I liberali sono ormai visti come tecnocrati senz’anima. Per competere con i messaggi trascinanti ed emotivi dei populisti, è necessario reimparare a lottare per i valori del liberalismo. Richard V. Reeves analizza lo stato attuale dello scenario politico occidentale e cerca di tracciare la strada da seguire.
According to the old joke, a liberal is someone who can’t even take their own side in an argument. But it is not so funny now. The foundations of modern liberalism are being challenged aggressively. Western liberals, softened by decades of winning, will have to relearn how to fight.
Liberals have become victims, in part, of their own successes. In most advanced economies, liberalism has long provided the rules and the framework within which arguments have taken place. Political parties have competed for power with different ideas, but through democratic decision-making processes and within liberal parameters: individual freedom of speech and expression, market-based capitalism, increased trade between nations and high levels of international co-operation. Sure, there were differences between Tony Blair and David Cameron, and between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. At the time they seemed like deep divisions. Today they seem trivial.
Politics has zoomed out to a different level of magnification. Policy frameworks and governing norms that were once taken for granted are now being questioned. History did not end. But in the assumption that it would, liberals lost their edge.
Liberals need to fight again for liberalism. But we are out of practice and out of shape. Compared with the earthy, emotional appeal of populist leaders, liberals come across as bloodless technocrats. Populists fight with images and feelings, with border walls and patriotic independence. Liberals respond with geeky charts and white papers and carefully calibrated arguments. Liberals are like tweedy college professors trying to talk their way out of a bar brawl.
But liberals were not always like this. Before liberalism won big, they had to fight. They had to battle the vested interests against free trade, freedom of speech and lifestyle, fair competition in markets, equality on the grounds of race, gender and sexuality, and wealth redistribution.
In the 19th century in particular, liberal ideas were weaponised in the political arena, and forced radical changes. Liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville are seen today as thinkers and writers of cerebral classics like “On Liberty” and “Democracy in America” that line the walls of hushed libraries. But both were fiercely engaged in the political struggles of their day. Tocqueville was elected a member of the French Constituent Assembly of 1848, after the revolution of the same year, and helped draft the constitution of the Second Republic. (Amid the revolution’s upheaval, he joined the throngs in the streets of the Left Bank while his fellow aristocrats cowered inside their high-walled maisons.) He lost his own liberty for opposing Napoleon III’s coup in 1851.
Mill was also thrown in jail, as a young man, for supporting access to information about contraception. Also like Tocqueville, he was an elected politician, serving as the MP for Westminster from 1865 to 1868. His defeat, at the hands of a stationery businessman, W.H. Smith, resulted in large part from his support for women’s suffrage, insistent opposition to the racist actions of the Governor of Jamaica and attacks on wealthy landowners.
Up until the end of his life, Mill was seen by the establishment as a national nuisance rather than a national treasure. Towards the end of his life he was dismissed from the Cobden Club, a free-market group, for supporting the Land Tenure Reform Association, lobbying for radical reforms of the property market, including heavy taxation of landed estates. As Mill told a crowd assembled by the Association: “The passion of the many is needed to conquer the self-interest of the few.” Mill’s obituary in the London Times lamented his “reckless” pursuit of unpopular political causes, “unceasing feuds” in philosophy and his advocacy of the “fanciful rights of women”.
David Lloyd George, the great liberal leader and prime minister of the early 20th century, did not win office by splitting the difference between left and right, or through cool-headed technocratic arguments. He denounced a tariff on grain, making bread more expensive, as a “stomach tax” on working people, and fought a pitched battle against the House of Lords to force through his People’s Budget in 1910, laying the foundations for the welfare state. Lloyd George then turned his fire on the Lords, removing its veto power over legislation with the Parliament Act of 1911.
What can we learn from the liberal lions of the past? Three key lessons stand out.
1. First, liberals must fight alongside and for the powerless, the underdogs of both society and economics. At its root, liberalism is a political philosophy demanding the diffusion of power—whether economic, social or political. That is why liberals want free, competitive, fair markets; a socially liberal culture and laws allowing for human diversity; and pluralism in politics.
Today, middle-class and working-class voters and communities are falling further and further behind the upper middle class. Liberals have been too slow to recognise the growing divide, and too afraid to argue for radical solutions, especially in terms of wealth redistribution. This has opened up space for populists.
2. Second, liberals have to be eternally vigilant against the rigging of markets in favour of vested interests. This is not a battle that will ever end. Those with economic power will always use it to shape market dynamics to suit their own ends. The housing market in America and Britain, for example, is strongly tilted in favour of those with wealth and political power.
The antitrust and competition policies of many nations have become insipid. Globalisation has increased the power of large multinational corporations. There is growing evidence that market concentration, for example in the technology sector, is fuelling inequality. In the unavoidable fight between The People and Big Tech, liberals should have no problem knowing whose side to be on.
3. Third, liberals have to sharpen their anti-elite instincts. The emergence of the phrase “liberal elite” is deeply unfortunate, since liberals ought in principle to be wary of the power of elites. But sadly, it applies. Liberals, especially those of an intellectual orientation, have become too respectful of the authority of elite colleges, professional associations, perhaps even of elite publications (like this one). Liberals certainly value expertise. And they worry that mass movements can damage pluralism. Mill and Tocqueville both wrote eloquently on these points. But while elites will always exist, liberals will always fight against them when they become self-serving.
At some point, liberals became content with the status quo. As The Economist put it in the 175th anniversary essay in September 2018, “Many liberals have, in truth, become conservative, fearful of advocating bold reform lest it upset a system from which they do better than most.” But liberals can never be content with the status quo. Vested interests can reassert themselves. New concentrations of power emerge and need to be identified, challenged and broken up. Threats to individual freedom can come from new quarters.
Drawing on history, liberals need to recover their fighting spirit. We need a liberal politics that is partisan in the best sense—for the best ideas; that is passionate without descending to populism; that is unafraid to take heat and make enemies. It is time for liberals to battle again for what they believe in.
Richard V. Reeves, “The Economist” 22 ottobre 2018