Liberalism is in trouble. This is not a comment about political parties that may use the name ‘Liberal’, but about the approach to society and government that emphasises the decentralisation of power to foster individual empowerment.
The trouble is that this liberalism is losing supporters. This trend was documented 18 months ago in a CIS Policy Paper that explained the shift in those born after 1980 as due in part to ignorance of the problems and failures of socialism.
There are other powerful factors as well. In a recent article in the Atlantic, David Brooks outlines the devastating effects in the USA of the long term decline of social trust— the confidence that others will do the right thing. From the high water mark of the 1990s when confidence in human liberty was at its peak, American society has today moved to the age of precariousness. Brooks writes,
The culture that is emerging, and which will dominate American life over the next decades, is a response to a prevailing sense of threat. This new culture values security over liberation, equality over freedom, the collective over the individual.
What about matters here in Australia? In his latest book, Tim Wilson presents a similar, if less extreme, picture. He shows that Australian’s demographic profile is moving away from liberal democracy anchored in individual empowerment through responsibility, and towards social democracy focused on collective empowerment. Part of the reason is not so much ideological; but rather the sense that a liberal economic order isn’t really working for people any more.
There is also evidence that social trust is declining in Australia. Although not as extreme as the US, the latest Elderman Trust Barometer shows there is still cause for concern, with only 14% of those surveyed being sure “the system is working for them;” less than a third believing “they and their families will be better off in five years’ time”, and just half believing that “capitalism as it exists today does more harm than good in the world.”
Although these results were obtained in a pre-pandemic world and things may be different now, the long term trend remains.
What’s to be done? Wilson envisages a renewed liberalism which, by giving weight to justice not just freedom, can address contemporary challenges and rebuild liberalism’s social licence. Brooks calls for the hard work of rebuilding social trust in what he calls “the nitty-gritty of organisational life” in which individual people grow to depend on each other as come together to organise to target their many problems.
What isn’t an option is doing nothing.