What’s more important freedom of speech or economic development?

Mieke Dale Harris

Freedom of speech has become an important prerequisite of democracy and is to an equal extent prized by the population of any democratic country. Many modern generations quite rightly feel that they have a “right” to speak their mind about political policies and that when many minds converge in their opinion these minds have a “right” to group together and express their discontent, be it in the form of strikes, blockades, marches or sit-ins. This relatively modern trend can be seen in the almost daily protests, of one kind of another, that afflict America, England and a number of other developed democratic (or even non-democratic) countries. It can also be noted in the international outcry that rained down over the presidents of the Arab Spring over a year ago, or more recently, but to a lesser extent, the international discontent over the arrest of the Russian protest punk group “Pussy Riot”.

Bolivia is no exception. Its population, like that of most up and coming democratic countries, is decreasingly afraid and increasingly animated to group together and express discontent over government actions. Their methods of choice are strikes and road blocks, which is not surprising considering that these are two of the most economically damaging forms of protest and are therefore the mostly likely to make the government yield to the given request.

It is great that the Bolivians have found their voice and are actively interested in the direction of their country’s development. However the picture is not quite as rosy as that, because a large number of yearly road blocks and strikes has a damaging effect on the already fragile Bolivian economy.

Protest methods such as strikes and road blocks are economically costly due to the fact that they take time, effort and money away  from both the protesters, the government, and the general population. The costs of social conflicts or protests over the 35 years between 1970 and 2005 averaged out at a shocking $60 million per year, which is approximately 1% of the country’s GDP. Furthermore, protests have been on the rise over the last ten years with a trend towards the costly road blocks and this trend has at times been estimated to have cost the government as much as a $200 million yearly, which equates to 3% of the GDP. It is therefore not surprising that protests have a negative relationship with GDP growth and thus ultimately socio-economic development (1).

Furthermore, protests are often not a direct representation of the majority opinion and, as Bolivia is currently experiencing, can even end up with two equally strong sides demanding different things. Such situations leave the country in a type of stalemate, as there is no one action that will appease everyone.Yet the government is keen to put an end to the costs and instability that the protests bring, which can often only be done by meeting the demands of the protesting group. Moreover, suppression of protests is difficult to do without violence, which is not only morally wrong but is anti-democratic and runs the risk of curbing future, possibly valuable protests. And there is no doubt that protests can be  extremely valuable when they reflect the opinion of a large portion of the country, for instance, Tony Blair would have done well to listen to the hundreds of thousands of people that marched against his imminent invasion of Iraq.

So what choice is the Bolivian President Evo Morales left with? Does he have to sit back and accept strike after strike and road block after road block despite the adverse effects that they are having on his country’s development?  Unless he can successfully persuade the population that other, less costly, forms of protest will be genuinely effective, and it’s unlikely that they will be, acceptance is unfortunately the only real option.


  1. Evia, J. L., Laserna R. and Skaperdas S. (2007), Socio-political conflict and economic performance in Bolivia, Working Papers 070814, University of California-Irvine, Department of Economics.


Do you have a suggestions on how to eliminate the highly disruptive practice of road blocks in Bolivia? Leave a reply below.

Mieke Dale-Harris is working as an intern at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia.

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  1. While the economic development should have an edge over freedom of speech but the ratio between the two should narrow.

  2. It is an unusual question to be sure. I think, however, that the only real answer will come from expanding this question into a series of other questions:

    1. Is the entire society benefiting from the economic development? If you tell me that a group of indigenous people who have lived off of the land in some 3rd world jungle are benefiting from the people who come in and destroy their environment with a gold mine because they are getting paid, I will question that.

    2. If all groups within the society are not benefiting in a manner that is acceptable to them, do they have a voice? If I complain about resource exploitation in my area and government troops make me disappear the next day, what is the value of the economic development?

    3. If groups of people are hindering wealth building by expressing themselves through strikes, sit-ins, blockades or whatever, are the so-called leaders taking note of the importance of their cause to them? One day a bunch of sugar cane cutters put down their machetes and refuse to work, a very short time later Fidel Castro rolls into Havana to celebrate the New Year as the new federal leader….

    4. Without freedom of expression how far would the people who are now the ‘wealth generators’ or economic developers have gotten to be in the very laudable positions they are now in? They no doubt started out somewhere where they had to stand up to someone, or in it’s somewhat darker context, had lobbyists working the government on their behalf.

    5. Would we be aware of how extreme the need is in drought stricken and catastrophe stricken areas for economic intervention if someone didn’t have the ability to speak up on behalf of those suffering? How often have the ones speaking up been the actual governments?

