Lib­er­al­ism’s cri­sis of con­fi­dence

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY SE­BAS­TIAN MALLABY Se­bas­tian Mallaby, author of “The Man Who Knew: The Life & Times of Alan Greenspan,” is the Paul A. Vol­cker se­nior fel­low for in­ter­na­tional eco­nom­ics at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions and a con­tribut­ing columnist for The Post.

Asked what he thought of Western civ­i­liza­tion, Mo­han­das Gandhi is said to have an­swered that it would be a good idea. De­bate about lib­eral democ­racy in the Trump era is suf­fused with sim­i­lar pes­simism about Western achieve­ment, bor­der­ing on self-dam­ag­ing de­spair. The “lib­eral” mix of cap­i­tal­ism and democ­racy is de­nounced for yield­ing so­cial in­equal­ity, crony­ist klep­toc­racy and sheer gov­ern­men­tal in­com­pe­tence — fail­ings that opened the door to Don­ald Trump’s dispir­it­ing presidency and that may be en­trenched by it in turn. In the wake of the re­cent Group of 20 sum­mit, some went so far as to claim that the chief threat to Amer­i­cans was not from the ag­gres­sively il­lib­eral despots of Rus­sia, North Korea, China or the Is­lamic theoc­ra­cies. Rather, it was from Trump — which is to say, from the per­verse fruit of our own sys­tem. The en­emy is us.

This in­tel­lec­tual band­wagon needs to be stopped. Lib­er­al­ism faces two chal­lenges — on the one hand, ex­ter­nal en­e­mies; on the other, an in­ter­nal cri­sis of self-con­fi­dence — and it is time we all ac­knowl­edged that the ex­ter­nal threat is more se­vere. How­ever bad Trump may be, he is not Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un. And al­though it is true that lib­er­al­ism faces an in­ter­nal cri­sis — I’ve done my bit to con­trib­ute to the alarmism — it is worth re­mem­ber­ing how lib­er­al­ism got started two cen­turies ago.

As Ed­mund Fawcett has ar­gued in his mag­is­te­rial his­tory of lib­er­al­ism, the creed orig­i­nated as a set of prin­ci­ples for man­ag­ing be­wil­der­ing change. For most of hu­man his­tory, eco­nomic growth and so­cial evo­lu­tion pro­ceeded at a snail’s pace, but be­tween 1776 and the first decades of the 19th cen­tury, rev­o­lu­tions both po­lit­i­cal and in­dus­trial caused ev­ery­thing to speed up. Lib­er­al­ism — skep­ti­cal of cen­tral power, re­spect­ful of di­verse be­liefs, com­fort­able with vig­or­ous dis­agree­ment — of­fered a means of han­dling the re­sult­ing tu­mult. If head­long tech­no­log­i­cal and eco­nomic dis­lo­ca­tion made po­lit­i­cal con­flict unavoid­able, hu­man­ity needed a way to con­tain it, civ­i­lize it — a way to hang on to time­less stan­dards of hu­man­ity while pro­vid­ing an es­cape valve for ar­gu­ment and change.

Seen in this light, to­day’s tech­no­log­i­cal and eco­nomic con­vul­sions — the part-time jobs of the “gig” econ­omy, the men­ac­ing shadow of the ro­bots — are not signs that the lib­eral sys­tem is in cri­sis. To the con­trary, they are signs that lib­er­al­ism is more es­sen­tial than ever. We are in the midst of another in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion, which will cre­ate win­ners and losers and bit­ter po­lit­i­cal ar­gu­ments — and Trump is tes­ta­ment to that. Lib­er­al­ism will not end these con­flicts; only ab­so­lutist doc­trines cre­ate po­lit­i­cal si­lence. But lib­er­al­ism will set the rules of the game that al­low the con­flict to be man­aged. For now, Trump is ex­press­ing the frus­tra­tion of a part of the coun­try, but lib­eral checks and rules of process are con­tain­ing the im­pact.

In its long his­tory of fa­cil­i­tat­ing clam­orous ar­gu­ment, lib­er­al­ism has suc­cumbed, un­sur­pris­ingly, to re­peated neu­roses. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev boasted of the su­pe­ri­or­ity of state­di­rected in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, telling a group of Western­ers, “We will bury you”; some in the West made the mis­take of be­liev­ing him, es­pe­cially when the Soviet Union launched the first space satel­lite the fol­low­ing year. In the 1960s, U.S. democ­racy was rocked by po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tions, vi­o­lence at the 1968 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion and a bub­bling up of rad­i­cal chal­lenges to the sys­tem. Amid the stagfla­tion of the 1970s, a busi­ness school dean sounded a warn­ing about “an end-to-Western-cap­i­tal­ism syn­drome”; and no less a fig­ure than the U.S. pres­i­dent lec­tured the na­tion on its moral turpi­tude. All these episodes gen­er­ated ex­is­ten­tial crises, just as Trump to­day leads peo­ple to doubt the re­silience of our sys­tem. But pes­simists should note that lib­er­al­ism emerged ro­bustly from those mo­ments of self-doubt.

What’s more, pes­simists should re­mem­ber that, if a few dice had set­tled dif­fer­ently, the current con­ver­sa­tion would be com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Ab­sent strong proof to the con­trary, Trump’s elec­tion must be ac­cepted as le­git­i­mate, but a small swing in a few places would have put the sta­tus quo can­di­date in the White House. Sim­i­larly, Bri­tain’s Brexit ref­er­en­dum was de­cided 52 per­cent to 48 per­cent; and a re­cent poll sug­gested that the vot­ers now have doubts. In France, to cite a con­trary ex­am­ple, the am­bi­tious lib­eral Em­manuel Macron was lucky to face a bevy of weak op­po­nents, and France was even luck­ier that Macron emerged out of nowhere, clad in white. The point is that po­lit­i­cal out­comes of­ten hinge on quirks of for­tune. None of these events should be in­ter­preted as durable sig­nals that lib­er­al­ism is ei­ther mori­bund or resur­gent.

Fi­nally, it pays to re­mem­ber that the two dis­as­ters that dis­cred­ited the lib­eral es­tab­lish­ment — the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis and the Iraq War — were not er­rors that flowed from lib­er­al­ism it­self. There was noth­ing lib­eral about tax­payer back­stops for pri­vate fi­nan­cial risk-tak­ing, nor about the fail­ure to tem­per the ob­jec­tive of Iraqi regime change with a sober cal­cu­la­tion of avail­able re­sources. These episodes do hold lessons for our democ­racy — avoid crony­ism, avoid hubris — but they ab­so­lutely do not show that lib­er­al­ism is want­ing. To the con­trary, lib­er­al­ism arose dur­ing the first in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion. We need it to nav­i­gate the se­cond in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion as it roils around us now.


French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron lis­tens to Pres­i­dent Trump in Paris on Thurs­day.

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