Liber­alism is dead, long live Liberalism!


Over the last 200 years, Liber­alism has been a stunning success story. It brought forward liberty and pros­perity for the many instead of priv­i­leges for the few. Yet, today liberal thinking and politics are under siege. To regain public support, they need a profound update, offering liberal answers to the major chal­lenges our societies are facing: glob­al­iza­tion and digital revo­lu­tion, climate change and global migration, growing inequality and fear of the future.

Liber­alism is in trouble. Antilib­eral counter-movements are afoot around the globe. Author­i­tarian populists are seizing power in more and more countries. Deep-seated antilib­eral tradi­tions in Germany exist at both ends of the political spectrum. When Christian Lindner, leader of the German liberal party FDP, speaks of political Liber­alism, it sounds as if he were talking about a defiant little minority; when others speak of his party, it’s as the German song­writer Franz Josef Degen­hardt once said: Don’t play with the dirty kids, don’t sing their songs.

Yet we owe Liber­alism much of our modern achieve­ments: inalien­able human rights, the right to indi­vidual self-deter­mi­na­tion, as well as the foun­da­tions of our demo­c­ratic republic: govern­ment by and for the people, free elections, rule of law, protec­tion of minori­ties, an inde­pen­dent judiciary, freedom of the press, and a dynamic economy based on entre­pre­neur­ship, compe­ti­tion, and open markets.

The combi­na­tion of liberal political systems and capi­talist market economies has afforded us a hitherto unknown degree of assurance of justice, indi­vidual liberties, and pros­perity. By the light of day, Liber­alism is a historic success story. How did it manage to fall into disrepute?

People are quick to point to neolib­er­alism. Even though it stems from very different histor­ical roots, it is often equated with market radi­calism today. Its mantra of dereg­u­la­tion, priva­ti­za­tion, and rigid budgeting has indeed weakened public insti­tu­tions. Dereg­u­la­tion of financial markets brought about the deep crisis of 2007/​2008, discred­iting glob­al­iza­tion. The growing low-wage sector, precar­ious work arrange­ments, a crass disparity of wealth, and organized tax avoidance by inter­na­tional corpo­ra­tions have created a constant ambient noise that is buzzing with a notion of injustice. Liber­alism seems to turn a blind eye to the social question. It sides with the successful rather than with those who struggle. It is no coin­ci­dence that the FDP is still strug­gling with its self-proclaimed label of being the “party of high-income earners”.

The liberal camp – I’m using this term in its European tradition, which is different from the specific meaning of “liberal” in the US — also offers few convincing solutions concerning the threat to the ecosys­tems on which our human civi­liza­tion depends – climate, soils, oceans. While their caveats of an ecolog­ical nanny state are legit­i­mate, Liberals discredit them­selves when they downplay the urgency of ecolog­ical tran­si­tion. Liber­alism has yet to write a playbook for an ecolog­ical policy that recon­ciles climate protec­tion with a dynamic market economy, sustain­able economic growth, and diversity of lifestyles.

Liberal voids

There are deeper reasons why liberal politics is on the defensive. Classic Liber­alism eschews the question how to maintain social cohesion beyond the invisible hand of the market. To many Liberals, catch­words such as soli­darity or community have a suspi­cious collec­tivist ring to them, as does the notion of an omnipresent welfare state. They consider redis­tri­b­u­tion the work of the devil; a violation of the unadul­ter­ated tenets of market economy.

The avant-gardes of liberal thought delib­er­ately decline to make grand future projec­tions. Their objective is to keep the future open – it will emerge from the free play of the forces at work, from the sum of indi­vidual decisions made by a myriad of actors. Liberal politics is all about trial and error, reform rather than revo­lu­tion, quiet doubt rather than vocif­erous certainty, compe­ti­tion for the best solution rather than proclaiming grand ideas about how the future is to be arranged. This is wise and humane. Sheer prag­ma­tism, however, falls short. In times of growing uncer­tainty, a solid concept for the future is essential: Who do people trust to best master the chal­lenges of glob­al­iza­tion and digital revo­lu­tion, climate change, and global migration?

Populists from the left and right are stirring strong emotions. Fear, hatred, pride, nation­alism — making the champions of liberal democracy look a little bland in compar­ison. While “consti­tu­tional patri­o­tism” is a good idea, it remains an abstract construct. The demo­c­ratic republic is more than the sum of its insti­tu­tions. It relies on joint action by its citizens, on nego­ti­ating common goals. That won’t work without a notion of what we want for our future. Anxiety about the future is the mental sound­board of author­i­tar­ians. We need confi­dence that we can create a better future rather than dread it as a doomed fate that will inevitably roll over us.

In a time of turbulent change, we feel an increased need for security and soli­darity, for finding assurance in our community. Nation­al­ists promise social and emotional security by retreating into the confines of our national state and national community as a bulwark against the storms that are raging outside. Liber­alism will only be able to emerge from its defensive corner if we can respond to this conser­v­a­tive need for security and identity and formulate liberal answers to these needs. When Emanuel Macron speaks of a “Europe that protects”, he is hitting a nerve.

Security in a changing world

Economic glob­al­iza­tion needs to be embedded in a social and ecolog­ical framework. Global migration needs to be regulated. Openness towards tech­no­log­ical inno­va­tion needs a minimum of indi­vidual ability to keep pace with new tech­nolo­gies as well as a minimum of social security to cushion the fallout from disrup­tive trans­for­ma­tion. The mother of all liberties is freedom from fear. Those who live in fear of social failure are not free. Real-life freedom also means to be able to move about the public space unafraid. Those who neglect public safety and order are tilling the ground for author­i­tarian populists.

It is not enough to keep invoking our love of freedom and a defense of liberal values. Modern liber­alism must bridge seeming dichotomies: between freedom and safety, indi­vid­u­ality and soli­darity, diversity and identity, cosmopoli­tanism and patri­o­tism, economic dynamics and ecolog­ical respon­si­bility. It must shed its habit of simply pitting ‘the market’ versus ‘the state’ and recognize and appre­ciate the impor­tance of public insti­tu­tions in upholding equal liberty for all.

Markets rely on prereq­ui­sites they cannot generate on their own: an assurance of justice, social peace, protec­tion of the natural resources that assure our liveli­hood, a func­tional set of rules governing compe­ti­tion, a strong science and educa­tional system, a modern infra­struc­ture. None of this is free. The slogan “smaller govern­ment is better” is just as misleading as its opposite.

In a nutshell: We need a contem­po­rary renewal of Liber­alism that offers both liberty and security. We must deliver on the liberal promise of equal oppor­tu­nity and upward social mobility develop a new notion of progress that is more than just a contin­u­a­tion of the status quo. Our confi­dence that liberal democracy is and shall remain the more successful, more inno­v­a­tive, and more just system is in peril. Now is the time to deliver.

The German version of this essay was published by the “WELT”, Nov. 1, 2018



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