Reflections on the Future of Liberalism

On the occasion of the conference "We Did It Our Way - From Mini Schengen to Maxi Benefits", hosted by the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies (CEAS) in Belgrade, we published the author's text of Bertram D. Braun, retired U.S. Diplomat who spent many years working on Balkan issues, especially U.S.-Serbian relations.

Reflections on the Future of Liberalism

The ideology of Liberalism has been a spectacular success.  Since its inception as part of the European renaissance/enlightenment, modern liberalism helped lay the foundations of the scientific revolution, the commercial revolution, the industrial revolution, the democratic revolution(s), and the rise of the modern nation-state.  Liberalism, with its emphasis on individual human freedom, dignity, and sovereignty, liberated the European masses from the strictures of their feudal lords and the catholic church and, since then, liberal ideas have spread to all corners of the earth.  Together with the reformation, the printing press, and the era of discovery, the new liberal ideology was key to the creation of the modern developed world, with its unprecedented freedom and prosperity.  Today, with relatively few exceptions, even governments that do not fully embrace liberalism (e.g. China, Russia, Iran) feel they must at least rhetorically claim adherence to its ideas in order to maintain legitimacy. 

Contradictions Within Liberalism

However, in a quasi-Hegelian dialectic, liberalism’s internal contradictions are today more evident than ever and liberalism requires a new synthesis to continue to flourish.  The first major tension is between the results of economic liberalism and the requirements of political liberalism.  Economic liberalism is the ideological basis for free-market capitalism.  Free-market capitalism invariably leads to high levels of wealth inequality, which comes into conflict with the civic equality required for political liberalism/democracy.  If the wealthy gain undue political power, a country will trend toward oligarchy and away from popular democracy.  This tension has always existed, but as populations become more educated and informed, it becomes increasingly explicit. 

The second major tension is between individual freedom and social cohesion.  Humans are highly social animals and a dense social network (even if at times annoying) is required for human psychological health.  With rising individualism, along with vastly increased mobility and the endless temptations of the internet, modern societies are experiencing an epidemic of social isolation and declining mental health.  The primal need for belonging and mutual recognition seems to be a driving factor behind the rise of extreme nationalism and sectarianism, including the rise of ethno-national violence and terrorism.

The rise of extreme income inequality undermines the legitimacy of liberal free-market capitalism and liberal democratic politics.  In the mid-20th century two alternatives to liberal capitalism were tried – communism and fascism – and both proved ultimately disastrous (despite some initial success) and collapsed under their own internal contradictions.  Both the USA and the Europe learned important lessons from this temporary crisis of liberalism, leading to tighter regulation of capitalism and expansion of the welfare state.  Today, a number of countries, especially the USA and the UK, seem to have forgotten these lessons. 

A third contradiction within liberalism is between the powerful militaries resulting from the economic prosperity of liberal economic development and the still chaotic international system, with its mix of liberal, semi-liberal, and illiberal states.  This invariably leads to the temptation to use military power under the pretext of transforming illiberal societies.  European colonialism was the first manifestation of this and ongoing US armed interventionism is a more recent manifestation.  Both have proven to be failures, not only harming the countries in which the interventions took place, but also damaging the reputations and legitimacy of the interventionist governments.

Need for a New, Post-Industrial Liberalism

If one wants to be extremely reductionist: consensus governance and sharing of meager resources were the dominant paradigm of hunter/gatherer societies; imperial-autocratic governance based on military control of land was the dominant paradigm of agricultural societies; and liberal democratic capitalism has been the dominant paradigm of advanced commercial/industrial societies.  The question then becomes: a) is the new post-industrial information economy (especially if one factors in widespread automation) a new economic era?  And b) if so, will this new era require a new political/economic paradigm?

Based merely on the past 20 years, the Chinese model of State-run, surveillance capitalism seems a possible alternative to modern liberalism.  Another model could be the dystopian bifurcation of society into the wealthy few who enjoy extreme privilege and the impoverished masses who are kept under control by well-compensated mercenaries – as seen in various dystopian movies, including Blade Runner (1982), Hunger Games (2008), In Time (2011), and Elysium (2013).

Neither of these alternatives sounds especially appealing, especially under John Rawl’s “Veil of Ignorance”.  Therefore, to maintain the foundational benefits of modern liberalism -- individual human freedom, dignity, and sovereignty -- we must urgently think through what liberalism means in the context of a post-industrial society, with artificial intelligence and widespread automation. 

Elements of a new synthesis would include:

A renewed emphasis on shared prosperity and, especially, on providing the economic prerequisites for real human freedom and dignity.  These would include universal free healthcare, universal free education, a universal livable minimum wage, possibly a public job-guarantee, and universal pensions for those that cannot work.  Essentially, an expansion of the public space to make up for the inequality of the private space, and providing all citizens with a decent, basic standard of living.

More effective regulation of capitalism, including: to prevent pollution (including carbon) and health/safety hazards; to prevent financial crises; to prevent undue financial influence in politics; to prevent fraud and deceptive advertising; to prevent/regulate monopolies.  Basically, to ensure capitalism works for the good of society, not the other way around.

Opening the political process to more people by making it easier to vote and by publicly financing elections.  Ensuring a level media landscape and media access for all political candidates.

A more peaceful international system, with all countries restricted to using military power only for self defense and not for foreign intervention to promote ideological or economic goals.

Much greater public support for communities and families, encouraging mutigenerational “villages” in which both adults and children can thrive.  Today, we segregate and neglect both the young (21% of US children live in poverty) and the elderly (shunted off to senior communities and old-age homes).  Financially supporting young families, so that young parents have a real choice of whether to stay home to raise their children or work, is especially important.

A new nomenclature to more precisely distinguish among various versions of liberalism, which today range from modern libertarianism to centrist pro-business parties to democratic socialism.  Too often, members of the capitalist elite hide behind liberalism to dupe the public into ignoring their fundamentally illiberal actions, such as policies that are pro-monopoly, pro-oligarchy and anti-human rights.  A new terminology, something like “Social Liberalism” or “Progressive Liberalism”, is needed to clearly identify a new pro-social vision for liberalism.

Getting to Denmark

Looking around the world today, one group of countries is clearly thriving and tops the various lists of human development, education and happiness – i.e. the Nordics (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland).  Although there are significant differences among them, they all combine vibrant free-market economies, with generous provision of public goods, and respect for human rights.  As we look for models of a new “Progressive Liberalism”, we should look to Nordic countries for inspiration and examples.  To continue its success, modern liberalism must change and embrace more pro-social policies, and more effectively meet the needs of all members of society, not just the wealthy and the super-talented.