Don’t lose sight of lib­erty and progress

In 2016 it seemed as if much of the gains of the last few decades were re­versed in favour of a con­ser­va­tive na­tivism. But we are miss­ing the big­ger story: the in­cred­i­ble im­prove­ment in liv­ing stan­dards of most of hu­man­ity.

Finweek English Edition - - OPINION - Edi­to­rial@fin­ Jo­han Fourie is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in eco­nom­ics at Stel­len­bosch Uni­ver­sity.

iar­rived in the USA a day af­ter Don­ald Trump was an­nounced as pres­i­dent-elect of the United States. I gave talks at Har­vard and MIT, and met with sev­eral fac­ulty and stu­dents over the four days of my visit. It was eerie. Some stu­dents were still in de­nial, not helped by the fact that they had started drink­ing as soon as the re­sults be­came ev­i­dent. Oth­ers were in var­i­ous stages of grief: an­gry at the na­tivism of a large chunk of Amer­i­cans, bar­gain­ing in the hope that Hil­lary might still win, or de­pressed at how quickly the Amer­ica of Obama – to whom many at these pres­ti­gious in­sti­tu­tions look up to as an in­spir­ing in­tel­lec­tual – has given way to the Amer­ica of Trump – whom they con­sider to be a coarse, boast­ful buf­foon.

Trump’s vic­tory seems to have been another nail in the cof­fin of lib­erty and progress. In Amer­ica, walls will re­place bridges. De­spite what Trump has said on the cam­paign trail, his tax cuts will likely ben­e­fit the wealthy elite. And his views on women, LGBT rights, cli­mate change, health­care, trade open­ness and im­mi­gra­tion are likely to re­verse much of the gains in gen­eral free­doms the US has made over the last decade.

These trends are not lim­ited to Amer­ica. Ear­lier this year the Brexit re­sult re­vealed the same na­tivist fear; an anti-open, anti-glob­al­i­sa­tion vote. Brexit was a vote for a re­turn to the “good old times”, how­ever un­likely that is to ma­te­ri­alise. It was a vote against in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism; lib­eral Lon­don against the con­ser­va­tive hin­ter­land. And in South Africa, the rise of na­tivist pop­ulism on both the ex­treme right and left re­flect a sim­i­lar frus­tra­tion with the pro­gres­sive Rain­bow Na­tion of yes­ter­year and its lib­eral (sell-out!) Con­sti­tu­tion.

Across the globe, it seems, the ex­traor­di­nary lib­erty and progress of the 1990s and 2000s are be­ing re­jected for a more in­su­lar, pro­tec­tion­ist con­ser­vatism.

We should not be that sur­prised. Lib­erty and progress, as a his­to­rian at MIT re­minded me on my visit, are never a for­gone con­clu­sion, never an ob­vi­ous even­tu­al­ity. Lib­erty and progress are not an Uber ride, tak­ing the short­est, fastest route to a known des­ti­na­tion. It is, as The Bea­tles knew, a long and wind­ing road. Some­times there are de­tours, and some­times we get lost.

Take, for ex­am­ple, Martin Plaut’s lat­est book, Prom­ise and De­spair, the story of the del­e­ga­tion of black lead­ers that trav­elled to Lon­don in 1909 to fight for rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the new Union of South Africa. Re­mem­ber, since 1853 the Cape Colony had had a non-racial fran­chise, al­low­ing men of all races who had suf­fi­cient in­come or prop­erty to vote. When the uni­fi­ca­tion of South Africa be­gan to be dis­cussed fol­low­ing the An­glo-Boer War, many had as­sumed that the (lib­eral) English govern­ment would ex­tend the same fran­chise to all. In fact, this was the prom­ise Lord Sal­is­bury had made in 1899. But pol­i­tics trumped morals. To se­cure the sup­port of whites in SA in case of war, the English re­neged on their prom­ises and turned down the ap­peal of the del­e­ga­tion. Lib­erty and progress had to wait.

But to fo­cus on the news­wor­thy fail­ures of lib­erty and progress the last few months misses the much big­ger story of the last few decades: the in­cred­i­ble im­prove­ment in liv­ing stan­dards of most of hu­man­ity. Jo­han Nor­berg, in a new book sim­ply ti­tled Progress, con­curs: “De­spite what we hear on the news and from many au­thor­i­ties, the great story of our era is that we are wit­ness­ing the great­est im­prove­ment in global liv­ing stan­dards ever to take place.” Life ex­pectancy has risen sharply, poverty and mal­nu­tri­tion have fallen. For us, the risk of dy­ing in war or nat­u­ral dis­as­ter is tiny in com­par­i­son to our par­ents or grand­par­ents. “200 000 peo­ple were lifted out of poverty yes­ter­day” could have been a news­pa­per head­line each day of the last decade.

But this does not mean we should be com­pla­cent. Says Nor­berg: “There is a real risk of a na­tivist back­lash. When we don’t see the progress we have made, we be­gin to search for scape­goats for the prob­lems that re­main. Some­times it seems that we are will­ing to try our luck with any dem­a­gogue who tells us that he or she has quick, sim­ple so­lu­tions to make our na­tion great again, whether it be na­tion­al­is­ing the econ­omy, block­ing for­eign im­ports or throw­ing the im­mi­grants out. If we think we don’t have any­thing to lose in do­ing so, it’s be­cause we have a bad mem­ory.”

2016 has been a year of set­backs. It re­minds us that lib­erty and progress are never fait ac­com­pli, never self-ev­i­dent. We have to work hard at it, and even then it is not guar­an­teed. It re­quires pa­tience, and a long-term view. But don’t let 2016 shake your be­liefs about hu­man­ity’s march for­ward: we are still on the way up, even if it will take us a lit­tle longer to get there.

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