Flat White

What has liberalism ever done for us?

18 July 2021

5:30 PM

18 July 2021

5:30 PM

Liberal civil society stands at a critical point where a choice must be made; whether to evict the barbarians from the citadel or to continue to hold the gates open, enabling its destruction. 

Humans have walked the earth for hundreds of thousands of years. Except for the last three hundred years, the general history of mankind was a life of poverty and early — and often painful — death. Infant mortality rates exceeded fifty per cent, but if you were fortunate to survive beyond your fifth birthday, average life expectancy was still only thirty to forty years. War, feudalism and deprivation were the norm.   

Then it all changed. Somewhere in the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries, an idea took hold. Initially applied in north-western Europe, this idea started to spread. First within Europe, then to the North American colonies and further beyond. As Victor Hugo wrote “Nothing else in the world…not all the armies…is so powerful as an idea whose time has come”.

This idea was a new system of social organisation, the liberal open society, and it led to a rapid improvement in the general welfare of humankind. It was not a spontaneous idea but the agglutination of prior ideas and social forces.  It brought together principles such as equality before the law, free markets, freedom of expression, private property and democratic government.   

Since its application, this system of social organisation has delivered a historically unprecedented period of human flourishing.  Where it has been applied, the liberal open society has brought general peace, prosperity and happiness.  Even where not applied, the wealth and innovation created elsewhere spilt over, delivering benefits.   

The liberal open society is by no means a perfect system, but it remains the best social system so far invented. Never in the history of humanity have so many benefited so much as demonstrated globally by increased life expectancy, reduced infant mortality, fewer wars, increased literacy, enhanced food and energy security and materially improved standards of living. To be living in poverty today in many nations would have been the equivalent of upper-class life in previous times. 

But rather than appreciate, study, conserve and promote the factors behind this rise, there is a move among many of those who have most benefited from liberalism to effectively tear it down and prevent others from sharing in its bounties. They seek to use the freedoms afforded by liberalism to implement an anti-liberal agenda.  

This retreat from liberalism was foreseen last century, not so much by Karl Marx, but by economic philosopher Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter, who coined the expression ‘creative destruction’, wrote in 1942 predicting the demise of capitalism and thus liberalism.   

Capitalism and liberalism are different concepts. But while capitalism can exist without liberalism, liberalism cannot exist without capitalism. An assault on capitalism is by definition an assault on liberalism. 

Schumpeter suggested the seeds of capitalism’s demise were built into its DNA because capitalism would unleash two long term corrosive forces.   

The first force was the rise of the bureaucracy, both corporate and governmental, which would hobble the entrepreneurial class depriving it of financial and human capital. The power of this force is seen in through the growth of government from a fraction of the size of an economy to its now near fifty per cent in many developed nations.   

Contributing also to this assault on entrepreneurship is the large and ever-growing regulatory-administrative state erecting significant barriers. Almost all human advancement is the product of trial and error, yet the regulatory-administrative state actively blocks trial because error seems no longer tolerable.   

The second force Schumpeter predicted was the rise of an intellectual class that could only be sustained by the wealth created by liberal capitalism. It was the intellectual class that attracted Schumpeter’s strongest criticism arguing intellectuals were hostile to capitalism, and hence liberalism, because they believed the system would not provide the rewards the intellectuals felt was their due.   

According to Schumpeter, the essence of the intellectual is the absence of responsibility and accountability for practical outcomes. Thomas Sowell describes intellectuals as those whose end product is intangible ideas that are judged not by results, but rather by the agreement of other intellectuals.  Nassim Taleb would describe intellectuals as those without skin in the game.

The evidence is clear that there has never been a social system that has so greatly enhanced the general welfare of humanity. Yet, ironically, the intellectuals’ hostility to the system that permits its existence can be seen in many corners of modern society, most notably in the corridors of many modern universities and particularly within their social science and education faculties.   

Unwilling to look at the consequences of their ideas, too many of the intellectual class seems more interested in the elegance of their theories. They seem oblivious to the evidence that shows those in the illiberal world vote with their feet seeking to run away from the policies advocated by the intellectuals. Yet all the while, the intellection class seeks to convert liberal open societies into tyrannical despotocracies from where millions seek refuge. They foolishly think that destroying liberalism will improve it. 

For most of human history, advocating for the principles of a liberal open society would have been at the risk of torture or death. But modern anti-liberals, many useful idiots, are enabled by the liberal open society to advocate for its destruction. This was noted also by philosopher and social commentator Karl Popper who posited that untended, liberalism will create the illiberal: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

But the greatest threat to the liberal open society seems to be the emerging synthesis of the intellectual class with the regulatory-administrative state. Through this, the intellectual governing class are able to implement their anti-liberal policies, not through the righteousness of their ideas, but by using the government’s monopoly on the use of power to force intolerance and anti-liberalism. From critical race theory to identity politics, to anti-speech laws, it should not surprise that Australia’s declining economic productivity and vigour are directly correlated with the growth in the size of government and theiView Postr legislating for illiberal policies.

So much for Prime Minister Morrison’s exhortation that free speech did not create jobs. 

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