Liberalism Will Not Be Defended by Liberal Ideas Alone

Vladimir Putin has challenged liberals to defend their political creed. Liberalism is “obsolete”, Putin stated in an interview last week, before his arrival at the G20 in Osaka. Conflating immigration with crime, he insisted that “every crime must have its punishment”. No doubt relishing his timing with respect to Stonewall as much as the G20, he spoke of “core populations” who merited the state’s support. Sexual minorities, by contrast, deserve little more than provisional tolerance of their behaviour. Putin applauded national populists in countries across the liberal democratic west. He supported their upending of the rules-based liberal international order and its domestic counterpart of multicultural national societies. 


Putin’s rant is a perfect illustration of contemporary anti-liberalism. Yet Theresa May's response ("no, of course, immigration matters") is a no less perfect illustration of why that point gains a hearing among many today and liberalism goes increasingly unloved. Donald Tusk did considerably better in his response upon arrival in Osaka. Political freedoms, the rule of law and human rights, could never be obsolete, he countered: “What I find really obsolete are: authoritarianism, personality cults, the rule of oligarchs. Even if sometimes they may seem effective.”


But Tusk too proves Putin right in his way. 


First, Tusk’s flatpack comments could have been uttered at any time over the past four decades; liberalism’s defenders having scarcely changed their tune, let alone their vocabulary, since long before the Cold War ended. The reasons for this help explain the frailties in the liberal counter-argument against Putin, Erdogan, Orbán and the rest. For the best part of half a century liberalism has failed to offer a positive vision for the type of society it seeks to promote. In contrast, a clear vision of society is precisely what Putin and the rest of the anti-liberal alliance provide. We may not like the vision they put forward, but then we have to frame a positive account of our own. Pointing to the vigour of market mechanisms, as if that were a blueprint for political life, is to cede a once winning position to the other side.


Second, as Tusk did at least recognise in his defensive use of the word “effective”, it is precisely the matter of liberalism’s ‘performance’ that Putin knows is in the dock today. A fine political boxer, who lives by his wits as much as by the blows he can land, Putin instinctively recognises an opportunity when he sees it. And here again it is liberalism that has let its guard down historically. While crowing to the world in recent decades about its efficiency and its political minimalism, liberalism somehow allowed government to become a dirty word.


Track back to the 1970s when liberalism was last in upheaval, and the reasons soon become clear. Amidst rising inflation, the solution then was to relinquish control over the economy to private actors, the better to avoid being blamed for things going wrong. This was followed in the 1980s by retrenchments to the welfare state (with more people unemployed as the price of reducing inflation, why take responsibility for their welfare either?). This, in turn, was followed in the 1990s by further retrenchments in the state’s willingness to fund the means of public society, and in its fiscal commitments to the civic state. Instead it emphasised “freedom of opportunity” for the upwardly-mobile and means-testing of the state’s dwindling resources for the poor.


In other words, to elaborate on a point made by Greta Krippner (in Capitalizing on Crisis) for at least four decades liberalism has abdicated from any attempt to secure popular consent to political or economic outcomes.  


It has abdicated as well from any serious attempt to regulate the free market. The Financial Times, which carried the interview, observed in its own response to Putin, for example, that “[t]he superiority of private enterprise and free markets — at least within individual nations — in creating wealth is no longer seriously challenged.” 


This is precisely the tone-deaf approach that Putin and his anti-liberal counterparts elsewhere have made such great strides exploiting over the past half-decade. For while it may well be that few people would deny the free market’s capacity to create wealth as a total volume, what is being challenged, and roundly on the streets, are the distributional effects of that wealth creation under a variant of liberalism grown indifferent to the costs. 


What, then, is to be done? Western governments “need to invest in services and infrastructure, and in educating workforces to cope with a world of robots and artificial intelligence,” the Financial Times itself goes on to suggest. But to spend they will first need to tax, as at least some of the Democratic nominees in last week’s debates in the US are beginning to recognise. 


If the cause of greater equality under liberal democratic rule is to become reality, in other words, it will not be thanks to arguments that trumpet the intrinsic work of political freedoms while defending them on the merits of value-creation alone, a là Donald Tusk. It will be because of arguments that can be phrased in the myriad other political languages that democratic societies permit – socialism and social democracy included – in contrast to Putin-style authoritarianism. 


Liberalism, in other words, will not be defended by liberal ideas alone.