Gongol.com Archives: May 2022

Brian Gongol

May 11, 2022

News Liberalism on the march

Mass political movements that center on an individual are almost always noxious. While a politician usually has to demonstrate some kind of personal charisma in order to win votes, it is for very good reason that the phrase "cult of personality" is an epithet (and a pretty catchy song by Living Colour). Any thoughtful examination of a real personality cult reveals enormous potential (if not propensity) for abuse and a fundamental impermanence. All charismatic leaders must eventually pass. ■ But the basic safeguard against any such personality-driven movement is a functional system of representative government in which ideas and policies take center stage, rather than especially dynamic individuals. One of the main difficulties lies in branding what that is. Historically, that idea has been called "classical liberalism", or simply "liberalism". ■ The misapplication of the word to mean "left of center" in the United States has gone on so long that the word is badly tarnished; people who are most accurately described as "right-liberals" (like Churchill, Hayek, and Friedman) would have to explain what exactly their "liberalism" means to a modern American audience. And in the words attributed to Ronald Reagan, "If you're explaining, you're losing." ■ The word "liberal" has been morphed into an epithet from the left, as well. Groups like the Adam Smith Institute and the Progressive Policy Institute have adopted the word "neoliberal" as, basically, a freshened adaptation of classical liberalism. And in return, they have been pilloried by leftists as "disenfranchisers, failures, and elitists. ■ To defend the tenets of liberalism (whether neo- or classical) is to accept a certain dissatisfaction: If matters are fairly decided among lots of people with competing interests, nobody ever really gets everything that they want. ■ And, contrary to more utopian visions of how the world works, from communists to radical traditionalists, the liberal perspective makes no assumption that there is some perfect end in mind. Old problems will sometimes come to unsatisfactory conclusions, others will linger while experimentation seeks an answer that works, and new problems will emerge as both society and technology change. ■ That's a pretty difficult vision to sell on the basis of outcomes, but the classical sense of liberalism is tethered to the principle that the process matters as much as the outcomes, if not more so. ■ That's why someone of a liberal temperament is sure to be offended at how China has stripped Hong Kong of its self-government, turning over the election of the Chief Executive (in a place with 7.5 million people) to the votes of a specially-selected class of Communist-approved "patriots" who could fit inside the suites at a game of the Minnesota Twins. The resulting Chief Executive could be as gifted a politician as Abraham Lincoln himself, and the contamination of the process would still outweigh any good resulting from the outcome. ■ It may well be that liberalism simply has to be rebranded periodically, while holding tight to the tenets that make it functional. That appears to be the lesson of France's En Marche, a young movement/party that has successfully rebuffed an anti-liberal far-right when conventional parties could not. Perhaps liberal movements can only be sustained by periodic turnover and replacement, or by focusing on targeted outcomes and systemic reforms that can appeal to voters who get the itch to replace the status quo. ■ If processes matter fundamentally even more than outcomes, then it might just be that the only way to consistently keep a classically liberal system on the march is to be willing to engage in periodic metamorphosis just to stay sufficiently fresh. The fundamental principles remain recognizable, no matter what label we put on them.

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