The Economist, which is one of my favourite newspapers, is celebrating 175 years of publication; it does so, in part, with a ‘lead’ in the 15 September issue, headlined: “A manifesto for renewing liberalism.”
Now, regular readers will know that the rather sorry state of classical Anglo-American liberalism, which I regard as central to the geopolitical strategic success of the West, is one of my main concerns. I find the rise of illiberalism shocking … largely because I regard it, and the populists, like US President Trump, who propagate it as stupid: popular, beyond doubt, but stupid all the same.
“Liberalism,” the manifesto begins “made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it. Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal elites, who are seen as self-serving and unable, or unwilling, to solve the problems of ordinary people. Elsewhere a 25-year shift towards freedom and open markets has gone into reverse, even as China, soon to be the world’s largest economy, shows that dictatorships can thrive.“
“For The Economist,” the article goes on “this is profoundly worrying. We were created 175 years ago to campaign for liberalism—not the leftish “progressivism” of American university campuses or the rightish “ultraliberalism” conjured up by the French commentariat, but a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.“
The Economist takes note of human progress since the 1840s and admits that “This is not all the work of liberals, obviously. But as fascism, communism and autarky failed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, liberal societies have prospered. In one flavour or another, liberal democracy came to dominate the West and from there it started to spread around the world.” Some countries, most notably, Singapore and South Korea have eschewed some (many) of the trappings of Western liberalism and have chosen, instead, to pursue a model of conservative, mainly Confucian democracy that has maintained the really fundamental liberal values ~ the right to life, liberty, property and privacy ~ that allow good institutions to flourish while, simultaneously, favouring community-based values and cooperative rather than individualistic programmes. But the total of the liberal and conservative democracies pale in comparison to the multitude of illiberal ones.
“Yet political philosophies cannot live by their past glories,” no matter how far and well they were propagated, The Economist says, “they must also promise a better future. And here liberal democracy faces a looming challenge. Western voters have started to doubt that the system works for them or that it is fair. In polling last year just 36% of Germans, 24% of Canadians and 9% of the French thought that the next generation would be better off than their parents. Only a third of Americans under 35 say that it is vital they live in a democracy; the share who would welcome military government grew from 7% in 1995 to 18% last year. Globally, according to Freedom House, an NGO, civil liberties and political rights have declined for the past 12 years—in 2017, 71 countries lost ground while only 35 made gains.“
“In its moment of triumph after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” the article says, liberalism “lost sight of its own essential values. It is with them that the liberal revival must begin.“
“Liberalism,” the article goes on to explain, “emerged in the late 18th century as a response to the turmoil stirred up by independence in America, revolution in France and the transformation of industry and commerce. Revolutionaries insist that, to build a better world, you first have to smash the one in front of you. By contrast, conservatives are suspicious of all revolutionary pretensions to universal truth. They seek to preserve what is best in society by managing change, usually under a ruling class or an authoritarian leader who “knows best”.” But, The Economist‘s lead writers go on to say that “True liberals contend that societies can change gradually for the better and from the bottom up. They differ from revolutionaries because they reject the idea that individuals should be coerced into accepting someone else’s beliefs. They differ from conservatives because they assert that aristocracy and hierarchy, indeed all concentrations of power, tend to become sources of oppression … [and] … Liberalism thus began as a restless, agitating world view. Yet over the past few decades liberals have become too comfortable with power. As a result, they have lost their hunger for reform. The ruling liberal elite tell themselves that they preside over a healthy meritocracy and that they have earned their privileges. The reality is not so clear-cut …[because] … At its best, the competitive spirit of meritocracy has created extraordinary prosperity and a wealth of new ideas. In the name of efficiency and economic freedom, governments have opened up markets to competition. Race, gender and sexuality have never been less of a barrier to advancement. Globalisation has lifted hundreds of millions of people in emerging markets out of poverty … [but] … ruling liberals have often sheltered themselves from the gales of creative destruction. Cushy professions such as law are protected by fatuous regulations. University professors enjoy tenure even as they preach the virtues of the open society. Financiers were spared the worst of the financial crisis when their employers were bailed out with taxpayers’ money. Globalisation was meant to create enough gains to help the losers, but too few of them have seen the pay-off … [and, therefore] … In all sorts of ways, the liberal