James Leroy Wilson's blog

Friday, March 01, 2013

Kowloon, Squalor, and Liberty

Not until yesterday did I find out about the Walled City of Kowloon, in Hong Kong.

 After WWII, squatters set up homes in the abandoned Chinese military fort of Kowloon. The population exploded over the mere 6.5 acres, peaking at some 50,000 residents.

The place, as H.L. Mencken might have put it, barely escaped having no government at all. Aside from police raids against organized crime, and water and mail delivery from Hong Kong, it virtually didn't. No regular police force. No building codes. No regulations.

Was this, therefore, some sort of libertarian utopia?

Well, no. Utopia doesn't exist and can't exist.

 But was it otherwise good?

Hard to tell.

Peter C. Earle makes a case that Kowloon functioned quite well. Others, such as the Wikipedia entry and a beautiful 2012 Daily Mail photo essay, suggest it was overridden by crime, particularly until the early 1970's.

The problem is, I don't know what they mean by "crime." Did they mean gambling and prostitution? Opium dealing? Those aren't crimes at all.

And if violent crime is meant, why did people flock to the area? Was violence rampant, or mainly confined to mobsters warring against each other?

Eventually, the city was demolished. Relative to the rest of Hong Kong, Kowloon's residents lived in squalor. They were "paid" to leave, though many had very little choice. "Eminent domain" led to a mass population removal. Their betters knew what was best for them.

But in the (admittedly few) stories I've read about Kowloon, it appears that the people lived in relative safety, had a close-knit community, and were contented despite what we might consider environmental hazards. But just because it might be uncomfortable to 21st century Americans raised on air conditioning, was it really so bad for them?

Although the food was unregulated, how many died from food poisoning? How many doctors and dentists committed fraud or malpractice? Did the lack of codes lead to building collapses or other disasters?

Was relative poverty and squalor the price Kowloon residents were willing to pay to live in freedom and peace, without police and bureaucrats breathing down your neck?

If so, I'm sympathetic. Wealth may purchase flexibility and options, but not freedom: the wealthier you are, the more lawyers and tax accountants you need. And fame makes you even less free.

So when I saw Reason's Nanny of the Month for February 2013, I began to yearn for Kowloon. No arbitrary "law," and no cop or bureaucrat, will tell me how to live!

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