- Sebastian Hager
On the modern-day threats to classical liberalism
Photograph: Flickr / Angus McDiarmid
The collapse of the Soviet Union, globalization, the success of the Four Tigers as well as the ongoing trend of freeing trade have led some to think that there are no alternatives left anymore except liberalism. Francis Fukuyama, the author of “The End of History” has posed that the world is approaching a liberal age where no system apart from liberal democracy is feasible anymore. Margaret Thatcher, by stating that “There Is No Alternative” claimed that state-management of the economy is no longer feasible, that in its very essence all the other alternatives have proven wrong. While we truly live in a liberal world, or at least more liberal than at any other point before, it remains open whether it is the only or best alternative.
This liberal age is not only to be observed in economics, but also in social and cultural policies and values. The world, especially the West (whatever that is), is mixing up more and more. Free migration within the EU and increased overall labour mobility have brought with them cultural diversification and economic prosperity, and above all, good food to the UK. Through liberalism the government is retrieving more and more, whether from the international market place or our bedrooms.
Is this a trend? Or might the liberalization of trade, social issues, and fiscal policy be in danger? Is there something that’s halting liberalism of bringing about a prosperous, individualistic and open society, free of coercion, state intervention and collectivism?
One might think that the biggest threat to such a (dream of a) society is that liberalism cannot bring about a desirable future. Whether this is true or not, an immense danger to the advancing of liberalism is liberalism itself. With its simple, cold and individualistic view of the state’s role, the ideology systematically scares off people. Most of us are afraid of living in a completely individualist society. Most people, bluntly speaking, are communitarians and believe in a connection of the society and the state through collective means. What has liberalism to offer them? They think nothing, and rightly so - it seems liberalism does not care about ordinary people and is only an ideal in Enlightenment-influenced intellectuals and economists.
The problem is not just the very heart of liberal philosophy but also how liberals themselves act and try to promote the idea. Too often they find themselves detached from (so-called) real-world problems, promoting some transcendental ideals and questioning issues most people take for granted, democracy or the welfare state for example.
Most people look for answers to problems at home – inequality, stagnating real incomes, social immobility – and the liberal points elsewhere. To how, for example, in the last couple of decades hundreds of millions of people have moved to cities in China (That authoritarian China is used in such a debate is in itself ironic.), and escaped poverty, all through market liberalization reforms. They argue that legalizing all drugs would severely dampen gang violence in Latin America and poorer parts of the US. When Ron Paul, admittedly a very extreme liberal, was asked how a free-market health-care system would take care of an uninsured fatally ill person, he responded that it would let him die, that it is the responsibility of other individuals to take care of such a patient, not the government’s.
Thus, they scare off voters who might sympathize with some of their ideas as well as potential liberals who end up thinking that liberalism is a project of the rich and privileged.
But all liberals do, is adhere to a philosophy that is quite clear about what the ideal solutions to most problems are: free trade, free markets, minimum government intervention, low taxes and small government.
It seems as if it is liberalism’s fate to be radical in the eyes of most people, and as a liberalism that becomes too welfare-ish and paternalist is not liberal anymore there is little room to compromise its principles. Thus, the threat to liberalism is not liberalism itself, but its inflexibility. The liberal tradition is the only one that has not altered its core positions over the course of modernity.
So, is there hope for a liberal world? I think so. Eventually liberalism will be able to convince people that it (as the main tool of globalization) is the only way to go if you want to get the poorest people in the world out of poverty and that markets will lead to a desirable – not perfect – outcome. Thus, what must be done to promote liberalism is not change liberalism, but to change the common perception of it. How that is to be done is open to debate.