The threats to liberalism will continue to multiply

For years now, liberalism has been under attack on the right and the left, and the pandemic is just one of a number of recent events that show just how far the damage has spread.

We have gone from a world that was once opening through trade and travel, to one that is increasingly suspicious and insular. Mainstream Australians on social media advocate sealing our borders – not only against international guests but against Australians seeking to return home. Even if such measures are initially temporary, it’s not hard to see how they might extend beyond COVID-19.

In some ways this isn’t surprising, given the readiness of states to close their borders to other Australians, or shut down businesses – and even common spaces – in response to the pandemic.

Yet, opening Australia to the world was perhaps the defining policy choice of the past 50 years. Its abandonment would be a disaster.

And this is far from the only problem. Many commentators blame any inequality in outcomes on bigotry (see for example critical race theory on the left) or elites rigging the system (a common call from Trump supporters on the right), as if everything was a zero sum game where if one individual wins, others must lose.

For many, ‘neoliberalism’ is just an excuse for the rich to get richer and a way to force the poor to stay poor. This is nonsense, and not just because the collection of supposed ills grouped together under the label of neoliberalism are an illogical mess.

The unbelievable success of the international liberal movement – by almost any measure you can name – is unparalleled in human history. Between 1990 and 2015, more than 1 billion people moved out of extreme poverty.

While the improvement from freer trade and decentralised markets has been most dramatic in poor countries, developed economies have also seen huge advances in living standards. For example, in Australia between 1971 and 2011, life expectancy at birth increased by nearly 10 years for women and almost 12 years for men.

Yet we are on the verge on giving up on many of the policies that underpinned these gains – and many more liberal ideas – in pursuit of some vague collectivist utopia.

So what is liberalism? It’s a political philosophy grounded in the idea that protecting and enhancing individual freedom and liberty should be the primary goal of public policy.

It has both a left-wing stream (for example the UK Liberal Democrats, or US liberalism more broadly) and a right-wing branch (often described as classical liberalism). It stands in contrast to more collectivist or group-orientated traditions that focus more on communities, institutions, or group identities.

Liberalism, left and right, was at perhaps its highest ever point following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the broad acceptance of what might be loosely called the Liberal World Order.

The governments of Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the US executed significant liberal reforms, differing markedly from their conservative predecessors, especially in economic terms. Whereas previous right-aligned parties were pro-business, the new reformers were pro-market.

Importantly, though, these right-wing liberal governments were soon followed by left-liberal governments headed by Blair and Clinton that entrenched many of the liberal gains rather than reversing them.

In Australia, Hawke and Keating represented a distinct liberal turn in Labor party thinking. They in turn were followed by a Coalition government that extended liberal reforms rather than return to the failed policies of Fraser.

Of course it would be a mistake to assume that political history marches only in a more liberal direction. On the contrary, societies drift through periods that are more liberal and others where liberalism wanes.

On the left, liberalism has been in retreat for some time, and the collectivist forces of progressivism advance in major left-wing parties. Recent examples include Corbynism in the UK, the remarkable advance of Bernie Sanders in the US, and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand.

Each represents a form of repudiation of previous Labour/Democrat governments. Corbyn was almost the opposite of Tony Blair, reaching back more towards Michael Foot, and his “longest suicide note in history”. Ardern’s rhetoric also stands in stark contrast to that, say, of former NZ finance minister Roger Douglas.

But this is not just at the top. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union – once one of the strongest non-government liberal institutions, focused in particular on protecting free speech – has recently announced its focus will shift heavily towards systemic racial equality, tackling issues including broadband access, ‘fair housing’ and student debt.

A surprisingly large part of the formerly solidly liberal left in America has drifted away. Indeed, it is telling that some of the most prominent targets of ‘cancel culture’ have been liberals, left and right, particular in the media and entertainment industries (like self-professed feminist JK Rowling).

On the right, the battle is different. Conservatism and classical liberalism have always been somewhat in tension, even when in alliance. Though hardly a formal settlement, the broad understanding of the centre right was that economic policy would lean more towards liberalism, while social and cultural concerns would be more conservative.

Yet as cultural considerations have become more important (or perceived to be more important) conservatives had become more emboldened in speaking out against the liberal economic agenda. Much of Trump’s economic policy was more nationalist than it was liberal, for example.

It’s probably also true that the business community on the whole is drifting away from classical liberalism, while white working class voters are drifting towards conservatism. This dynamic is clearly shifting political considerations in the US and the UK, though to a lesser extent in Australia.

It’s not clear where all this leads. Economically, Australia appears to be emerging from the immediate pandemic crisis in far better shape than anyone really expected back in June last year. Yet it’s hard to see those who claimed the pandemic was a failure for capitalism admitting this is evidence they were wrong.

Meanwhile, aggressive progressive social and environmental movements can only be emboldened – both by Trump’s implosion and Biden’s electoral success – to push for a radical agenda few would have voted for.