meritocracy is closed and self-sustaining. A recent study found that, in 1999-2013, America’s most prestigious universities admitted more students from the top 1% of households by income than from the bottom 50%. In 1980-2015 university fees in America rose 17 times as fast as median incomes. The 50 biggest urban areas contain 7% of the world’s people and produce 40% of its output. But planning restrictions shut many out, especially the young … [thus] …Governing liberals have become so wrapped up in preserving the status quo that they have forgotten what radicalism looks like. Remember how, in her campaign to become America’s president, Hillary Clinton concealed her lack of big ideas behind a blizzard of small ones. The candidates to become leader of the Labour Party in Britain in 2015 lost to Jeremy Corbyn not because he is a dazzling political talent so much as because they were indistinguishably bland. Liberal technocrats contrive endless clever policy fixes, but they remain conspicuously aloof from the people they are supposed to be helping. This, the authors conclude, “creates two classes: the doers and the done-to, the thinkers and the thought-for, the policymakers and the policytakers.“
What we lost
“Liberals have forgotten,”” the article says, and I agree, fully, “that their founding idea is civic respect for all. Our centenary editorial, written in 1943 as the war against fascism raged, set this out in two complementary principles. The first is freedom: that it is “not only just and wise but also profitable…to let people do what they want.” The second is the common interest: that “human society…can be an association for the welfare of all” … [but, sadly] … Today’s liberal meritocracy sits uncomfortably with that inclusive definition of freedom. The ruling class live in a bubble. They go to the same colleges, marry each other, live in the same streets and work in the same offices. Remote from power, most people are expected to be content with growing material prosperity instead. Yet, amid stagnating productivity and the fiscal austerity that followed the financial crisis of 2008, even this promise has often been broken … [and] … That is one reason loyalty to mainstream parties is corroding. Britain’s Conservatives, perhaps the most successful party in history, now raise more money from the wills of dead people than they do from the gifts of the living. In the first election in unified Germany, in 1990, the traditional parties won over 80% of the vote; the latest poll gives them just 45%, compared with a total of 41.5% for the far right, the far left and the Greens … [thus, The Economist suggests that now] … people are retreating into group identities defined by race, religion or sexuality. As a result, that second principle, the common interest, has fragmented. Identity politics is a valid response to discrimination but, as identities multiply, the politics of each group collides with the politics of all the rest. Instead of generating useful compromises, debate becomes an exercise in tribal outrage. Leaders on the right, in particular, exploit the insecurity engendered by immigration as a way of whipping up support. And they use smug left-wing arguments about political correctness to feed their voters’ sense of being looked down on. The result is polarisation. Sometimes that leads to paralysis, sometimes to the tyranny of the majority. At worst it emboldens far-right authoritarians … [and, worse, perhaps] … Liberals are losing the argument in geopolitics, too. Liberalism spread in the 19th and 20th centuries against the backdrop first of British naval hegemony and, later, the economic and military rise of the United States. Today, by contrast, the retreat of liberal democracy is taking place as Russia plays the saboteur and China asserts its growing global power. Yet rather than defend the system of alliances and liberal institutions it created after the second world war, America has been neglecting it—and even, under President Donald Trump, attacking it … [but] … This impulse to pull back is based on a misconception. As the historian Robert Kagan points out, America did not switch from interwar isolationism to post-war engagement in order to contain the Soviet Union, as is often assumed. Instead, having seen how the chaos of the 1920s and 1930s bred fascism and Bolshevism, its post-war statesmen concluded that a leaderless world was a threat. In the words of Dean Acheson, a secretary of state, America could no longer sit “in the parlour with a loaded shotgun, waiting” … [therefore] … It follows that the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not suddenly make America safe. If liberal ideas do not underpin the world, geopolitics risks becoming the balance-of-power, sphere-of-influence struggle that European statesmen grappled with in the 19th century. That culminated in the muddy battlefields of Flanders. Even if today’s peace holds, liberalism will suffer as growing fears of foreign foes drive people into the arms of strongmen and populists.“
It is important to reinforce the point, made earlier, that when The Economist and I use the words liberal and liberalism we are not, not even remotely, thinking about anything that might animate Justin Trudeau’s thinking. Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada are just as illiberal, on the progressive end of the illiberal spectrum as President Trump is on the regressive end. The closest thing we have to a liberal party in Canada is the Conservative Party of Canada … all because some intellectually lazy Americans decided to make the word liberal into a pejorative term.