    Please understand, my background is in economic development and I am all for it, but without freedom of expresssion, there’s an awful lot of things that people in Western societies can kiss goodby

  3. “What’s more important freedom of speech or economic development?”

    Freedom of Speech is much like the freedom of an individual (or nation – whatever) do developed development in a way that would primarily benefit that Individual (or nation) that is said to be developing. The ability to act in our own best interest (nationally or the ability of any nation to act in its own best interest) is limited by the debt (political, economic…, military / soft, hard, sharp powers as Chase-Dunn wrote ) owed to others. As an example the money (credit) we borrow (are extended) from ‘China,’ to fund all our governments deficit spending from 2001 to date (long used to fund such things as our military spending.) We may have the freedom to speak of some “Crack Down on China” but have little freedom to act. Another example may also be the claim to have the freedom to balance budgets in the credit expansion based economies in place in our so-called ‘first world nations;’ as if, one of the first things the last Gov. of California did was borrow what – some 5 billion dollars from ‘China,’ no? I think I remember writing in “The Null Society: Creditism” (Morales, PSA – Portland 2005) that “much as the autonomy of the individual was inversely proportional to the debt owed to others (share-cropper, peon, indentured servitude…, credit slavery) so too is national autonomy inversely proportional the amount of debt owed to non-national creditors. And so, as we shifted from the world largest creditor nation (in 1980) to the world’s largest debtor nation (in 1990) the United States of American lost its ability to act in its own best interest in regards to destructive borrowing, currency, and trade policies linked in some way to the future enrichment of those nations to which we owe those credit values.”

    Direct none national investments, by government or none governmental organizations/private corporations in less ‘developed nations’ has shown itself to be more a condition of financial imperialism / credit colonialism than the exportation of freedom. The majority of wealth (power) collected by these operations seems to be, almost without exception, vampirically removed from the nation/country by the outside ‘supporters of freedom/development’ that make claims of “helping.”

    What freedom does one have when the economically powerful (CEO/modern day plantation owners) in the United States of America talk with a presidential candidate of having the right and power to make, as a condition of employment, their workers support a certain political party – vote a certain way?

  4. Prabhat Misra, Assistant Director- Savings, District- Etawah, U.P., India

    Freedom of Speech is the soul of democracy and economic development is must for the success of a democratic nation. Both are mutually interlinked. “Speech” take shape in the absence of “economic development”; so economic development is the primary need of a nation and its citizens.
    Prabhat Misra

  5. Virgilio Leyretana

    Sorry, I”m withdrawing my comments.

  6. When i initially read the article i thought that the the choices were like comparing apples to oranges. Since when did they become mutually exclusive. I believe she’s trying to compare two items that are actually a direct result of one another.

    Of course efforts to suppress freedom of speech will lead to actions that stunt economic growth. Additionally, the same can be said about the said protesters. Their efforts to strike against a government determined to improve its socio-economic policies in an unpopular way could derail economic growth.

    The percentages mentioned in this article are a little concerning for me though. The way I understand economic growth statistics if this: If the GDP is decreasing by 1% percent per year for the last 10 years… that means the economy’s strength is at only 90% of what what is was in 2002. Percentages in GDP are gauged on a year to year basis. Either it’s 1% worse or 1% better than the previous year. And if I read it correctly, she is implying that there is an annual 1% decline.

    This article does appear to be a random thought and it needs some clarity and change in title. I would also like to see the author cite where they received these statistics.

    • Mieke Dale-Harris

      thank you for you comment on my article. the 1% of GDP statistic that is used in the article is demonstrating how the economic costs of protests relates to the countries annual GDP, in order to give a clearer idea of the affect on development. that is not to say that countries GDP was in decline over these years as this cost is compensated for by other beneficial aspects of the economy, such as profits from oil or agricultural exports. a more detailed account of the economic costs of social disruption is given in the following article: http://www.aeaweb.org/annual_mtg_papers/2008/2008_306.pdf

    • In response to this first comment I feel it is necessary to point out that efforts to suppress freedom of speech do not necessarily lead to actions that stunt economic growth. You need to look no further than China for example 1. I don’t think there really is an answer in this situation. It’s clear that development and growth can lead to a more content population assuming that the majority benefits from it. It isn’t clear that democracy is always the best route to that though. A true democracy is difficult to attain just as true communism is. There will always be marginalized groups with less of a say on power so freedom of speech can sometimes be a lot of smoke and mirrors. We can protest and strike in the US but how often are these acts pushed aside by a firmly entrenched political system run by and large by an elite class, and funded by an elite class. In this sense it may be that development is more important. Development can lead to higher education rates. It can create jobs and relieve some economic stress on poor populations, and it can be said that the best way to achieve things quickly is not through democratic means. It’s quite the dilemma and even worse once you consider the human rights aspect of this question.

