When a wave of populism swept through the world in the mid-2010s, some considered liberalism to be dead. It was everywhere: the US, UK, Brazil, India, Italy; it was seemingly unstoppable. Whilst not all the predictions made about liberalism’s fate came true, the Coronavirus is undoubtedly the greatest challenge it has faced since the Second World War.
International borders remain shuttered, UK-EU trade negotiations have faced substantial deadlock, and critics from across the political spectrum are calling for ‘a new social contract’ and a shift from liberal ideals to deal with the problems society faces. The difference though, is that it is in times of crisis that opponents are able to push through extremist ideas, and ‘temporary’ measures often become permanent.
The rise of ‘Critical Race Theory’ in works like Kendi’s “How to be an Anti-Racist”, for instance, presents issues for liberalism. Liberalism itself, viewed through this lens, is merely a vehicle for ‘sustaining institutional privilege’, and so must be dismantled. The same is true for climate activists, some of whom view liberalism as an obstruction to their cause. They argue that ‘individual action is not enough’. Hence the need to create a ‘new form of economics’ (one which disregards costs and benefits — see article) and the justification for blocking printing presses they disagree with.
The reality, however, is that abandoning enlightenment liberalism would be disastrous, especially so for minorities and the poor. It would plunge the world into a long period of stagnation, and I would go as far as to say that it would be akin to the fall of the Roman Empire.
Classical liberalism, although loosely defined, is a world view based on individual liberty, limited government, a rules-based international order, and the notion that each human, regardless of their race, gender, sexuality or class, has equal moral worth.
It has played a major role in transforming the way we live. Freedom and a move towards rules-based systems of government enabled us to capture man’s incredible capacity to innovate. Trade and specialisation transformed the world from its natural state of poverty, unlocking innovation, prosperity, and longer life-expectancies. Additionally, the notion that all men are created equal paved the way for abolitionism and universal suffrage.
Gone were the days where leaders could expropriate resources with the stroke of a quill. All, including heads of state, must abide by laws applying equally to everyone, limiting government power. People became freer to critique the way things were being run, something unthinkable in previous epochs. This free exchange of ideas led to great discoveries in science and medicine, but also resulted in better administration as thinkers like J.S Mill, Adam Smith, and William Garrison laid out their ideas for a better world. The key, however, is that everyone is free to do so.
Instead of judging based on innate characteristics, we began to champion the idea that people should be judged on the content of their character. Although there remains work to be done, the result is that there has never been a better time to live than now.
Finally, the trend towards freer markets and limited Government enabled capital to flow towards its most efficient use, delivering technological breakthroughs once thought impossible. There is a strong correlation between a country’s ranking on the Economic Freedom Index and the International Innovation index, with the UK, US, Singapore, and Switzerland leading the way on both. Global trade has also pulled over one-billion people out of absolute poverty and had greatly improved the world. If Biden is elected, one can only hope for a restored era of global co-operation and trade — that is the only way in which we can resolve increasingly international issues.
Hence the answer to today’s problems is more liberalism, not less.
Rather than ‘no-platforming’ those we disagree with; we must use open discourse and rational debate to win people over. No-one is right on everything, therefore through listening to others and making use of reason, we identify flaws in our logic and steer politics back towards a centre ground.
Climate change deserves real action, but we must not disregard the costs and benefits of policy and should look to incentivise technological innovation as much as possible. Critics are right that ‘individual action’ is not enough at present, but they ignore that in a few years’ time, economic incentives will change meaning it will make more sense to choose green alternatives, and so individual action will be enough. People did not abandon the horse due to a lack of horses; they adopted the car since Ford Motors got the economics right. Thus, innovation is key.
The issues of racial discrimination and inequality must also be addressed. As outlined in The Economist back in June, ‘scepticism regarding liberalism’s power to redress racial inequality is “rooted in the mistaken idea that liberalism isn’t compatible with an egalitarian commitment to economic justice.” Mr [Thommie] Shelby [Professor at Harvard] has argued that the Rawlsian principle of “fair equality of opportunity” can mean taking great strides towards a racially just society. That includes not just making sure that formal procedures, such as hiring practices, are non-discriminatory. It also includes ensuring that people of equal talent who make comparable efforts end up with similar life prospects, eventually eradicating the legacy of past racial injustices.’
In order for this to take place policy must receive proper scrutiny, and rule through statutory instruments and QUANGOs should be confronted. As with anything, we should closely monitor trade-offs to our liberties and assess the costs and benefits of ceding these, remembering that when liberties are relinquished, they are difficult to regain.
So, just as Hayek, Mises, and Orwell outlined in the first half of the 20th Century, we must not get complacent about the state of liberalism and freedom. At the same time, we must be willing to learn from the past and accept liberalism’s flaws: those left behind by globalisation, feelings of envy that stem from wealth inequality, and the continued issues facing minority groups, some of which are in fact systemic. I am confident that if we come together to leverage the benefits whilst minimising the costs mentioned above, humanity will have a bright future.