Peter Bye

Is liberalism obsolete?

In an interview with the Financial Times[1], Vladimir Putin claimed that liberalism was obsolete: ‘…the Russian president said “the liberal idea” had “outlived its purpose” as the public turned against immigration, open borders and multiculturalism’. He made the following statement. ‘This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done (about immigration). That migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected’.

Is liberalism obsolete? In this piece I will try to argue that it is not obsolete but that it is under threat. In order to do that, I would like to clarify what I understand by liberalism. One problem with talking about it, and indeed many other ideas, for example socialism or conservatism, is that different people have different interpretations of what the words mean. Two people can talk about the same word but be at cross purposes because each understands something different.

A classic definition was provided by John Stuart Mill[2]:

‘That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant … Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

I think a liberal society is constituted in such a way as to allow people to function in accordance with Mill’s definition: maximum freedom without affecting the rights of others. I divide the attributes of such a society into three groups, with some fuzzy boundaries between them: legal/civic, social and economic. Consider each in turn.

The first group comprises local and national government structures, with free and fair elections of representatives. Free media are required to expose abuses of power. And independently-enforced legal and regulatory rules are necessary to protect people from coercion, either by the state or other people. In keeping with Mill’s point, people should not be prevented from actions that do not hurt others. In particular, they should not be constrained by moral or ideological zealots from doing what they want. For example, until 1967 in the UK, sexual acts between men were illegal, even when in private and with full consent. The Sexual Offences Act, 1967, introduced by the then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, repealed the law making the acts a criminal offence[3].

The social group comprises people’s attitudes and beliefs. Social attitudes may lag behind the legal position; changing laws does not necessarily change what people think. People may hold prejudices against immigrants, other races and religions for instance, in spite of the legal position. Sometimes, attitudes change substantially in the years after laws are changed. As an example, same sex marriage is now legal and accepted in Britain[4]; quite a contrast from before 1967.

Finally, economic policies should allow businesses and markets to function within a well-defined regulatory framework, both domestic and international. Increasingly-free trade in the rules-based environment since 1945, defined by the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and its successor, the WTO (World Trade Organisation), has lifted hundreds of millions out of abject poverty.

Liberal democracy has, I believe, served the world well. But to make it work requires collaboration and a willingness to compromise. This means aiming for centre ground in policy; it’s hard to reconcile extremes. But extremes are what we now increasingly find, threatening the liberal fabric of society. Mr Putin’s objections to liberalism seem to be based on a nationalistic, even xenophobic view of what people want. He rails against immigrants, accusing them of a variety of crimes: is there any evidence for the alleged criminal behaviour? In this, he mirrors the views of Donald Trump. Indeed, the two seem to be like-minded.

Similar views about immigrants are sadly echoed in other countries in Europe. In the UK, immigration was a major issue in the 2016 referendum. There was a belief that immigrants took advantage of the UK’s welfare and other services. There was no evidence to support this view. Indeed, research by Dustmann and Fratini[5] showed the reverse: immigrants, especially from the EU’s accession countries, were net fiscal contributors.

There are also moves against economic liberalism, such as President Trump’s protectionist use of tariffs as a weapon to get what we wants. And he uses economic tools in areas outside economics, for example to force Mexico to try to restrain immigrants before they reach the US border. That the United States, so long a pillar of support in the rules-based international order of the post-war world, now appears to be abandoning what has worked so well is distressing.

Brexit is not helping either. Threatening to leave a rules-based international enterprise such as the EU in favour of fantasies about the UK’s global importance, damages the UK and Europe, and the international order. As I have been writing this piece, the chief fantasist, Boris Johnson, has just been elected as leader of the Conservative Party and, from 24th July, as Prime Minister. However, there is hope: his precarious position in Parliament may open an opportunity to have another vote and possibly revoke Article 50. Perhaps this might reinforce a sense of reality about the threat to liberalism in at least one part of the world.

Notes and sources

[1] Reports of the interview in the FT can be found at: https://www.ft.com/content/2880c762-98c2-11e9-8cfb-30c211dcd229 and

https://www.ft.com/content/670039ec-98f3-11e9-9573-ee5cbb98ed36 Links to videos of the whole interview can also be found by googling Putin FT interview.

[2]On liberty’, J S Mill, 1859. The piece appears in many books of collected works and is available as a free download from multiple sources. One source is https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/mill/liberty.pdf

[3] The Act applied only to England and Wales. Homosexual acts were decriminalised in Scotland in 1981 and in Northern Ireland in 1982. Alan Turing was one notable victim of the law before it was repealed. The Labour government in which Roy Jenkins was a member abolished the death penalty in 1965.

[4] But not in the whole of the UK: Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK but not part of Britain, (England, Scotland and Wales), does not allow same sex marriage.

[5] Dustmann & Frattini of UCL published a detailed analysis of the fiscal impact of immigrants into the UK. The link below points to a UCL site containing highlights and a short video presentation of their findings: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1114/051114-economic-impact-EU-immigration . The full paper can be obtained at www.cream-migration.org/files/FiscalEJ.pdf .

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