Liberty and Its Discontents

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by Scott B. Nelson

Read other contributions to our series on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and today’s challenges to liberalism:

Kai Weiss’ recent article to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall raises some important points for classical liberals to consider. The conventional view has seen Brexit, Trump, and the steady slide toward ever greater authoritarianism in Eastern Europe as indicative of a simmering toxic malaise in the Western world. Freedom House, which measures global freedom, saw the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom in 2017. The Economist concurred with these findings last year and spoke of democracy losing ground after decades of triumph. Earlier this year, however, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index indicated that the retreat of global democracy may have halted for the time being as of 2018. In fact, the Heritage Foundation reports that the overall trend in economic freedom since 1995 has remained stable or even positive in the case of some regions.

Appearances and perception nevertheless make up some of our reality, and so much of the positivity – pace Steven Pinker’s efforts – will be drowned out by the welter of despair. We have the impression that more walls are being erected than torn down. If I didn’t know any better, I would think that large parts of Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech of 1979 were intended for our consumption today. Fast forward ten years through Reagan’s sunny optimism and the inching towards freedom in the Soviet bloc and we arrive at the victory of market economies and liberal democracy.

Thirty years later, has the promise of 1989 been fulfilled? If our standard is in terms of the spread of liberalism, then the answer is both yes and no. Individual freedom and prosperity have become more widespread since then, although, as mentioned above, there are signs of rollback in some parts of the world. However, we could also view 1989 as another victory in the war against imperialism, which commenced decades ago with the dissolution of the empires of Western Europe, with the collapse of the Soviet Union as the next step in this narrative. The triumphant hero in this reading would be nationalism and the nation-state – the liberty of the nation-state – with each expressing its historical identity and destiny. And as some have argued (e.g. Todd Huizinga’s The New Totalitarian Temptation: Global Governance and the Crisis of Democracy in Europe) there is a further step yet, which is to overcome the dangerous soft, technocratic, bureaucratic utopia of global governance, as represented by organizations such as the European Union.

If this sounds alarmist and extreme, it might very well be. I can’t think of any EU officials off the top of my head who have the typical look of a dictator: sporting a big bushy moustache that exercises the same oppressive control over his face as he does over his own people. Furthermore, political dissidents are not being sent to gloomy gulags, apart from Brussels. Finally, we continue to live comfortable and prosperous lives in the EU, even if there are several problems on the horizon, such as competitiveness, the welfare state, and migration.

On the other hand, is it possible, much like the Britons of Tacitus’ Agricola, that this post-Cold War comfort is the bonds of our servitude? What a seemingly ridiculous thing to say. But when Fukuyama wrote 30 years ago that “the triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism”, he described an understanding of the world that still obtains among many of our political and intellectual leaders today. We continue to rate all of the world’s countries according to criteria of freedom, democracy, GDP, etc., as if such indicators were the only ones by which we could evaluate the health of a society. They remain useful indicators and they measure important dimensions of a country’s condition, even if they do not always paint a vivid picture of the concrete reality within that country. But they also instill a sort of “scoreboard mentality”, whereby changes in a country’s performance are construed as progress or regress. And if we took as much interest in national sovereignty as we did in GDP, then we might actually see a steady decline in the EU member states since the 1990s. In any case, the language of progress and regress applies only when we’re all playing the same game. If we’re all playing the same game, then the goal is set, and we need only debate strategy in order to win.

1989 should have heralded the victory of liberty. What it may instead have produced is the victory of a sort of 19th century positivism, where we need no longer concern ourselves with the government of people, but only with the administration of things. If there is only one desirable end, as Fukuyama intimated, then all political problems, i.e. problems that concern conflicting visions of the good, are nullified. The only problems that exist are administrative problems. Politics itself becomes another technical field with its own experts, and we enter an age of “sophisters, economists, and calculators”.

This would be innocuous enough if we all thought the same way. But thankfully we are opposed to the despotism of the mind, save for on some university campuses. More worrying though is our inability or unwillingness to accept or even comprehend political developments that deviate from our limited understanding of how things should be. It is eerie to have a Polish MEP and philosopher, Ryszard Legutko, who lived under the USSR, point out the similarities between liberal democracy and communism in The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies:

Both are utopian and look forward to “an end of history” where their systems will prevail as a permanent status quo. Both are historicist and insist that history is inevitably moving in their directions. Both therefore require that all social institutions – family, churches, private associations – must conform to liberal-democratic rules in their internal functioning. Because that is not so at present, both are devoted to social engineering to bring about this transformation. And because such engineering is naturally resisted, albeit slowly and in a confused way, both are engaged in a never-ending struggle against enemies of society (superstition, tradition, the past, intolerance, racism, xenophobia, bigotry, etc., etc.) In short, like Marxism before it, liberal democracy is becoming an all-encompassing ideology that, behind a veil of tolerance, brooks little or no disagreement.[1]

The incredulity with which such statements will be met is a testament to one’s inability to imagine that a regime of comfort can be an unfree regime. Is it possible then that the clamouring we hear from Brexiteers and Trump-supporters and Poles and Hungarians are an expression of freedom, the freedom of the nation-state, an extension of the spirit of 1989? Is it possible even that the chaos and the furious political debates – the palpable lack of political unity – that have arisen from these expressions produce freedom? 500 years ago Machiavelli wrote:

I say that to me it appears that those who damn the tumults between the nobles and the plebs blame those things that were the first cause of keeping Rome free, and that they consider the noises and the cries that would arise in such tumults more than the good effects that they engendered. They do not consider that in every republic are two diverse humors, that of the people and that of the great, and that all the laws that are made in favor of freedom arise from their disunion, as can easily be seen to have occurred in Rome.[2]

But Machiavelli was speaking of Rome. He was speaking of the ugly tensions between the senatorial elite and the people. He was speaking of liberty.

[1] This is an overview in John O’Sullivan’s foreword to Legutko’s book.

[2] The Discourses I, 4.

Scott B. Nelson is an independent writer and political thinker. He has several publications listed on his website, The Vienna Symposium, where he regularly blogs. He is presently working on a book dealing with Charles de Gaulle’s vision of Europe, as well as co-authoring a book on Cicero and modern politics.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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