Category Archives: Economist

Vladimir putin: “the liberal idea is obsolete”

Another must read, this one from the Economist of July 4, 2019

The global crisis in conservatism

VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia’s president, has declared the liberal idea “obsolete”. It will not surprise you to learn that we disagree. Not just because he told the Financial Times that liberalism was all about immigration, multiculturalism and gender politics—a travesty—but also because he picked the wrong target. The idea most under threat in the West is conservatism. And you do not have to be a conservative to find that deeply troubling.

In two-party systems, like the United States and (broadly) Britain, the right is in power, but only by jettisoning the values that used to define it. In countries with many parties the centre-right is being eroded, as in Germany and Spain, or eviscerated, as in France and Italy. And in other places, like Hungary, with a shorter democratic tradition, the right has gone straight to populism without even trying conservatism.

Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as a disposition. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it best: “To be conservative…is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant.” Like classical liberalism, conservatism is a child of the Enlightenment.

Liberals say that social order emerges spontaneously from individuals acting freely, but conservatives believe social order comes first, creating the conditions for freedom. It looks to the authority of family, church, tradition and local associations to control change, and slow it down. You sweep away institutions at your peril. Yet just such a demolition is happening to conservatism itself—and it is coming from the right.

The new right is not an evolution of conservatism, but a repudiation of it. The usurpers are aggrieved and discontent. They are pessimists and reactionaries. They look at the world and see what President Donald Trump once called “carnage”.

Consider how they are smashing one conservative tradition after another. Conservatism is pragmatic, but the new right is zealous, ideological and cavalier with the truth. Australia suffers droughts and reef-bleaching seas, but the right has just won an election there under a party whose leader addressed parliament holding a lump of coal like a holy relic. In Italy Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, has boosted the anti-vaxxer movement. For Mr Trump “facts” are just devices to puff up his image or slogans designed to stir up outrage and tribal loyalties.

Conservatives are cautious about change, but the right now airily contemplates revolution. Alternative for Germany has flirted with a referendum on membership of the euro. Were Mr Trump to carry out his threats to leave NATO (see “The World If” in this issue), it would up-end the balance of power. A no-deal Brexit would be a leap into the unknown, but Tories yearn for it, even if it destroys the union with Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Conservatives believe in character, because politics is about judgment as well as reason. They are suspicious of charisma and personality cults. In America plenty of Republicans who know better have fallen in with Mr Trump even though he has been credibly accused by 16 different women of sexual misconduct. Brazilians have elected Jair Bolsonaro, who fondly recalls the days of military rule. The charismatic Boris Johnson is favourite to be Britain’s next prime minister, despite being mistrusted by MPs, because he is deemed to be the “Heineken Tory” who will, like the beer, refresh the parts other conservatives cannot reach.

Conservatives respect business and are prudent stewards of the economy, because prosperity underpins everything. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, paints himself as a low-tax economic conservative, but undermines the rule of law on which businesses depend. Mr Trump is a wager of trade wars. Over 60% of Tory members are willing to inflict “serious damage” on the economy to secure Brexit. In Italy the League is spooking markets by toying with issuing government paper that would act as a parallel currency to the euro. In Poland Law and Justice has splashed out on a welfare bonanza. In France, in the campaign for the European Parliament elections, the rump Republican Party made more of a splash about Europe’s “Judeo-Christian roots” than prudent economic management.

Last, the right is changing what it means to belong. In Hungary and Poland the right exults in blood-and-soil nationalism, which excludes and discriminates. Vox, a new force in Spain, harks back to the Reconquista, when Christians kicked out the Muslims. An angry, reactionary nationalism kindles suspicion, hatred and division. It is the antithesis of the conservative insight that belonging to the nation, a church and the local community can unite people and motivate them to act in the common good.

Conservatism has been radicalised for several reasons. One is the decline of what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” that it relied on, such as religion, unions and the family. Another is that the old parties on both right and left were discredited by the financial crisis, austerity and the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Outside the cities, people feel as if they are sneered at by greedy, self-serving urban sophisticates. A few have been wound up by the xenophobia of political entrepreneurs. The collapse of the Soviet Union, some believe, loosened the glue uniting a coalition of foreign-policy hawks, libertarians and cultural and pro-business conservatives. None of these trends will be easy to reverse.

