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The Waning Fortunes of Classical Liberalism

Classical liberalism is in the worst shape since I began these year-in-review columns. Some may blame this radical decline on the President, certainly no classical liberal. But that would be wrong. Classical liberalism faces stronger headwinds than Donald Trump and they extend far beyond the United States.

The United States

Domestically, the greatest danger to classical liberalism is the sharp left turn of the Democratic Party. This has been the greatest ideological change of any party since at least the Goldwater revolution in the Republican Party more than a half a century ago. Not only is an avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders, a serious candidate for the President, he has pulled other Democrats along toward his positions. Elizabeth Warren, until recently the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, is the second most radical contender in the last five decades. She demonizes people who have made a lot of money, wants to control the health care system, expand social security with new taxes, and force corporations worth more than one billion dollars in equity to serve the interests of ill-defined stakeholders rather shareholders and take direction from directors elected by employees. Ramesh Ponnuru has rightly characterized Pete Buttigieg as Warren-lite. For instance, he too wants Medicare for All–but not just yet. The danger to long-term innovation in health care, however, comes just from the prospect of future government control as it dries up investment. Warren and Buttigieg threaten the rule of law as well—a core pillar of classical liberalism—with proposals to change the membership of the Supreme Court by statute.

It is certainly possible that such candidates will lose to Joe Biden or that they will not win against Trump. But they are transforming the Democratic Party just as Goldwater did the Republican Party. And the Democratic Party will win the presidency at some time in the future. Recessions and voter fatigue guarantee rotation of parties in office.

Great Britain and Europe

And in Great Britain, the nation besides America that has historically been the best home of liberty, the similar drift of the Labour Party and the waning of Thatcherism in the Conservative Party show that we are dealing with a decline in classical liberalism that far exceeds any one leader’s power to cause or correct. The Labour Party has moved farther left than the Democrats, combining massive spending plans with new plan for nationalization, including the telecom industry. To be sure, because of the utter incompetence of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the party lost this December’s election badly, but no one thinks that the party will reinvent itself again in the manner of New Labour, the avatar of a left party that had made its peace with the market economy.

The Conservative Party has also drifted away from classical liberalism, with plans to grow the state through a blizzard of new spending largely paid for by the kind of borrowing the conservatives condemned in the years of the previous Labour government. Boris Johnson’s victory speech had not a word about limited government or competitive reforms of public services. Instead, it was all about plans for what he proudly terms record spending. Johnson has been a great champion of Brexit, but he seems content to move Britain closer to the model of a continental European economy, all on his own—without any help from the EU.

And that continent—never very friendly to classical liberalism—is certainly not embracing it either. The best parts of French President Emmanuel Macron’s reform agenda—on pensions and taxes—is stymied by huge protests in the streets of French cities. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who moved her party away from free market economics and openly calls for more restrictions on speech, has left the Christian Democratic Party in bad electoral shape. Italy has a government of the left with a wholly populist opposition on the right that has no plan for market reforms that the nation desperately needs to rid itself of a corrupt political and patronage system.

The Adversary Culture

Old ideas of individual liberty are under threat in the culture as well. On the left, identity politics continues its relentless rise, particularly on university campuses. For instance, history departments, like that at my own university, hire almost exclusively those who promise to impose a gender, race, or colonial perspective on the past. The history that our students hear will be one focused on the West’s oppression of the rest rather than the reality that its creation of the institutions of free markets and free thought has brought billions of people out of poverty and tyranny that was their lot before. And it has extended by journalists eager to promote that version of history, most notoriously in the New York Times’ 1619 project. How will classical liberalism survive in the future if the left has control of the narrative of the past?

On the right, many of its most assertive voices are calling for national or social conservativism to replace the fusionism that married concern with liberty and respect for tradition. It is hardly clear that whatever its philosophical merits, of which I am doubtful, that this can be a winning coalition.

Difficulties in Good Times, Likely Worse in Bad Times

And perhaps most worrying of all, both the political and cultural move to the left has come about when times are good. Previously, pressure on classical liberalism most often occurred when times were bad. The global trend to more centralized forms of government and indeed totalitarian ones in Europe occurred in the 1920s and 1930s in the midst of a global depression. The turbulent 1960s with its celebration of social disorder came during a period of hard economic times. Moreover, in the United States, young men feared they might be killed in faraway land for little purpose.

But today the economic is good, the best it has been in at least a decade. Unemployment is at a historical low. Wages are up along with the stock market. No Americans are dying in a major war. And yet both here and abroad parties that want to fundamentally shackle the market economy are gaining more adherents. If classical liberalism seems embattled now, its prospects are likely far worse in the next economic downturn or crisis of national security.

The President, to be sure, is no constant friend of limited government. He has rejected entitlement reforms and runs a budget with continual deficits projected into the distant future. He has agreed to new trade agreement with NAFTA that requires foreign nations to pursue substantive social policies—a position that classical liberals have rightly rejected. But classical liberals are wrong to focus so much on lapses of a particular President rather the generally unfavorable currents. My New Year’s Resolution is to identify the deeper forces arrayed against liberty and suggest new forms and programs for classical liberalism to address them. I hope other friends of liberty will join me.

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