Liberalism or misery?

I have read The Economist since 1989, and the past 30 years have been good for its mission of promoting liberalism (i.e., the rights of individuals to decide their destiny without impinging upon that of others as well as the value of promoting diversity and competition in the search for “truth” and innovations that will promote the general welfare) and thus for humanity’s progress, but this progress and those ideals are under attack.*

In this week’s issue, TE’s cover article says “Success turned liberals into a complacent elite. They need to rekindle their desire for radicalism.”

You should read the whole article, but I am going to give my own reasons for the importance of this mission  because (1) I have supported this mission for decades and (2) everyone needs to consider the implications of life in a non-liberal world.

First, I am a (classical, not American-style) liberal because I am aware of my limited knowledge and desire for freedom, and thus willing to assert the limits to others’ knowledge as well as their right to be free of my influence. I have for years collected examples of where “power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely,” so I am humble ab0ut the potential for top-down “solutions” and fearful of the tendencies of (so-called) leaders like Trump, Putin, Orban and Erdogan as they rally their followers to smash various opponents of the majority. (Here’s a paper on aid failure; here’s one on how groups cooperate or not.)

Second, I feel as if we’re in an era that most resembles that of of 1920-1933, when popular misery supported the rise of fascists of the left and right, as well as populists who promised easy answers to tough problems but ended up inmpoverishing or killing their followers while immiserating millions of defenseless and vulnerable minorities. The strengthening currents of authoritarianism dressed up as nationalism or, somewhat more transparently as majoritarianism, not bode well for our species. This article, for example, explains how “China and Russia are very different powers with different strategies, but they share the objective of targeting free and open societies to make the world a safer place for authoritarianism.”

I am writing this from Madrid where two artistic exhibitions have been coloring my thought. First, there is an exhibition of Russian Dadaist arts, which date from the 1920s and mostly highlight the ridiculous situations that Russians found themselves in during the early years of their revolution, which turned from proletarian optimism into fascist slaughter, starvation and terror. The second images are of Picassso’s Guernica, which he painted in 1937 in reaction to the  firebombing slaughter of innocent civilians by Nazis aligned with Franco. That painting, which is credited with “highlighting the need to forever remember and prevent the slaughter of innocent civilians,” seems remarkably relevant right now, at a time when Assad is barrel-bombing innocents and Aung Suu Kyi sits on her hands as Myanmar’s army slaughters innocent Rohinga citizens. I could write more about Venezuela, Turkey, Nigeria, and other places, but you get my point.

Liberalism as a philosophy is simple. It dictates humility, diffusion of power, and cooperation, but these ideals are unpopular with people who feel threatened and politicians who promise easy fast gains.  Sadly, those groups are ascendant as they were in the 1930s, and they do not yet see the obvious connection between their simple-minded, zero-sum view of the world and the obvious fact that attacks lead to counterattacks, and thus cycles of righteous conflict. (Check out Israel and Palestine for a long lesson in that futility.)

My one-handed conclusion is that our turn from faith and practice of liberalism will promote intra- and inter-group conflict at a time (climate disruption) when we should be joining in efforts to protect ourselves from our collective mistakes. Sad.

Addendum (20 Sep): This article is worth a read: “China and Russia assessed that Western liberalism and freedom undermine authoritarian rule. Indeed, many Western policy makers saw this as a desirable side effect: It may be good news for the Chinese and Russian people, but it is bad news for their regimes. And so, China and Russia began to push back.”


* I forgot to add a comment on how US politics has played a major role in this deterioration. In 1989, the Wall fell and the Warsaw Pact countries left Soviet influence. In 1991, the USSR itself fell apart, freeing the Baltic countries to pursue their freedoms while leaving most of the other dozen republics to struggle with reform, corruption and authoritarianism. These moves were helpfully supported by George HW Bush as well as Clinton, but the lack of an “external enemy” led Republicans (under Newt Gingrich) to turn to dirty politics as a means of gaining domestic power. Those shenanigans (including the impeachment of Clinton before the House) previewed the gridlock that plagued Obama’s years. Perhaps the worst “luck” was the (fraudulent) election of George W Bush in 2000, which gave power to an incompetent who invaded Iraq (for no good reason), failed the people of New Orleans after Katrina, reversed progress towards a global agreement on climate change, and fueled the economic bubble that led to the Great Recession, which hurt the average person but protected bankers from their own failures. Obama did a heroic job with the shit-sandwhich he was given, but the Republicans spent all their time undermining him rather than helping the country and its vulnerable people. Sadly, their strategy enabled the election of Trump, who has got to be the worst person ever to sit in the White House (and I’m including Jackson, Nixon and Bush 2). Given the current clusterfuck in the US, I am sure that we’ve yet to see the worst of Trump’s presidency. I certainly hope that the damage is not too deep and that those responsible are punished, but that justice will only recover 1% of the damage Trump and the Republicans are doing to the US and the world.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “Liberalism or misery?”

  1. Your footnote brought to mind David Cornwell’s (aka John le Carre) remark about the end of the Cold War — “The right people lost, but the wrong people won.”

  2. RD emailed this:

    “I am totally on your side. However, there is the “other side” out there. Consider this fact: a recent study found that when liberals read conservative (i.e. reactionary or worse) news, they become more liberal. Same goes for the other side. So if conservatives read your messages, they will become more stubborn conservatives. Isn’t this a classic prisoners’ dilemma situation? The two sides must learn to cooperate to avoid a worse future.”

    1. @RD:

      Yes, I agree that tribalism impedes conversation and my attack on the GOP is not because of its republican values (whatever those might be) but their methods of invoking tribalism.

      Now my criticism may be inferred as a tribal counter-attack but it’s not, as I think the Dems are also lacking and — big point — the same techniques are being used in many other countries where the GOP has no presence.

      So perhaps my readers will see this difference. Those who think I’m attacking their tribe are already lost 🙂

Leave a Reply to David Zetland Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.