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In Defence of Liberalism – and what Liberals Need to Do in its Defence

In a recent issue, the Economist published a plaidoyer for a revival of liberalism – not just of the American sort but of the broader variety that figures on the political landscape of many countries around the world.

The Economist has been a protagonist of liberalism since its founding 175 years ago. Several strands have shaped its understanding. Here are some of the more important ones.

First, there is the idea that liberalism embraces a wide-ranging political pragmatism that is wary of overly certain truths.

Second, liberalism understands itself as having played a pioneering role as the chief instigator of the welfare state (no, it was not the social-democrats, but the liberals that championed the idea that for capitalism to function efficiently, it needed to have mechanisms to support people who were transitioning in the labour market, ill or infirm or aging, or just plain down on their luck).

Third, liberalism can boast of a historically-demonstrated capacity to attract and integrate a wide variety of political and ideological actors. This has meant, for example, the expansion of the suffrage to include less-monied classes and women.

Fourth, liberalism is enthusiastically open towards free trade: John Stuart Mill, often considered to be the father of modern liberalism, was very much in favour. Interestingly, he argued that for people from different places and cultures to indulge in commercial exchanges offered learning experiences that were at least as valuable as their monetary value.

Fifth, liberalism champions a visceral opposition to any political agenda advocating the concentration of political decision-making prerogatives.

In general, liberals cherish diversity of opinion and diffusion of power. And they respect those with whom they disagree as long as they play the political game by democratic rules.

For the Economist, liberalism is under threat from three main directions:

• the relativization of truth as its enemies seek to instrumentalize their accusations that the mainstream press is producing fake news; • the marginalization of individual freedoms the world over; • the loss of faith on the part of far too many liberals in humanity’s continuing capacity for progress.

This is a credible short-list. Here are a few ideas on how to deal with them.

As Marx once observed, information and the spread of information are two of the key factors driving socio-economic and political change. The amount of additional information available to people around the world since the advent of the internet is enormous. A majority of the citizens of the world can now access an informational smorgasbord of constantly increasingly proportions and ever growing and diversifying breadth.

Buckminster Fuller held that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was deemed to be doubling every 25 years. A report from 2013 claims that on average human knowledge was then doubling every 13 months, and that with advent of the “internet of things”, this could lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.

But being able to navigate this enormously expanded information world requires a level of understanding, background and, yes, general education that many of its consumers do not possess. The new informational landscape is moreover often subject to political manipulation, as we have seen from the recent revelations about the misuse of Facebook sites for political advantage. The capacity of users of social media to distinguish between real and fake news lags significantly behind the pace of technological change facilitating informational distortion.

As for the second point, in recent years, support for authoritarian regimes has risen around the world. Research by Freedom House, an NGO that monitors the fortunes of democratic governance internationally, shows that the slide in support for democratic governance has been particularly pronounced since the Great Depression of 2007-08.

If you want to reduce support for democratic governance, your priority should be to shift resources to society’s richest. This is exactly what has happened in several developed western economies since 2008. When this happens those that are hurting often abandon faith in democratic structures. Instead, many of them place their bets on demagogues and charlatans that promise to address their concerns but often end up worsening their plight: talk to a US car manufacturer that now needs to pay more for steel imports as a result of the US President’s sanctions, or to an American soya exporter whose biggest markets are places such as China that have recently placed sanctions on American soya imports.

But note that these are not just the kind of failings that are being felt in the US. The problem is of a more general nature, encompassing most of what has traditionally been called the western world.

And for the third point, the loss of faith in progress: yes, there are liberal forces that have resorted to policies designed to defend the status quo at all costs instead of embracing changes on the labour market and in tandem championing the fundamental modifications that every society needs to implement on an ongoing basis if its citizens are to prosper. The failure to effectively address this issue was a central failing of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign of 2016.

The bottom line is that democracies cannot thrive, let alone find a safe landing, unless a critical mass of the electorate knows its history, in particular, that it is aware of what were the choices in front of the population at previous historical tipping points, that it understands what ended up being the costs and benefits of the various options on offer, and that it is able to project these historical lessons into the present.

But there are other critical issues such as the role of money in politics and the need for greater professionalism on the part of democratic politicians that are of parallel importance. I will turn to these issues in future blogs.

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