Fixing what’s wrong
“It is the moment,” The Economist says, “for a liberal reinvention. Liberals need to spend less time dismissing their critics as fools and bigots and more fixing what is wrong. The true spirit of liberalism is not self-preserving, but radical and disruptive. The Economist was founded to campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws, which charged duties on imports of grain into Victorian Britain. Today that sounds comically small-bore. But in the 1840s, 60% of the income of factory workers went on food, a third of that on bread. We were created to take the part of the poor against the corn-cultivating gentry. Today, in that same vision, liberals need to side with a struggling precariat against the patricians.“
There is, according to Professor Guy Standing of the University of London “a new class whose voice will soon be at the centre of Canadian life. It is the precariat, the growing mass of Canadians who are in precarious work, precarious housing and hold precarious citizenship: the perpetual part-timers, the minimum-wagers, the temporary foreign workers, the grey-market domestics paid in cash, the young Canadians who will never have secure employment, the techno-impoverished whose piecemeal work has no office and no end, the seniors who struggle with dwindling benefits, the indigenous people who are kept outside, the single mothers without support, the cash labourers who have no savings, the generation for whom a pension and a retirement is neither available nor desired … [and] … The precariat consists of millions of people struggling to come to terms with lives of unstable labour and unstable living, lacking an occupational identity or career. They rely on money wages, which are stagnant and volatile, putting them in constant fear of unsustainable debt. The politicians have ignored the precariat, which may account for 40 per cent of the adult population in Canada. In some countries, it is more; it is growing everywhere … [and, worse] … the precariat has been losing citizenship rights – civil, cultural, political, social and economic. As such, they are becoming supplicants: They must ask for favours and benefits, satisfy bureaucrats and depend on discretionary decisions that subject them to discomfort, indignity and even homelessness.
Liberal leaders, The Economist says, and by which it means, in Canada, Conservative Party leaders, “must rediscover their belief in individual dignity and self-reliance—by curbing their own privileges. They must stop sneering at nationalism, but claim it for themselves and fill it with their own brand of inclusive civic pride. Rather than lodging power in centralised ministries and unaccountable technocracies, they should devolve it to regions and municipalities. Instead of treating geopolitics as a zero-sum struggle between the great powers, America must draw on the self-reinforcing triad of its military might, its values and its allies.“
The Economist concludes it’s manifesto by saying that “The best liberals have always been pragmatic and adaptable. Before the first world war Theodore Roosevelt took on the robber barons who ran America’s great monopolies. Although many early liberals feared mob rule, they embraced democracy. After the Depression in the 1930s they acknowledged that government has a limited role in managing the economy. Partly in order to see off fascism and communism after the second world war, liberals designed the welfare state … [and] … Liberals … [by which, I repeat, we mean, in Canada, Conservatives] … should approach today’s challenges with equal vigour. If they prevail, it will be because their ideas are unmatched for their ability to spread freedom and prosperity. Liberals should embrace criticism and welcome debate as a source of the new thinking that will rekindle their movement. They should be bold and impatient for reform. Young people, especially, have a world to claim.“
Now, not everyone will agree with The Economist and me. First, there are the progressives who believe that they can, somehow ~ unicorn farts and fairy dust, I suppose ~ legislate an end to poverty and hopelessness and, therefore, to the sort of socio-economic populism that brought us Donald J Trump. Then there is the Trump Party which will not go away even if President Trump is defeated in the next election or impeached; there are many, here in Canada, who believe that he is the right man for the world and that he is doing the right things, too. Then there are the liberal elites and, in Canada, the Laurentian Elites who, from their towers of privilege, look down on the masses and wonder why they are upset.
I believe, at least I hope, that the leaders of the Conservative Party of Canada are not too progressive, not enamoured of President Trump’s policies and methods and not sitting comfortably in ivory towers …
… I prefer to believe, instead, that most Conservatives, especially our CPC political leaders, are plugged into Canada’s main street values and that they understand that, in some (too many) respects, the precariat, assuming that it does exist and is a danger, needs to be understood and supported against the illiberal patricians.
Respect for, indeed taking up the cause of the precariat is what Reihan Salam, who is contributing editor at The Atlantic and executive editor of National Review, recommends, in an article in The Atlantic, that is well worth a read on its own merits, that US President Trump should do in order to prove that “he is a different kind of Republican—one who is more attuned to the interests of the working class than the donor class.” That’s a message that Canadian Conservatives should heed, too, as they try to convince hard-working Canadians that they, not Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, understand their goals and problems and share their values.
I hope that some people will take this manifesto into their minds and take it to heart, too. Small l liberals, made the modern world from the middle of the 19th until near the end of the 20th centuries, and they made it in the best interests of the majority of the people … now illiberals, and worse, tyrants, great and small, want to take it over and reshape it to suit their own special interests.
Justin Trudeau is not a tyrant, nor does he want to be one, he’s just an über-progressive ninny, but Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are tyrants and Donald Trump is more aligned with them than he is with either Justin Trudeau or Andrew Scheer.
Real liberals, in America, Australia, and Britain, and in Canada, and elsewhere, need to take a good look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are willing to reinvigorate liberalism, as The Economist suggests, above … or shall we just concede the field to the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Xi Jinping, Justin Trudeau, and Donald Trump? There doesn’t seem, to me, to be much in the way of a safe middle ground.