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The flaws of liberalism

On a range of issues liberal politicians pursued policies opposed by voters

If liberalism is not quite in its death throes, its advocates are at panic stations. First came the Brexit referendum and the election of President Trump. Then came the coronavirus and demands, across the West, for shorter supply chains and a different model of globalisation. The voters, to the consternation of many, are getting rather uppity.

Liberal thinkers and politicians look at the world they made and seem baffled that anybody might believe there is a need for anything different. And, increasingly, they are lashing out. They attack populists, blame Twitter bots and invent conspiracy theories to explain their setbacks and defeats. Some have even questioned whether democracy is such a good idea after all.

This might sound strange. After all, for many, liberalism and democracy are like love and marriage. You can’t, to quote Frank Sinatra, have one without the other. But like love and marriage, and a horse and carriage, in reality liberalism and democracy are not connected inextricably. Authoritarian populists, for example, often support a pure democracy, unchecked by liberal institutions, rights, laws and norms.

Equally, many liberals have grown increasingly anti-democratic. It is not only in the United States where political decisions are routinely taken outside elected legislatures. In Britain, decisions that were once the responsibility of ministers are now made in courts, sometimes foreign courts, and in a range of public sector organisations dominated, like the civil service itself, by liberal technocrats. On a range of issues — from immigration and European integration to the marketisation of public services and the deregulation of the labour market — liberal politicians have pursued policies opposed by majorities of voters.

The resulting crisis in the West’s dominant creed is the context for both Liberalism at Large and The False Promise of Liberal Order. In the former, Alexander Zevin chronicles the history of the Economist as a means of examining liberalism as it is practised. In the latter, Patrick Porter explores the dangers of liberal foreign policy. Both present sharp critiques of the ideology that has prevailed, in Britain at least, for the last century and a half. For Zevin, the classical liberalism that emerged in nineteenth-century Britain combined economic freedoms — the preservation of private property, free trade, low taxes and so on — with political freedoms, including the rule of law and the freedom of the press. But it left unresolved three big questions. How would liberals respond to the rise of democracy? Could liberal principles apply to empires as well as nations? And how should liberals approach finance?

Liberalism at Large, By Alexander Zevin, Verso, £25

The answers to these questions, says, Zevin “proved decisive” in liberalism’s “spread in the age of global capitalism”. And, he argues, the archives of the Economist can tell us how those answers came about. “The dominant was always a liberalism whose lodestars were two: the universal virtues of capital and, where they arose, the particular necessities of empire.” First, the Economist backed the British Empire and later it gave its full-throated support to the US. According to Zevin, this explains the Economist’s consistent support for armed conflict. As its former foreign editor, Johnny Grimond, joked, the Economist “never saw a war it didn’t like.”

And its approach to democracy, Zevin suggests, is just as cynical. The Economist’s greatest editor, Walter Bagehot, worried about “what securities against democracy we can create”, as Britain’s electoral franchise extended through the nineteenth century. “True liberalism,” he wrote, was opposed to “the superstitious reverence for the equality of all Englishmen as electors”. This absurd belief, Bagehot said, claimed that “the lowest peasant and mechanic are the measure of the electoral capacity of the most educated man in the land”.

There is indeed a long-running tension — and sometimes even hostility — between liberalism and democracy. But in making this valid point, Zevin demonstrates the difficulty with the ambition of his book. Simply put, the Economist cannot be taken to be a chronicle of lived liberalism. It’s a history of journalism at one particular publication and cannot be more than that. Bagehot might have hated the extension of the franchise, but nineteenth-century liberals in government and parliament supported it. As Zevin writes, Bagehot’s liberalism was wholly different to the liberalism of John Stuart Mill. Has the Economist’s brand of liberalism really been more influential for policymakers and politicians than Mill’s?

If we really want to understand liberalism — the history of an idea as it evolved and mutated and the ways in which the idea has been turned into government policy and economic reality — we have to understand the philosophy itself, and we must study not the reportage of a magazine but the decisions of government ministers and business leaders.

The origins of contemporary liberal overreach, for example, lie in some of the flaws in early liberal thought. State-of-nature theorists like Hobbes and Locke made assumptions about humanity that persist in liberalism to this day. We are autonomous and rational individuals. Our consent to liberal government is assumed. And we are born with rights that are natural and universal. This is why many liberals believe that the historical, cultural and institutional context of government is irrelevant. Institutions and traditions that impose obligations on us can simply be cast off.