That does not mean everything is going the way of parties of the new right. In Britain and America, at least, demography is against them. Their voters are white and relatively old. Universities are a right-wing-free zone. A survey by Pew last year found that 59% of American millennial voters were Democratic or leaned Democratic; the corresponding share of Republicans was only 32%. Among the “silent generation”, born in 1928-45, Democrats scored 43% and Republicans 52%. It is not clear enough young people will drift to the right as they age to fill the gap.

But the new right is clearly winning its fight against Enlightenment conservatism. For classical liberals, like this newspaper, that is a source of regret. Conservatives and liberals disagree about many things, such as drugs and sexual freedom. But they are more often allies. Both reject the Utopian impulse to find a government solution for every wrong. Both resist state planning and high taxes. The conservative inclination to police morals is offset by an impulse to guard free speech and to promote freedom and democracy around the world. Indeed conservatives and liberals often bring out the best in each other. Conservatism tempers liberal zeal; liberals puncture conservative complacency.

The new right is, by contrast, implacably hostile towards classical liberals. The risk is that moderates will be squeezed out as right and left inflame politics and provoke each other to move to the extremes. Voters may be left without a choice. Recoiling against Mr Trump, Democrats have moved further to the left on immigration than the country at large. The British, with two big parties, may have to pick between Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s hard-left leader, and a radicalised Tory party under Mr Johnson. Even if you can vote for the centre, as with Emmanuel Macron in France, one party will win repeatedly by default—which, in the long run, is unhealthy for democracy.

At its best conservatism can be a steadying influence. It is reasonable and wise; it values competence; it is not in a hurry. Those days are over. Today’s right is on fire and it is dangerous.

Are we one people on the earth, or not?

Unfortunately there are still too many of us who would insist that we are not one but many, making up multiple tribes not cooperating with one another but most often at  war. By one people I mean what evolution, picking up the slack from centuries of mistaken ideologies, secular no less than religious, has taught us,  that we are, all of us, full and paid up members of the still existent although threatened animal species homo sapiens.

Now the very worst that Donald Trump has done is to have encouraged some of us, sometimes it seems most of us, to believe that we are not just one people but members of different tribes at war with one another. Witness what he had to say during the aftermath of Charlottesville, where hate groups including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and others were pitted against those who would defend the Enlightenment ideals, those of a free press, religious freedom, minority protection, free elections, democracy, a free and independent, judiciary, tolerance, and respect for others.

What Trump said was: “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides,”  “Very fine people, on both sides,” not true of course. And if you have ever attended one of Trump’s rallies (with shouts of ‘crooked Hillary, lock her up, crying Chuck Schumer, low IQ Waters, slam him to the ground, the Fake News people at the Wash Post and the NYTimes etc.’) you’ll know just what I mean about his stirring up the very worst in us..

Terrible things do happen in the U.S mostly because of crazed individuals, although in many cases encouraged by Trump’s own  failure to separate himself from the white supremacists, with guns, all too ready to turn their guns against the objects of their hate, against people just like themselves.

Things are bad in today’s United States. Witness the almost weekly shootings. But things are much worst elsewhere, making it more incumbent upon ourselves to avoid stirring the waters of hate. And in fact perhaps everywhere except in Europe and lands and countries of the developed world, where there are still a few enlightened peoples who at least act as members of the single species homo sapiens. As an example of the hate, of the unreason and untruth that is out there, witness this news item from the Economist of November 8:

When a panel of three judges on Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned a poor Christian woman’s conviction for blasphemy, which carries a mandatory death sentence, it was, as one commentator, Zahid Hussain, put it, as if they had at last broken the country’s “ring of fear”. Nine years ago in the fields, Asia Bibi, a mother of five, had taken a sip of water before passing the jug on to fellow (Muslim) fruit-pickers. They said they could not share a drinking vessel with an “unclean” Christian, and demanded she convert to Islam. She refused, and soon a mob was accusing her of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Pakistan’s main blasphemy law is breathtakingly sweeping. Anyone who defiles Muhammad’s name, even if “by imputation, innuendo or insinuation”, faces death. Since its introduction in 1986, several hundred people have been charged, with a disproportionate number either non-Muslims or Ahmadis, a persecuted sect who revere both Muhammad and a 19th-century prophet—something many other Muslims consider abominable. No one has yet been executed. But more than 50 people accused of blasphemy have been murdered….

