The threat of the illiberal left
SSOMETHING TO very badly gone with Western liberalism. Basically, classical liberalism believes that human progress is brought about by debate and reform. The best way to navigate disruptive change in a divided world is through a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, and limited government. Yet a resurgent China scoffs at liberalism for being selfish, decadent, and unstable. In our country, right-wing and left-wing populists attack liberalism for its elitism and its supposed privileges.
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Over the past 250 years, classical liberalism has contributed to unprecedented progress. It will not disappear in a cloud of smoke. But it is undergoing a severe test, just as it was a century ago when the cancers of Bolshevism and fascism began to eat away at liberal Europe from within. It is time for the Liberals to understand what they are up against and to fight back.
Nowhere is the fight more fierce than in America, where this week the Supreme Court chose not to repeal a draconian and bizarre anti-abortion law. The most dangerous threat to the spiritual home of liberalism comes from the Trumpian right. Populists denigrate liberal edifices such as science and the rule of law as fronts for a deep state plot against the people. They subordinate facts and reason to tribal emotion. The persistent lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen indicates where such impulses are leading. If people cannot resolve their differences using debate and trusted institutions, they will resort to force.
The attack on the left is harder to grasp, in part because in America the term “liberal” has come to include an illiberal left. We describe this week how a new style of politics has recently spread to elite university departments. As recent graduates took on jobs in high-end media and in politics, business, and education, they brought with them the horror of feeling “in danger” and a program obsessed with narrow vision. to obtain justice for oppressed identity groups. They also brought tactics to enforce ideological purity, offering no platform to their enemies and nullifying their transgressed allies, with echoes of the denominational state that dominated Europe before classical liberalism. did not take root at the end of the 18th century.
Superficially, the illiberal left and classical liberals like The Economist want a lot of the same things. Both believe that people should be able to thrive regardless of their sexuality or race. They share a hint of authority and strong interests. They believe in the opportunity for change.
However, classical liberals and illiberal progressives could hardly disagree more on how to bring about these things. For classical liberals, the precise direction of progress is unknowable. It must be spontaneous and from the bottom up – and it depends on the separation of powers, so that no one or any group can exercise lasting control. In contrast, the illiberal left has placed its own power at the center of things, believing that real progress is only possible after first ensuring that racial, gender and other hierarchies are dismantled.
This difference in method has profound implications. Classical liberals believe in establishing a level playing field and letting events unfold through competition, such as eliminating corporate monopolies, opening guilds, radically reforming taxation, and making law. education accessible with vouchers. Progressives see laissez-faire as a pretext that powerful interest groups use to preserve the status quo. Instead, they believe in imposing “fairness” – the results they deem fair. For example, Ibram X. Kendi, a scholar-activist, argues that any color-blind policy, including standardized testing for children, is racist if it ends up increasing average racial differences, regardless of the clarification of the intentions behind it. underlying.
Mr. Kendi is right to want an anti-racist policy that works. But its blundered approach risks depriving some underprivileged children of the help they need and others of the chance to realize their talents. Individuals, not just groups, must be treated fairly for society to flourish. In addition, the company has many goals. People worry about economic growth, well-being, crime, the environment and national security, and policies cannot be judged simply on whether they are advancing a particular group. . Classical liberals use debate to determine priorities and tradeoffs in a pluralistic society, then use elections to set a course. The illiberal left believes that the market for ideas is rigged like any other. What masquerades as evidence and argument, they say, is actually another elite assertion of raw power.
Old-school progressives remain the champions of free speech. But illiberal progressives believe that fairness requires that the field be tilted against those who are privileged and reactionary. It means restricting their freedom of expression, using a caste system of victimization in which those at the top must defer to those with the greatest right to restorative justice. It’s also about setting an example of so-called reactionaries, punishing them when they say something that is taken to make someone less privileged feel in danger. The results are call, cancellation, and no platform.
Milton Friedman once said that “a society that puts equality ahead of freedom will have neither.” He was right. Illiberal progressives believe they have a plan to liberate oppressed groups. In reality, it is a formula for the oppression of individuals – and in this it is not that different from the plans of the populist right. In their own way, the two extremes put power before the process, the end before the means and the interests of the group before the freedom of the individual.
Strongman-led countries that populists admire, such as Hungary under Viktor Orban and Russia under Vladimir Putin, show that unchecked power is a poor basis for good government. Utopias like Cuba and Venezuela show that the end does not justify the means. And nowhere do individuals voluntarily conform to state-imposed racial and economic stereotypes.
When populists put partisanship above truth, they sabotage good government. When progressives divide people into competing castes, they turn the nation against itself. Both diminish the institutions that resolve social conflicts. This is why they often resort to coercion, even if they like to talk about justice.
If classical liberalism is so much better than the alternatives, why in the world is it fighting? One of the reasons is that populists and progressives feed off each other pathologically. The hatred that each side feels for the other inflames its own supporters, to the benefit of both. Criticizing the excesses of your own tribe sounds like betrayal. In these conditions, the liberal debate lacks oxygen. One need only look at Britain, where the politics of recent years have been consumed by feuds between hardline Tory Brexiteers and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor Party.
Some aspects of liberalism go against human nature. It forces you to stand up for your opponents’ right to speak, even when you know they are wrong. You must be prepared to challenge your deepest beliefs. Businesses must not be immune to storms of creative destruction. Your loved ones should come forward on merit alone, even if your instinct is to bend the rules for them. You have to accept the victory of your enemies at the ballot box, even if you think they will ruin the country.
In short, it is hard work to be a true liberal. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when their last ideological challenger seemed to crumble, the arrogant elites lost touch with the humility and doubt of liberalism. They got into the habit of believing that they were always right. They designed American meritocracy to favor people like them. After the financial crisis, they oversaw an economy that grew too slowly for people to feel prosperous. Far from treating critics of the white working class with dignity, they laughed at their alleged lack of sophistication.
This complacency allowed opponents to attribute lasting imperfections to liberalism and, because of the treatment of race in America, to insist that the whole country was rotten from the start. In the face of persistent inequality and racism, classic liberals can remind people that change takes time. But Washington is shattered, China is rushing forward, and people are restless.
A lack of liberal conviction
The ultimate complacency would be for classical liberals to underestimate the threat. Too many right-wing liberals are inclined to choose a shameless marriage of convenience with the populists. Too many left-wing liberals focus on how they too want social justice. They take comfort in the idea that the most intolerant illiberalism belongs to a fringe. Don’t worry, they say, intolerance is part of the mechanism of change: by focusing on injustice, they displace the central ground.
Yet it is precisely by counteracting the forces that push people to extremes that classical liberals prevent extremes from strengthening. By applying liberal principles, they help solve many problems in society without anybody having recourse to coercion. Only the Liberals appreciate diversity in all its forms and know how to make it a strength. They alone can deal fairly with everything from education to planning and foreign policy in order to unleash the creative energies of people. The classic liberals must regain their fighting spirit. They should face bullies and nullifiers. Liberalism remains the best engine for equitable progress. The Liberals must have the courage to say it. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “The Threat of the Illiberal Left”