Why liberalism is withering on the vine

Nothing explains the looming end of the liberal vision than the naivete of two widely-held ideals. The first is Adam Smith’s. He said: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.” The other is the even more naïve slogan of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. Words which form a central part of .....
Nothing explains the looming end of the liberal vision than the naivete of two widely-held ideals. The first is Adam Smith’s. He said: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”

The other is the even more naïve slogan of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. Words which form a central part of our own preamble and which liberals love quoting even while spreading hate against those who they disagree with.

Now substitute the words butcher, baker and brewer in Smith’s quote with Google, Apple and Amazon, and see if the sentence makes sense in today’s iniquitous world. Self-interest is certainly an important driver of growth, but without the restraints imposed by a recognition of the interests of the larger community, economic freedom will be in peril.

As for the social-political ideals of the French Revolution, very few societies can claim success on all its parameters. These ideals were built on the assumption that all institutions of the past — family, tribe, religion, caste and the nationalistic state — were oppressive of the individual. Maximise individual liberties, constrain or destroy the older institutions, and — lo, behold — mankind will be free to develop to its full potential.

But these ideals have been best realised — if at all — only in small or unusually monocultural societies. Think of Nordic society, the Germans, Japanese and a few democratic Asian polities like Israel or South Korea. But they too will end up in the same cul-de-sac as (and when) they grow more diverse by taking in immigrants from all over the world. Their continuing success depends on their being monocultural.

Liberalism is withering on the vine because it has assumed away the fundamentally flawed nature of human nature, with its capacity for both good and bad. In their world view, it is community institutions of the past that were oppressive (with good reason), and once they were eliminated or rendered ineffective, liberty, equality, and fraternity will take root in any society.

In a book titled Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, explains why liberalism has gone off the rails. It has essentially been driven by the direct beneficiaries of “liberal” policies, leaving the rest of society behind.

Professor Deneen points out the essential contradiction between liberalism and the simultaneous growth of the leviathan state. Whether you are a classic market liberal who wants the state to intervene less in economic affairs and let businesses compete for customers, or a social liberal who wants the state to ensure that every individual flowers to her true potential, both end up ensuring a larger and larger state for different reasons. But the only way society can begin to love the market economy and the leviathan state is if the duo can create endless growth or seemingly infinite consumer choices.

As we saw after the 2008 global financial crash, economists from both the Left and Right sides of the ideological spectrum were baying for more state intervention. This leaves us with a question: If the state is going to become more and more powerful, how will liberalism itself survive? After all, isn’t a liberal supposed to guard individual rights against everybody, including the state? The answer, of course, will be fair rules and the law. But implementing the law needs even more resources for the state. And no law written by anyone, anywhere is devoid of influence from vested interests. The powerful always have a larger share of voice in law-making. Liberals will thus rule through authoritarian means, Professor Deneen concludes. We saw glimpses of that when social media platforms overnight deplatformed a sitting President of the US earlier this year.

Illustration: Binay Sinha
The conclusion is simple: Somewhere, between individual and state, there has to be a stronger role for community for constraining rights with community-monitored responsibility. No true free society can be built solely on the basis of individual rights.

In many ways, Raghuram Rajan tried to address this issue in his book, The Third Pillar, where he makes the point that in the liberal West, the state and markets are strong, but communities are weak. Without the third pillar of strong community bonds and capacity for action, you cannot help the poor neighbourhoods, which are riddled with crime and violence. In India, we have a different problem: Our community is still strong, while state capacity is poor and markets are imperfect even where they are functioning. And yet, liberals want to destroy the one thing we have going in our favour, our strong sense of community — from family to jati to religious identity and a linguistic sense of belongingness.

This is not a call to go back to a non-existent and “glorious past”, but a call to recognise strength where it exists. We cannot have a strong state and strong markets by weakening communities. We can restrict the leviathan state only if we empower communities to do part of the work of the state. And by community I don’t mean only those based on caste, religion, gender, tribe or linguistic affinity. Any group can constitute itself into a community, and work for its common and general interests, including providing for social security. In many European countries, voluntary church taxes can be deducted from the payroll with tax benefits. The Muslim zakat is another such idea of a voluntary tax.

A small and effective state has to be complemented with self-policing communities with their own (voluntary) tax resources. In countries with small populations (Denmark and the other Nordics), the state can substitute for community because theirs is a monoculture.

Getting to Denmark requires the effective community size for autonomous self-regulation and social security to be small. Liberalism and universalism are not going to get us there because their stated goal is the destruction of inherited community identities. The impossible trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity cannot be optimised except in small and coherent communities.
/> The author is editorial director of Swarajya magazine  



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