For quite a while, I called myself an “18th Century liberal,” because I considered myself a genuine conservative, a term I defined as a fiscal conservative who believed in conserving the libertarian principle developed during the Enlightenment.
The meaning of “liberalism” (at least until Rush Limbaugh et al appropriated the term for use as an expletive) was–as Fareed Zakaria recently noted in a New York Times book review–
the tradition of liberty and democracy and, by extension, the open, rules-based international economic and political system that has characterized the Western world since 1945, and many more parts of the globe since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
A couple of weeks ago, in the Sunday New York Times, Zakaria reviewed a book by Edward Luce, titled “The Retreat of Western Liberalism.” Luce was surveying the economic and political decay of the United States and European democracies, and he was less than sanguine about the future of Enlightenment liberalism, to put it mildly. I haven’t read the book, but judging from Zakaria’s response, Luce places much blame for the current assault on liberty and democratic norms on the “elites” that it has become so fashionable to bash (and so rare to define).
Zakaria points out that recent European elections–with the exception of Brexit–have actually been cause for celebration by those who are rooting for the success of the European Union and the stability of liberal democratic regimes.
Instead of viewing the entire West as being overwhelmed by a tsunami of right-wing populism, we might step back and study countries separately. Those that have had strong safety nets as well as programs to help people move up the economic ladder, like Northern Europe, do not have as much of a problem as others. There, immigration rather than economics is the key driver, but that will wane in importance since immigration flows are dwindling. In my view, Germany seemed vulnerable to right-wing nationalism in the form of the Alternative für Deutschland only after Merkel’s extraordinary decision to take in a million refugees, but as that fades into the background, so has the AfD. In France, Macron is articulating a defense of Western democracy against Russian interference in much stronger terms than is the American president.
Zakaria began his review by focusing upon a recent speech by Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister. The speech was widely reported in the U.S., because Freeland essentially suggested that Canada–along with other democracies–needed to step up its defense of the liberal international order to compensate for the “situation” in the United States. (Although she never mentioned Trump, it was pretty clear what “situation” she was referring to.) Zakaria returned to Canada in his final observation.
In many ways, the one Western country that has seemed immune from any of this populism has been Chrystia Freeland’s Canada. That is not because Canadians are genetically immune to populism but rather because for the last 20 years, they have pursued good public policy. Canada’s economics, health care, banking and immigration policies have been inclusive and successful. One sign of the strength of Western liberalism would be if the United States could recognize that there are now other countries with a deep commitment to these ideas and values that might even be approaching them more successfully than is Washington. The West, in other words, we now live in is a post-American West.
Social science research confirms Zakaria’s reference to “good public policy.” Countries with strong social safety nets, like Canada’s, are more stable and less violence-prone; their populations exhibit fewer socially undesirable behaviors (everything from crime rates to out-of-wedlock births, divorce, drug abuse, etc.)
Paul Ryan and his cohort can insist that taking away access to health care and reducing other social supports is “pro freedom,” but people aren’t free when their waking hours are consumed by efforts to put food on the table, and their nightmares are of an accident or illness that plunges them into bankruptcy.
Eighteenth Century liberalism promised personal autonomy; your right to live your life in accordance with your own values and beliefs, so long as you were willing to accord an equal liberty to others. That’s a concept of liberty that is not only consistent with a social safety net–these days, as a practical matter, it requires one.