Success turned liberals into a complacent elite. They need to rekindle their desire for radicalism
LIBERALISM 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 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.
Our founders would be astonished at how life today compares with the poverty and the misery of the 1840s. Global life expectancy in the past 175 years has risen from a little under 30 years to over 70. The share of people living below the threshold of extreme poverty has fallen from about 80% to 8% and the absolute number has halved, even as the total living above it has increased from about 100m to over 6.5bn. And literacy rates are up more than fivefold, to over 80%. Civil rights and the rule of law are incomparably more robust than they were only a few decades ago. In many countries individuals are now free to choose how to live—and with whom.
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.
Laurels, but no rest
Yet political philosophies cannot live by their past glories: 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.
Against this current, The Economist still believes in the power of the liberal idea. Over the past six months, we have celebrated our 175th anniversary with online articles, debates, podcasts and films that explore how to respond to liberalism’s critics. In this issue we publish an essay that is a manifesto for a liberal revival—a liberalism for the people.
Our essay sets out how the state can work harder for the citizen by recasting taxation, welfare, education and immigration. The economy must be cut free from the growing power of corporate monopolies and the planning restrictions that shut people out of the most prosperous cities. And we urge the West to shore up the liberal world order through enhanced military power and reinvigorated alliances.
All these policies are designed to deal with liberalism’s central problem. In its moment of triumph after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it lost sight of its own essential values. It is with them that the liberal revival must begin.
Liberalism 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”.
An engine of change
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.
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.
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.
Yet 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.
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.
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 creates two classes: the doers and the done-to, the thinkers and the thought-for, the policymakers and the policytakers.
The foundations of liberty
Liberals have forgotten 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.”
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.
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.
Instead 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.
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.
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”.
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 the moment 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.
Liberals should approach today’s challenges with vigour. If they prevail, it will be because their ideas are unmatched for their ability to spread freedom and prosperity
They 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 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.
Liberals 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.
When The Economist was founded 175 years ago our first editor, James Wilson, promised “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” We renew our pledge to that contest. And we ask liberals everywhere to join us.
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “A manifesto”