prosperous the nation, the more you can expect to be treated like a little child and get slapped every time you do something that might remotely put your life in danger or, worse, get slapped for something that’s deemed remotely offensive to someone else. The objective is to create a society of weaklings who are dependent on constant hand-holding while being duly shielded from any outside harm. As it happens, it’s also a sneaky way for the state to validate and reinforce its own existence.
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