The Death of Liberalism

The Death of Liberalism

Adam Gopnik and John Micklethwait in conversation with Mihir S. Sharma

Individuals and governments have always had an uneasy relationship when it comes to defining liberty and freedom. Does the state exist to protect my freedom, or is it infringing upon it under the garb of doing 'public good'? With rising autocracy and nationalism in today's world, liberals everywhere feel they are under attack. The recent intrusive privacy features of Whatsapp uppermost on my mind, I was keen to hear what the three acclaimed political commentators had to say about the future of liberalism. 

Tongue in cheek, Mihir Sharma invited the speakers to comment on the 'cheerful sounding topic' and conjectured that it perhaps has a doom-laden connotation to it. Adam Gopnik quipped that a more realistic title would be the 'mortality' or 'impending death' of liberalism, stating that his work is shaped around the notion that 'liberalism is always dying', and has been on a deathbed since its inception. Taking an analogy from Lewis Carroll's 'Through the Looking Glass', Gopnik drew a comparison with the bread and butterfly (a fictional butterfly with wings of sliced bread and butter), saying that liberalism has been on the route to starvation, looking for the elusive bread and butter on the tops of trees! Gopnik's book 'A thousand small sanities: The moral adventure of liberalism' is a wake-up call to all liberals. He believes liberalism has always been on assault by the state, by leftists, rightists, the cold war, terrorism, militancy, the list is endless. However, contrary to the ominous title of this session, Gopnik's book is surprisingly a passionate appeal to the world that gives us hope that liberalism might just recoup to live another day! 

To this, John Micklethwait remarked on the irony of hoping for an optimistic future for liberalism, saying that “finding happy liberals is a bit like finding happy farmers, they just barely exist!”

Liberalism has always been at the core of western culture as it puts individual freedom at the forefront. Micklethwait summarised this succinctly by saying that “the starting point of liberals is a distrust of authority or power.” With a rise in trade and free markets, nationalistic aspirations of states and increasing power of multinationals and globalisation, liberalism often finds itself in conflict with the state. Can this be avoided?

Micklethwait believes the present moment in history is important. In his recent co-authored book 'The Wake Up Call: Why the Pandemic Has Exposed the Weakness of the West, and How to Fix It', he echoes Gopnik's sentiments of doomThe pandemic exposed western democracies that prided themselves as being citadels of liberalism to be entirely incapable of protecting their citizens and leaving them open to death and destruction. Micklethwait brought up the contrast with 'totalitarian' regimes such as China that he said were able to do a far better job than the West, consequently leading people to reach a 'false positive' which has thrown the standard-bearers of liberalism in the path of censure. 

This led Mihir to inquire about the relationship between economic and social liberalism. How much of free market liberalism can you have without social liberalism? There has always been a conflict within liberalism, said Micklethwait, and recalled John Stuart Mill's theory of the 'nightwatchman state', in which Mill believed that the way to open up the economy was to let the markets go. However, later Mill himself became worried that people needed looking after by the state. 

Micklethwait stressed the need for 'social trust and social capital' before having free markets. An economy without social trust, such as in Russia, cannot be successful, he believed. 

At present, the task of liberalism is to rebuild civic institutions such as universal education and public health, which are essential for survival. Gopnik spoke of the degradation of public education in the last thirty years in the US, underscoring the need for liberals “to re-endow these problem areas with a lot more dignity and monetary support.” 

Interestingly, Gopnik did not think of liberalism as an ideology with axioms and specific historical predictions. Instead, he called it a 'temperament' that needs to be cultivated by encouraging people to discuss it in coffee houses in free and open conversations. Historically this has shown to accelerate liberal thinking, although he wondered whether that might be too antediluvian a notion in current times! He also believed that a powerful social and democratic government can pose no danger to social or liberal freedom, strongly emphasising that "a high degree of statism, social intervention, and national health above all can co-exist with classic liberal freedoms – that is an empirical truth."

Both the authors felt that liberal democracy needs to take a hard look and reinvent itself. It is reassuring to note that Gopnik's book does not sound a death knell but offers solutions and a passionate appeal to strive to protect liberalism in our universal march to avoid authoritarianism.