Liberals often ignore our relational nature: our dependence on others and our reliance on the institutions and norms of community life. Many take both community and nation for granted, and have little to say about the obligations as well as rights of citizenship. The nation state can therefore hand over its powers to remote and unaccountable supranational institutions. Transnational citizenship rights can be bestowed upon foreign nationals. Public services should be freely available to those who have never contributed to them.

And with later liberal thinkers came further flawed ideas. John Stuart Mill and others sometimes made the case for pluralism and tolerance on the basis that the trial and error they make possible leads to truth and an increasingly perfect society. It is this teleological fallacy — this assumption that one’s own beliefs stand for progress — that can lead liberalism towards illiberalism: its intolerance of supposedly backward opinions, norms and institutions can quickly become intolerance of those who remain loyal to those traditional ways of life.

Yet there is too little of this philosophical analysis in Liberalism at Large to help us to really understand liberalism. Well-written, quick-paced and often stimulating, the book provides an entertaining narrative history of one of the Establishment’s favoured publications. But in the end, far from revealing any fundamental truth about liberalism, it can only really tell us what the Economist — and its line of powerful editors — happened to believe at key moments in history. What Zevin’s research often reveals is the transience of seemingly historic moments and, ultimately, the insignificance of what the Economist had to say about them.

This is not a sin committed by Professor Patrick Porter, whose academic title has bestowed upon him even greater alliteration than his parents had intended. The False Promise of Liberal Order is a more conventional text than Liberalism at Large, but its forthright conclusions are more persuasive thanks to the clarity of its purpose. Porter’s objective is to convince us that the “arc of history” bends not towards justice but “towards delusion”. Rewriting history to suit liberalism’s mistaken sense of inevitable progress, he says, “is to repeat the hubris” that brought us to the mess we are in today.

The False Promise of Liberal Order, By Patrick Porter, Polity Press, £14.99

The liberal international order, Porter writes, is a contradiction in terms. By definition, international orders are hierarchies created by the strong to keep peace on their terms, and they are often imperial in their method. Such orders might cloak their hard power with politeness, establish institutions and norms to give the appearance of legitimacy, and use euphemistic language about international cooperation and global governance. But when push comes to shove, imperial powers get tough with the weaker players. And in this respect, the United States is no different to Ancient Rome or Imperial China.

And yet many Westerners have convinced themselves that the American order is different. It is organised around freedom and democracy, consent and equality. This American-established liberal order was not like those that came before it, because “the most powerful nation on earth forsook imperial aggrandisement, instead using enlightened measures to make a world safe for market democracy in which people could find emancipation”. The US bound itself to an international system that constrained its power and thereby won it moral and political authority.

The American order, Porter argues, is better than the alternatives, and superior to its predecessors. But the idea of a liberal order is a myth, and to believe in it is to endanger American and Western interests today. As the world changes, and new powers rise, the “dilemmas of ordering” will increase. The US will need to make tough choices that might run counter to its values and perhaps even betray its allies.

Blind faith in liberal principles will make it harder for Washington and its partners to make the hard-headed decisions demanded by geopolitical circumstance. Mythologising about a liberal order will reinforce America’s state of “overstretch, polarisation and exhaustion”. And it will make the threats we face, like refugee crises and “metastasising transnational jihadism”, even worse.

The liberalism of our leaders, then, causes America — and the wider West — to take a wrong and dangerous view of its role in the world. It is not Porter’s objective to trace this failure back to the philosophical origins of liberalism, but the familiar mistaken assumptions are all at play. If you believe we are motivated by the desire to be free and autonomous, that we are all rational and selfish individuals, and we are the same the world over, you will take a naively optimistic view of international relations, because you will underestimate the incessant clashes of values and interests that occur globally.

Time and again, liberal universalism gets the West into trouble on the world stage. We expected privatisation and elections to turn Russia into Sweden. We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan because our leaders believed Iraqis and Afghans wanted to be like us, and would inevitably do so with time and exposure to our products and culture. We allowed China into the international trading system because, we were told, Beijing would observe international norms and laws.

Each time, naivety led to failure, and the naivety was generated by the belief that our enemies and rivals cannot hurt us because they are destined to become the same as us. As Porter makes clear, it is beyond time for “clear-eyed sobriety”, on both foreign policy and the many serious problems we face at home. Liberalism is in crisis because of its own overreach and failure. If we want to put things right, we need to be honest about the reasons for that failure, and set a more conservative, pragmatic course for the future.

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