So the judges’ decision was brave. The charges against Ms Asia, they said, were “concoction incarnate”. The reaction of hard-core Islamists, meanwhile, was predictable. Muhammad Afzal Qadri, a founder of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (tlp), a fast-expanding political party formed in response to the hanging of Mr Taseer’s bodyguard, called for the three judges to be killed. Supporters poured onto the streets, bringing cities to a halt with blockades of burning tyres and shutting down the motorway between Islamabad, the capital, and Lahore, the country’s second-biggest city….

Apparently stung by the criticism, the authorities may now be acting. As The Economist went to press, Ms Asia had been freed. Her whereabouts are unknown, although the government insisted she was still in the country. Meanwhile, the authorities warned the tlp’s leaders that they would be put under house arrest if they called out the mob. For now, Mullah Rizvi has merely said he will “consult” his followers on what next. Most Pakistanis are fed up with zealots blocking roads and burning cars. Even an inexperienced government appears to realise this. If the state is at last finding some backbone, it will be a triumph of hope over experience.

If the Democrats cannot hammer him on this…

(From the Economist of 27th October.)

America is hardly being submerged by illegal immigrants. The estimated number in the country has fallen since 2008. Apprehensions at the border are less than half what they were in the early 2000s. Mass deportations that began under Barack Obama have continued under Mr Trump, albeit with more ostentatious cruelty. The border is as secure as a 3,000km land frontier between a rich country and a developing one can reasonably be. America can pick whom it lets in, welcoming much-needed fruitpickers and care assistants as well as entrepreneurs and coders. But Mr Trump rejects the idea that made America great in the first place—that anyone can become American. If Democrats cannot hammer him for that, they do not deserve to win.

 

Sub Saharan African population projected to be 4 billion in 2100

From The Economist, September 22, 2018

In 2100.the population of Africa is projected to be 4 billion, for the Rest of World, 7 billion.  The Africans don’t yet, or won’t by 2100, outnumber the rest of us, although if the new Africans are anything like the  kids pictured below the world might be a better place for their being here.

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But the lives these children. What will they be like? The current world population of 7.2 billion is projected to increase by 1 billion over the next 12 years and reach 9.6 billion by 2050, according to a United Nations report. The report points out that growth will be mainly in developing countries, with more than half in Africa.

According to the Economist article the 21st century, in one way at least, will be African. In 1990 sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 16% of the world’s births. Because African birth rates are so much higher than elsewhere, the proportion has risen to 27% and is expected to hit 37% in 2050. About a decade later, more babies will be born in sub-Saharan Africa than in the whole of Asia, including India and China. … There is good reason for the world to worry about Africa’s baby boom.

 

The Economist at 175 A manifesto

Success has turned liberals into a complacent elite. It is time to rekindle the spirit of radicalism

[Most of my own ideas, most of the things I want to say are already posted out there somewhere on the Internet. At the moment it makes a lot more sense to me to post on my blog a few of the op ed pieces that have said what I want to say but better. There are a number of publications that do this every day, (the Times, the Post) or every week (the Economist) or every month (Foreign Affairs) to mention just a few. My blog at best would direct you to these and others. PBW]

(From the Economist, September 15, 2018.)

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Liberalism made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it. Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal elites, who are seen as self-serving and unable, or unwilling, to solve the problems of ordinary people. Elsewhere a 25-year shift towards freedom and open markets has gone into reverse, even as China, soon to be the world’s largest economy, shows that dictatorships can thrive.

For The Economist this is profoundly worrying. We were created 175 years ago to campaign for liberalism—not the leftish “progressivism” of American university campuses or the rightish “ultraliberalism” conjured up by the French commentariat, but a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.

Our founders would be astonished at how life today compares with the poverty and the misery of the 1840s. Global life expectancy in the past 175 years has risen from a little under 30 years to over 70. The share of people living below the threshold of extreme poverty has fallen from about 80% to 8% and the absolute number has halved, even as the total living above it has increased from about 100m to over 6.5bn. And literacy rates are up more than fivefold, to over 80%. Civil rights and the rule of law are incomparably more robust than they were only a few decades ago. In many countries individuals are now free to choose how to live—and with whom.

This is not all the work of liberals, obviously. But as fascism, communism and autarky failed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, liberal societies have prospered. In one flavour or another, liberal democracy came to dominate the West and from there it started to spread around the world.

