Kieron O’Hara is an associate professor and senior research fellow in electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton. He has also written extensively on conservatism and the Conservative Party.
The liberal order has come under intense pressure in the twenty-first century, with periodic shocks from the inside, including the bursting dot-com bubble, the financial crisis of 2007-8, and failure to cope with outside pressures including savage terrorism, aggressive Russian and Chinese foreign policy and the Syrian refugee crisis.
Voters have responded scathingly, with Brexit, Trump, and persistent levels of support for far-right and far-left across Europe, not to mention the admiration many show for illiberal actors such as Putin, and incompetent populists such as Chávez/Maduro. Meanwhile, coarseness, abuse and uncritical acceptance of implausible rumour appear to have become a more attractive style of political engagement than civilised, evidence-based debate.
Yet liberal societies remain humane, tolerant and prosperous. Given that Western democracies are comfortable havens of peace and tolerance, why has the backlash been so strong?
I suspect it has something to do with expectation management. Liberalism’s benefits have been exaggerated, as if its proponents are not sufficiently confident in its direct benefits. It has been mis-sold, and has unsurprisingly failed to deliver on promises made for it.
Liberalism and wealth. One justification for globalised liberal capitalism is that it will produce growth and wealth. This isn’t quite true. It is likely that growth will be at least as large as under any other system, but liberalism cannot produce economic activity (for example, when people choose to save or deleverage because of uncertainty or a downturn), or guarantee growth large enough to meet rash promises made on the election trail.
The perception that growth is needed to ‘buy’ legitimacy for the ideology has tended to produce consumerism, requiring large quantities of credit to sustain when it falters. Of course, credit is vital for productive investment, and futures and derivatives are sensible hedging against uncertain futures. The problem comes when they merely fund consumption, or worse (for example, large pay claims were sometimes ‘bought off’ by bosses making excessive pension promises). Financial wizardry is often focused on exploiting minuscule arbitrage opportunities at scale, rather than diverting capital to economically and socially efficient uses.
Liberalism and fairness. Some argue that liberalism will deliver a fair society. But fairness is an ambiguous term – it might mean an equal division of resources, or alternatively distribution proportional to a person’s contribution.
Focus on the former has been counterproductive. The egalitarian idea of fairness does not always resonate with taxpayers. Although many are uncomfortable with egregious inequalities, the legitimacy of welfare depends on perceptions that money is well spent in terms of social value as well as support for the recipient. Valuing individuals’ social contribution is hard, and no mechanism for doing this is as comprehensive as the market for work. Some baulk at nurses getting paid a little while footballers get a lot, but in general there is little support for dismantling the system and few sensible suggestions as to what might replace it.
It is hard to see how egalitarianism will produce a fairer society than that produced by a market system (on either concept of fairness). Market outcomes are routinely called unfair, benefiting the selfish, yet markets demand other-directed behaviour, as one has to anticipate and cater for others’ needs and desires in order to flourish. Free market fairness goes a long way to undermine egalitarian views of how a just society should be organised, yet the strict politics of equality retain their hold.
Liberalism and strength. Wealth, justice and freedom suggest a strong society, which will decisively defeat alternatives. Indeed, this is the basic intuition behind the end of history trope, and arguments that the Internet will make dictatorships impossible. However, liberalism will not in itself produce strength – resources need to be devoted to the technology and management of defence (few NATO members currently spend its target of two per cent of GDP on defence).
The paradox that people might use freedom to undermine liberty is well known, and technology, far from seeing off dictators, is exacerbating it. The internet’s focus on pure and direct real-time measures of links or downloads removes editorial values of quality or veracity, creating markets for cheap (and indeed fake) news. Provocateurs such as Putin are able to exploit technology to undermine political discourse in liberal nations, to foment nationalism in illiberal ones, and to undermine cybersecurity. Others have argued that political partisans retreat into echo chambers online, and only encounter opinions of which they already approve. More widely, the freedom to filter the news we read has weakened the business model of top class journalism.
Liberalism cannot in and of itself produce fairness, wealth and strength: we have to use our freedom wisely to produce a society with these attributes. This includes understanding and maintaining the foundations of liberalism: the rule of law, strong communities, social cohesion, security, respected and constructive opposition, etc. Unfortunately, liberated behaviour can undermine some of these foundations. Important social institutions such as the extended family and the lifelong career have been dispersed as technology has shrunk time and space, and people routinely expect to relocate for their university education or work.
In particular, liberalism is a product of institutions that predate and support it. As Larry Siedentop has argued, Christianity is part of the story, and as Adam Smith among others makes clear, business is another. Yet much of progressive liberalism of the last 50 years has been secular and anti-business, chipping away at its own foundations.
Put harshly, liberalism can be the ideology of the free-rider, the citizen who neglects the demands of citizenship. Modern individualist liberalism can in some circumstances be corrosive of its own support.
What can liberalism provide, then, that other ideologies do not? We know it furnishes the conditions under which fairness, prosperity and strength can grow simultaneously and more successfully than under alternative ideologies (even if it cannot guarantee them).
Beyond this, we should note that the economic emphasis in Western liberal democracy has resulted in neglect of other forms of value. Surely liberalism’s USP is its fostering of individual autonomy, which requires value pluralism, not spurious guarantees of ever-increasing and widely-distributed wealth. The nature of work, for example, can be more or less fulfilling, and if automation is hollowing out the middle sectors of the economy, then simply maximising growth may not be a sensible strategy. If future business models depend increasingly on sacrificing personal privacy, liberalism needs to develop a response to that, and not assume that citizens’ autonomy will be respected. Liberalism is not about the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or a single (financial) measure of progress; it is about respect for people, and providing the space for people to pursue their own ideas of what’s good.
Liberalism exists at and is a product of a cultural moment. Although it is often justified by its own universal principles, and mis-sold to voters via exaggerated claims to provide justice, prosperity and security, it is far better understood as a product of a particular culture at a particular time. It needs the conservative defence that it is the appropriate ideology for the type of culture that has grown up in, and will sustain, the Western democracies. Liberalism works because it is what we do here and now, in our prosperous, peaceful and fortunate countries – not because it is guaranteed to produce a heaven on earth. And conversely these countries are prosperous, peaceful and fortunate because we are liberals. Don’t let the populists persuade us otherwise.