What's the downside to being a liberal

Freedom faces headwinds: Liberals have to show that they can solve political problems

It is threatened, losing its shine: for many people freedom is no longer a value. Time to wonder: what did liberals do wrong?

Everywhere you look, anti-liberal forces are on the rise. Historically-forgotten gamblers like the American President Donald Trump consider the institutions of multilateralism that safeguard peace, freedom and progress to be largely dispensable and the international legal obligations entered into for them are merely a nuisance. In countries that have not long escaped totalitarianism such as Poland and Hungary, but also in Turkey, the constitutional basis of liberal democracy is already eroding again.

Nationalism and ethnic thinking catch on again. Again, people let themselves be racially incited, as recently in the east German Chemnitz. “Fake news” and manipulative narratives, for example that the German Chancellor “opened” the borders in 2015, distort and poison the political discourse. Simple explanations for difficult issues and rough judgments about difficult political situations are more popular than ever.

When asked about the causes of this unfortunate development, there are a number of good answers in the catalog of state and political failure. For everyone who thinks freely, and not just for supporters of parties who call themselves liberal, the search for their own, if not sole and perhaps not even decisive, part in the undesirable development could be more important, precisely because we liberals are concerned about the provisional nature of our knowledge knowledge. Have we made mistakes too? And which? What does it mean to rethink? There are blind spots in the liberal worldview and conceptual constrictions, despite all the differences in the approaches in detail.

Freedom needs rules

The willingness for such self-questioning was of course greater than at present. Around eighty years ago, one year before the outbreak of the Second World War, against the background of the global economic crisis that had not yet subsided and the totalitarian regimes in Russia and Germany, big questions arose. The assumption was that liberalism was not innocent of the dramatic decline of freedom and thus of its own failure. In the summer of 1938, a revised liberal approach was therefore to emerge at the “Colloque Lippmann” in Paris: “neoliberalism”. At its core, in a nutshell, was the insight that freedom cannot survive in an irregular state, but needs a well-ordered framework.

In contrast to what is often the case when we liberals deal with ourselves, the Colloque was not about self-reassurance or about tapping each other's shoulders. Two challenging central questions structured the discussion rounds: First, is the decline of liberalism (and freedom) endogenous, does liberalism tend to abolish itself? The focus here was on economic issues. Second, the decline of liberalism is exogenous, so what is it that weakens it from the outside, beyond the economic? These questions are now back on the agenda, and answering them requires the same self-critical spirit as it once did in Paris.

So does liberalism tend to abolish itself? At Colloque Lippmann, the liberals suspected one of the self-destructive forces of liberalism in a conceptual narrowing and political practice, which was reflected in a renunciation of regulation and thus in a dangerous passivity of the state. Are we not harming ourselves, they asked, if we allow a laissez-faire in which cartels, large corporations and monopolies then develop, to the detriment of consumers and thus the general public?

A state that ensures competition

The answer to this was the call for a "market police" and a "strong" state insofar as it should maintain competition, orient it through a suitable set of rules towards performance rather than repression and thereby make itself independent of particular interests. All competition policy is based on this insight.

However, under the conditions of the 21st century, this question arises again today. Are the instruments of competition policy still sufficient in the era of the Internet, where customers consume less than they use and pay less with money than with data, on the platforms of globally dominant major providers such as Google, Facebook and Amazon that benefit from network effects? Or are we liberals in the process of oversleeping a politically critical moment because we weigh ourselves in the self-assurance that we have already thought everything through?

Nationalism was also dealt with at the Colloque Lippmann, but again only in its economic form. Even then there was the conceptual shortening of liberalism to the market economy, which limits us to this day: We no longer understand enough about politics. The important lessons of freedom-inspired political economy cannot hide the fact that we often lack a sense of political dynamics. There is a lack of insight into the force of social psychological processes, not to mention the art of recognizing what is essential for freedom in its vortex and securing it in long-term strategies.

How social is liberalism?