Laurels, but no rest

Yet political philosophies cannot live by their past glories: they must also promise a better future. And here liberal democracy faces a looming challenge. Western voters have started to doubt that the system works for them or that it is fair. In polling last year just 36% of Germans, 24% of Canadians and 9% of the French thought that the next generation would be better off than their parents. Only a third of Americans under 35 say that it is vital they live in a democracy; the share who would welcome military government grew from 7% in 1995 to 18% last year. Globally, according to Freedom House, an NGO, civil liberties and political rights have declined for the past 12 years—in 2017, 71 countries lost ground while only 35 made gains.

Against this current, The Economist still believes in the power of the liberal idea. Over the past six months, we have celebrated our 175th anniversary with online articles, debates, podcasts and films that explore how to respond to liberalism’s critics. In this issue we publish an essay that is a manifesto for a liberal revival—a liberalism for the people.

Our essay sets out how the state can work harder for the citizen by recasting taxation, welfare, education and immigration. The economy must be cut free from the growing power of corporate monopolies and the planning restrictions that shut people out of the most prosperous cities. And we urge the West to shore up the liberal world order through enhanced military power and reinvigorated alliances.

All these policies are designed to deal with liberalism’s central problem. In its moment of triumph after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it lost sight of its own essential values. It is with them that the liberal revival must begin.

Liberalism emerged in the late 18th century as a response to the turmoil stirred up by independence in America, revolution in France and the transformation of industry and commerce. Revolutionaries insist that, to build a better world, you first have to smash the one in front of you. By contrast, conservatives are suspicious of all revolutionary pretensions to universal truth. They seek to preserve what is best in society by managing change, usually under a ruling class or an authoritarian leader who “knows best”.

An engine of change

True liberals contend that societies can change gradually for the better and from the bottom up. They differ from revolutionaries because they reject the idea that individuals should be coerced into accepting someone else’s beliefs. They differ from conservatives because they assert that aristocracy and hierarchy, indeed all concentrations of power, tend to become sources of oppression.

Liberalism thus began as a restless, agitating world view. Yet over the past few decades liberals have become too comfortable with power. As a result, they have lost their hunger for reform. The ruling liberal elite tell themselves that they preside over a healthy meritocracy and that they have earned their privileges. The reality is not so clear-cut.

At its best, the competitive spirit of meritocracy has created extraordinary prosperity and a wealth of new ideas. In the name of efficiency and economic freedom, governments have opened up markets to competition. Race, gender and sexuality have never been less of a barrier to advancement. Globalisation has lifted hundreds of millions of people in emerging markets out of poverty.

Yet ruling liberals have often sheltered themselves from the gales of creative destruction. Cushy professions such as law are protected by fatuous regulations. University professors enjoy tenure even as they preach the virtues of the open society. Financiers were spared the worst of the financial crisis when their employers were bailed out with taxpayers’ money. Globalisation was meant to create enough gains to help the losers, but too few of them have seen the pay-off.

In all sorts of ways, the liberal meritocracy is closed and self-sustaining. A recent study found that, in 1999-2013, America’s most prestigious universities admitted more students from the top 1% of households by income than from the bottom 50%. In 1980-2015 university fees in America rose 17 times as fast as median incomes. The 50 biggest urban areas contain 7% of the world’s people and produce 40% of its output. But planning restrictions shut many out, especially the young.

Governing liberals have become so wrapped up in preserving the status quo that they have forgotten what radicalism looks like. Remember how, in her campaign to become America’s president, Hillary Clinton concealed her lack of big ideas behind a blizzard of small ones. The candidates to become leader of the Labour Party in Britain in 2015 lost to Jeremy Corbyn not because he is a dazzling political talent so much as because they were indistinguishably bland. Liberal technocrats contrive endless clever policy fixes, but they remain conspicuously aloof from the people they are supposed to be helping. This creates two classes: the doers and the done-to, the thinkers and the thought-for, the policymakers and the policytakers.

The foundations of liberty

Liberals have forgotten that their founding idea is civic respect for all. Our centenary editorial, written in 1943 as the war against fascism raged, set this out in two complementary principles. The first is freedom: that it is “not only just and wise but also profitable…to let people do what they want.” The second is the common interest: that “human society…can be an association for the welfare of all.”