  7. Freedom of speech is no longer, at this time and age, a subject of debate. Yet, freedom of speech is not absolute, limitations to what is considered appropriate differs from one culture to another – what is acceptable to some may be considered a taboo by others. Similarly, people form different walks of life will disagree on what represents freedom of speech and to what extent should freedom of speech impact their value system, way of life or for that matter hinter the development of a society. As such, we should be careful not to identify with freedom of speech or economic development based on our personal views but rather on that which provides for the betterment of the population at large. Our decisions may thus alternate based our needs, the context, times and economic situation. Nations w/ high GDPs could possibly afford the economic repercussions associated w/ freedom of speech, while citizens of less fortunate nations may struggle opting for economic reform and development in hope of meeting their basic needs. This as so eloquently stated by Abraham Maslow represents the hierarchical progression of levels of needs,

    • Mieke Dale-Harris

      thanks for your comment on my article, some very good points were raised. my only worry is that many a dictator has excused almost complete repression of freedom of speech in the name of long term benefits for the population at large and development.

  8. Individual rights or public and common good? This is an old question plaguing nations, as a typical Western conundrum that folow the tradition of Abrahamic religions.The West speaks of rights, liberalism and free will emergent from Calvinist enthusiasm and reformation. Early in 1947, The UN Chapter on Human Rights was working on drafting a declaration on Human Rights under UNESCO, headed by Dr. Julian Huxley, the Director General of UNESCO. The task was an enquiry into the philosophical problems of a modern declaration of human rights. The committee elicited the views of famous writers and thinkers “on the theoretical bases of the rights of man”. Huxley wrote a letter in this connection to which Gandhi responded on 26th May, 1947 (published in Harijan, June 8th, 1947). The relevant part of the letter was:
    “I learnt from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done. Thus the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world. From this one fundamental statement, perhaps it is easy enough to define the duties of Man and Woman and correlate every right to some corresponding duty to be first performed. Every other right can be shown to be a usurpation hardly worth fighting for”.
    As resources are limited, development cannot happen without subduing some one or the other’s rights,more often than not. Development is not for the nation-sate but for the people. The question comes with all these conflicts, who is expendable?
    What it important here is that whereas liberalism/individualism considers duty to be a restriction or limitation on rights and hence as necessary evil, Gandhi considered duty as the source of rights. Even more fundamentally, primary emphasis on rights is at the heart of inequality while the primacy of responsibility subdues the inequality. Rights separate and stratify people as the source of inequality while responsibility creates a network among them and smoothens the distinctions.

  9. Development and freedom of speech are essential. However, in certain contexts development may be given priority over freedom of speech mainly for historical and economic reasons. In countries in which a large majority of the population struggles for daily survival, in situations where families don’t know from where and when the next meal will come, prioritizing freedom of speech over creating employment opportunities could be an irrelevant policy option. Note that development and freedom of speech are goals. Economic growth and improving citizens income are means to achieve development and freedom of speech. Poor societies need to focus on improving their lives before they make freedom of speech a priority. I would like to emphasize that economic growth, development and freedom of speech (democracy, good governance, economic growth and development) are not mutually exclusive, but poor countries need to decide what their priorities are at a given time and for a certain duration, because priorities and the actions that a country chooses to take evolve over time.

    Having said the above, countries can choose to prioritize economic growth, but can concomitantly work to build institutions (government, private sector and civil society) facilitate citizens’ participation in policy and strategy formulation, and put in place mechanisms for evaluating citizens’ satisfaction with the outcomes of the polices and strategies. Bottom line: importance doesn’t preclude setting priorities.

    • Mieke Dale-Harris

      Thank you for your valuable comments on my article. you are right in saying that development and freedom of speech are not mutually exclusive but the balance between the two is something that a number of south american countries are struggling to get right.

  10. Carlos Hernán Rodas Céspedes

    When the population, affected by the work stoppage, roadblocks, traffic chaos, etc, etc., aware that the loser with these demonstrations is the same population and the generations that come after, perhaps newly created her own house rules that allow the speech and voice of protest but does not obstruct the development… Seems to be a matter of education,…time,..?

    • Mieke Dale-Harris

      It is logical to think that with time and good education the problem would solve itself. However having a number of friends who work for unions in England makes me doubt whether this is actually the case, as i have never once heard them consider the economic consequences of the strikes that they organise. Furthermore the people that participate in Britain’s strikes and protest nearly always read about the economic damage caused by their actions but, once again, i have never heard anyone cite this as a reason for not participating in the next one.


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