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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