Philosophers, at least as far back as Adam Smith, have argued that political freedom and market freedom are inseparable. You cannot impede one, this line of thinking goes, without damaging the other.
Dictators, at least as far back as Adolf Hitler, have argued that political freedom is the enemy of economic growth. To fully energize an industrial economy to produce the goods and services people want, that line of argument went, a society must have top-down control of thought and action to prevent disorder and inefficiency.
In the past century, the conflict between these two world views escaped the philosophical and economic realms and became global combat.
In the past week, the conflict between these two world views was marked by the flip of a switch.
And it was flipping wonderful.
The people who run Google, the global Internet search engine, decided they could no longer pretend that their corporate ethos, built upon the free spirit of the Web itself, could peacefully co-exist with the censorship demanded by the government of the People's Republic of China.
So they walked out, virtually speaking.
This matters, because the people who run China are not wavering from their belief that they can continue building an industrial behemoth -- with innovation, environmental sustainability and wider income distribution -- while retaining total control over political thought and debate. If they succeed, or even appear to succeed, the cause of political freedom in the rest of the world will be greatly threatened.
Google now routes Web searches from China through its uncensored servers in the former British colony of Hong Kong. The Chinese government still runs "The Great Firewall," controlling the telecommunications infrastructure to block questions and answers that it does not like.
Google has not yet withdrawn its engineering and sales people from China. It has risked, yet not abandoned, the prospect that it still will be able to sell such tech delights as its new line of Android cell phones there, although early indications are that the business relationships it built in China now are fracturing.
The decision made by Google managers is that they are willing to risk a few quarters of diminished returns in order to be on the right side of history. If they are smart -- and they are -- they will now work to make themselves the irreplaceable friends of modernity in rapidly developing nations such as India and Indonesia.
There is little hope that China's rulers will soon realize that the free flow of information is the way of the future. The sad idea linking dictators, and their servants, throughout time is that bloody chaos lurks around every corner and must be resisted through the tight fist of central control.
There is also little hope that all the other businesses in the world will have such moral qualms about doing business in a police state with billions of potential customers.
But Google's decision may light the way for others around the world to stick to the idea that wealth is best earned, and kept, in free societies. It should help, as another group of American businessmen and lawyers once said, to secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity.
You could google it.