Modern democratic governments are founded on liberal principles meant to create the basis of a fair and just society. Liberalism emerged as a reaction against absolute power, in favour of individual autonomy protected by freedom of conscience and the rule of law. As the political theorist Judith Shklar put it in Political Thought and Political Thinkers (1998): ‘Liberalism’s deepest grounding is … in the conviction of the earliest defenders of toleration, born in horror, that cruelty is an absolute evil, an offence against God or humanity.’ That is why liberal principles include, among others, limited government under the rule of law, with individual rights enforceable against the government.
Liberal societies have not always lived up to these principles, which in some respects are always aspirational. But it cannot be denied that political societies based on liberal principles have been more successful, on almost any measure, than regimes that are more authoritarian, communitarian or sectarian.
So why do we read so often today that liberalism is in crisis, failing or already dead? Scholars and pundits of various ideological persuasions are busy signing death certificates and offering obituaries for liberalism, often without clearly defining what they mean by that term. Some claim that liberalism has failed to live up to its own promises. Others argue that it has become irrelevant precisely because it has succeeded in building a free society on allegedly dangerous foundations, such as individual autonomy, neutrality with regard to the good life, and free markets. These critics might differ among themselves, but they all seem to agree that liberalism can no longer solve our deep social, cultural, political and economic problems, and that it has become ‘unsustainable’.
Not coincidentally, all of these critics are living, writing and publishing in liberal countries. And they are demonstrating one of liberalism’s most successful features simply by participating in the quintessentially liberal enterprise of dialogue and disagreement under constitutional protections (with liberal limitations). These are, in fact, the only states in which actual competition for power and dissent is not just allowed but fostered. No one living in a totalitarian society has had the luxury of declaring liberalism, let alone totalitarianism, dead. Nevertheless, the pessimism of liberalism’s critics appears sensible, given the current depressing political climate, dominated by fears of the re-emergence of nationalistic populism reflected in Brexit and the rhetoric of, and policies pursued by, leaders such as Donald Trump in the United States, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
Yet, the prediction of liberalism’s imminent demise is hardly a new story. Scholars and statesmen have been declaring liberalism dead or in deep crisis for at least a century and a half. A review of the many deaths of liberalism might have something to teach us about what, in fact, is happening in the world today. [Continue reading…]