With our well-founded insistence on voluntariness in all transactions, haven't we forfeited a little understanding of the ruse of the mutual binding effect of complex package solutions, for example in international contracts? Do we not even see that we are thereby encouraging economically and politically damaging solo efforts? With such an attitude, don't we defend the so-called "cherry-picking" all too often and defiantly?

Have we of all people, who ought to know better, thanks to our economic character, forgotten that optimizing and maximizing are not the same thing? Pursuing one's own enlightened interests in the long term sometimes means consciously supporting and permanently maintaining an international order that has been agreed, of course, voluntarily, even if it may appear to be a "bad deal" in the short term because of some necessary compromises.

And is liberalism still able to fulfill its social task? Can he guarantee economic security for everyone, secure the subsistence level and contain any structural crises? That was also a question in Paris at the time. Yes, liberalism has such a task, and not only in order to meet with sufficient acceptance, but above all because of the value it attaches to each individual.

The blind spot

Here at the latest, the economic must be combined with a philosophical, socio-psychological and political dimension. How important this is is shown by the fact that it was in large numbers the workers and unemployed with no prospects from America's “rust belt” who voted for Trump and only tolerated and tolerated his nationalism, his racism, his manipulative diction and his hateful failures soon appreciated.

What do we liberals have to offer these people? We have practiced referring to the wealth-creating power of markets as an answer to social questions. And immediately afterwards we scourge the efficiency-reducing and patronizing effect of the welfare state. As correct as this is a tendency statement, however, some of the conclusions from it in their apodictic absoluteness are just as false and dangerous - like everything extreme. In our large, abstract national economies, it would hardly turn out well if the welfare state was completely evaporated and welfare in the premodern manner was left to private charity alone.

It is something different to adjust the incentives in the welfare state structure in such a way that advancement becomes easier and people experience that you can get back on your feet after a fall. There is no question that such corrections are necessary. But to ignore the humanitarian relevance of the social question is a mistake. The tendency towards this shows the blind spot in a liberal worldview, at the center of which is the - indispensable - defense against left-wing attacks, especially on property, but not those against right-wing attacks on open society.

What makes society

We know how to protest against left calls for even more regulation with good arguments. Often only weak lip service is achieved to the right. It is part of the tragedy of the liberals to have all too often entered into unfortunate alliances with the right while concentrating on the economic aspects of freedom and being angry with the left.

The fact that freedom is threatened by dangers from outside the economic sphere was a big topic at the Colloque Walter Lippmann at the time. The transcendental needs of the people were also addressed, the "sociological blindness" of the economically influenced liberals and generally the shortened view of man of the economists.

The questions were apt: What do social developments do to people? What does a policy look like that takes needs beyond supply and demand into account? How does cohesion come about? One may not think much of the backward-looking and ultimately not very liberal recommendations that were ventilated in Paris at the time. But the clairvoyance and the spiritual breadth to open oneself to these spheres beyond the economic must also be a role model for us liberals today. We have not felt responsible for such things for too long and have closed our eyes to it.

More than simple certainties

This complex of questions deserves to be expanded: How can cohesion be fostered without falling onto the sloping trail of social homogeneity and national identity? How does civic awareness of the value of state institutions arise in liberal democracy? What are the socio-psychological mechanisms that lead to the brutalization of morals, and how can a reverse dynamic be set in motion? How do social norms and mechanisms arise that oppose discursive manipulations and untruths? How should one behave to counter the growing racism? What are the prerequisites for tolerance and a love of neighbor that can also be “love far away”?

All of these are questions for a modern liberalism, which is not just a political doctrine, but a comprehensive worldview, at the center of which stands the freedom of every - and really every - person. If we liberals fail to find answers that go beyond simple certainties and a chewed-off anti-statistical mantra, then freedom could once again be over sooner than we can imagine.

The liberal economist Karen Horn teaches the history of economic ideas and business journalism at the University of Erfurt. She lives in Zurich.

What does liberal mean?

rib. Freedom: It is still a central point of reference in political debates. Only, their reputation has suffered. She's coming under pressure from all sides. The question is urgent: What does freedom mean in a globalized digital world? Under the title "What does liberal mean?" authors look for answers and outline approaches to liberalism for the 21st century.