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How liberalism collapses
For the first time in generations, public institutions are creating fewer incentives for liberal behaviour; this may herald the end of liberalism.
Some say that liberalism is finished. According to this view, economic and political crises have debilitated liberalism, nativism and social justice liberalism succeeding the ideology. This raises questions. For years, Western elites have upheld liberal values such as the separation of powers and freedom of speech. Why did they do so? Some emphasize commitment to liberalism, reflecting genuine belief in values such as freedom and autonomy. Others stress incentive structures. Because liberalism serves social purposes, associated with class and power, institutions create incentives for liberal behaviour; in liberal democracies, bureaucrats and judges should thus uphold freedom of speech, livelihoods depending on it. But if incentives change, behaviour should change. This has happened before, pre-war liberals capitulating to dictatorships.
Notwithstanding these precedents, few thought that this could happen again. In recent decades, liberal values have spread among populations, associated with postmaterialism. This strengthened the link between incentive structures and liberal values, creating a virtuous circle. But recent years have been revelatory. In certain countries, many in continental Europe, incentive structures and liberal values have remained aligned. Yet in others, the United States and United Kingdom being notable, a natural experiment has occurred. In parties and civil society, incentive structures and liberal values have often detached, results showing the fragility of liberal values. Many liberals appear biddable. When incentives change, they do things that undermine liberalism.
This has occurred in parties. In the United States, Republican surrender to Trump was egregious. Though the Republican Party had long contained radicals, many Republicans remained committed to liberal democracy. But after limited resistance, most submitted to the Trump presidency, accepting the changed political context. Consequently, Republican moderates acquiesced to the assaults on liberal democracy, some apologizing for Trump after the Capitol attack. In the United Kingdom, the Labour Party capitulated. Moderates profoundly opposed Jeremy Corbyn, eventually ostracizing him, yet succumbed when Corbyn’s prospects were good. This was most conspicuous after the 2017 election, but occurred until the end of the Corbyn leadership. On the eve of the 2019 election, Labour frontbencher Jonathan Ashworth was recorded suggesting that Corbyn was a threat to national security; Ashworth still campaigned for Corbyn to become prime minister.
Admittedly, politicians are under unusual pressure, livelihoods often depending upon compliance. But this phenomenon is widespread. In recent years, social justice liberalism has entered corporations and public sectors. This ideology is ostensibly liberal, espousing racial and LGBT+ equality, yet undermines key liberal principles. Social justice liberals dismiss disagreement as hate, oppose due process and endorse direct action. Many oppose these developments, polling and anecdotal evidence revealing this. But few resist. As with political classes, liberal values count for little when incentive structures change.
The way that this happens is intriguing. Some liberals fear speaking out, associated with professional insecurity, whilst others are cynics, such as Ashworth. In other cases, values change as people bargain with themselves. Within parties, many appeal to the greater good. Some said that President Trump or Prime Minister Corbyn were better than alternatives in opposition parties; others reckoned that they could influence such leaders. More broadly, many discount the salience of threats. Some left liberals dismiss topics associated with race and gender as obsessions of the right, even when developments unambiguously threaten liberalism. We know that humans self-deceive. And when unsettling developments occur within ingroups, as is happening on the liberal left, pressures for self-deception seem to increase. In a classic work, Czesław Miłosz recounted the process by which Polish writers reconciled themselves to communism. This was largely unconscious, intellectuals convincing themselves that new attitudes were necessary. Today, conditions are better; but mental contortions are similar.
Bleak as appeals to history can be, these often assume that liberal democracy will be restored. Successive generations have learned this lesson, following defeats of fascism and communism. But this is not guaranteed. The major theme of our day is Western decline, authoritarian China rising concurrently; darker forces may thrive in these conditions. Liberalism has no automatic right to endure; the ideology is peculiar to the West and recent centuries. As events unfold, incentive structures may permanently align with authoritarian ideologies. Stratification is notable. The nativist right is strong in certain parties and media institutions, domination extending to businesses in countries such as Poland and Hungary. Contrastingly, social justice liberalism prevails in sociocultural sectors such as universities and the arts. Though some movements may dominate in certain countries, stratified authoritarianism appears more likely, opposing ideologies feeding off one another. This is so in the United States, nativists and social justice liberals having distinct bastions yet being mutually reinforcing.
The divorce of incentive structures and liberal values has a silver lining. The long association between the two had made liberalism staid, dampening its appeal. But as liberalism has been undermined, its ideological character has become clearer. In contrast to nativism and social justice liberalism, liberalism values freedom of speech and diversity of thought, opposing the creep of executive power and politicization of civil society. Relatedly, more people are prepared to fight for the ideology.
But whilst the emergence of liberalism as an insurgent ideology may entail more committed support, this is scant consolation for the loss of institutions. Fortunately, all is not lost, some exaggerating the progress of competing ideologies. As battles for institutions wear on, liberalism will need its new recruits. Institutional climates are increasingly cold.
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