Today’s liberal meritocracy sits uncomfortably with that inclusive definition of freedom. The ruling class live in a bubble. They go to the same colleges, marry each other, live in the same streets and work in the same offices. Remote from power, most people are expected to be content with growing material prosperity instead. Yet, amid stagnating productivity and the fiscal austerity that followed the financial crisis of 2008, even this promise has often been broken.

That is one reason loyalty to mainstream parties is corroding. Britain’s Conservatives, perhaps the most successful party in history, now raise more money from the wills of dead people than they do from the gifts of the living. In the first election in unified Germany, in 1990, the traditional parties won over 80% of the vote; the latest poll gives them just 45%, compared with a total of 41.5% for the far right, the far left and the Greens.

Instead people are retreating into group identities defined by race, religion or sexuality. As a result, that second principle, the common interest, has fragmented. Identity politics is a valid response to discrimination but, as identities multiply, the politics of each group collides with the politics of all the rest. Instead of generating useful compromises, debate becomes an exercise in tribal outrage. Leaders on the right, in particular, exploit the insecurity engendered by immigration as a way of whipping up support. And they use smug left-wing arguments about political correctness to feed their voters’ sense of being looked down on. The result is polarisation. Sometimes that leads to paralysis, sometimes to the tyranny of the majority. At worst it emboldens far-right authoritarians.

Liberals are losing the argument in geopolitics, too. Liberalism spread in the 19th and 20th centuries against the backdrop first of British naval hegemony and, later, the economic and military rise of the United States. Today, by contrast, the retreat of liberal democracy is taking place as Russia plays the saboteur and China asserts its growing global power. Yet rather than defend the system of alliances and liberal institutions it created after the second world war, America has been neglecting it—and even, under President Donald Trump, attacking it.

This impulse to pull back is based on a misconception. As the historian Robert Kagan points out, America did not switch from interwar isolationism to post-war engagement in order to contain the Soviet Union, as is often assumed. Instead, having seen how the chaos of the 1920s and 1930s bred fascism and Bolshevism, its post-war statesmen concluded that a leaderless world was a threat. In the words of Dean Acheson, a secretary of state, America could no longer sit “in the parlour with a loaded shotgun, waiting”.

It follows that the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not suddenly make America safe. If liberal ideas do not underpin the world, geopolitics risks becoming the balance-of-power, sphere-of-influence struggle that European statesmen grappled with in the 19th century. That culminated in the muddy battlefields of Flanders. Even if today’s peace holds, liberalism will suffer as growing fears of foreign foes drive people into the arms of strongmen and populists.

It is the moment for a liberal reinvention. Liberals need to spend less time dismissing their critics as fools and bigots and more fixing what is wrong. The true spirit of liberalism is not self-preserving, but radical and disruptive. The Economist was founded to campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws, which charged duties on imports of grain into Victorian Britain. Today that sounds comically small-bore. But in the 1840s, 60% of the income of factory workers went on food, a third of that on bread. We were created to take the part of the poor against the corn-cultivating gentry. Today, in that same vision, liberals need to side with a struggling precariat against the patricians.

They must rediscover their belief in individual dignity and self-reliance—by curbing their own privileges. They must stop sneering at nationalism, but claim it for themselves and fill it with their own brand of inclusive civic pride. Rather than lodging power in centralised ministries and unaccountable technocracies, they should devolve it to regions and municipalities. Instead of treating geopolitics as a zero-sum struggle between the great powers, America must draw on the self-reinforcing triad of its military might, its values and its allies.

The best liberals have always been pragmatic and adaptable. Before the first world war Theodore Roosevelt took on the robber barons who ran America’s great monopolies. Although many early liberals feared mob rule, they embraced democracy. After the Depression in the 1930s they acknowledged that government has a limited role in managing the economy. Partly in order to see off fascism and communism after the second world war, liberals designed the welfare state.

Liberals should approach today’s challenges with equal vigour. If they prevail, it will be because their ideas are unmatched for their ability to spread freedom and prosperity. Liberals should embrace criticism and welcome debate as a source of the new thinking that will rekindle their movement. They should be bold and impatient for reform. Young people, especially, have a world to claim.

When The Economist was founded 175 years ago our first editor, James Wilson, promised “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” We renew our pledge to that contest. And we ask liberals everywhere to join us.