The Crisis of Social Liberalism – And Why We Need More of It


This article reflects my personal opinion.

On Friday was the inauguration of the new US president, Donald Trump. His speech, invoking a homogenous movement of the people, bore testimony to the threat that his presidency will constitute to a liberal society. He is the spearhead of a multifaceted right-wing movement that is on the rise in most Western countries. Many narratives have been conceived to explain this uprising. One states that modern social media tend to promote fake news and right populist explanations for complex problems. Others include rising nationalist sentiments and aggravating economic inequality. However, while all of these narratives have a true core, what unites all of these new political movements is their promise of change, their promise of overthrowing the existing order. The condemnation of “the liberals” and “the elites” has been commonly looked down on as only appealing to the bigots, the ill-educated, the “deplorables”. What is often ignored are the real inconsistencies and weaknesses of the established system and the fact that in many countries, there is no real political alternative addressing these issues. Make no mistake, most movements representing the “New Right” exhibit an appalling lack of cogent concepts, many disgustingly coquet with racism and use the calculated breach of taboo as their main means of advertisement and all of them have a distasteful style. But their political attacks can only be as rewarding as the systems they are aimed at are frail. Unfortunately, modern Western societies, frequently characterised by the term “Social Liberalism”, are neither very social nor exceptionally liberal.

The fundamental idea of liberalism is that humans are a priori free and any political authority restricting this freedom has to be justified. This core belief has built the foundation for the social contract theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau and was vital in the triumph over the feudalistic systems of the Dark Age in Europe. Deriving from this, classical liberalism asserts that only in a free market economy, guaranteeing uncurtailed property rights, can man really be free. In the  late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the advancing democratisation and the simultaneous aggravation of economic inequality gave rise to the ideology of social liberalism. Under this doctrine, it is the government’s task to enhance the liberty of its citizens by intervening in the economy to avoid unjust outcomes. It encompasses the belief that humans can only be free if they have the social abilities to develop unfettered. Today, social liberalism is often seen as the leading ideology in the Western World and is characterised by an economy that combines a free market system with a welfare state and state-run regulation and by the protection of civil rights. However, today often times the economy is collectivist where it should be liberal and left alone where it should be regulated and too often, civil rights are put up for negotiation while controversial opinions too easily trigger a false alarmism. These  weaknesses build the kernel of truth that new right-wing movements can exploit when they populistically criticise “the liberals” for their alleged excessive political correctness, hypocrisy and harmful multiculturalism.

The socioeconomic framework today is far more equalising than it was more than a century ago, when social liberalism started to rise. Social security, universal health insurance (sorry, US) and pension systems have improved the lives of millions. However, this advancement seems to have stalled in recent decades. In most countries, the power of workers’ unions have been eroded, top income taxes been cut, capital and inheritance taxes been abolished and lobbyism and cronyism facilitated. But at the same time the economic systems have become more illiberal in other aspects, with tax systems becoming evermore complex, social security systems becoming more patronising, countless subsidy systems being implemented as clientele presents and thousands of regulations chasing after the utopia of total security that can never be achieved. Even truly liberal ideas like free trade agreements have become a farce, shrouding the implementation of secret courts that undermine democratic rights. In the European Union, the central bank has installed a de-facto fiscal union without its citizens’ approval that inhibits individual nations’ recoveries and benefits the shareholders of banks. Yet, in most Western countries there is not a single established political party that offers a new social liberal alternative to this system. Lacking a political option that promises to make the distribution of wealth and income more social and the economic evolvement and political decision-making more liberal, it should not come as a too big surprise that voters are attracted by socialist or nationalist movements.

But it is not just in economic matters that social liberal ideas are betrayed. Also in civil matters they are violated by the accumulation of government power and the lack of defence for liberal ideals. Predominantly as a reaction to the rising threat of global Islamist terrorism, Western authorities gather more and more information of its citizens and foreigners, both legitimately and illegally. Benjamin Franklin’s quote has been used many times and was originally intended for another context but it remains true here nonetheless:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

It is worth noting that a measure that would likely be more expedient, namely a better equipped and better manned police force, is often made impossible by the lack of financial resources due to missing tax revenue and an inflated bureaucratic apparatus.

At the same time, governments are patronisingly trying to protect their citizens from themselves, in what often seems like a desperate effort to erase every potential hazard. Under liberalism, any authority restricting man’s freedom has to be justified – if there are no obvious externalities, the government has no business in regulating its citizens’ behaviour. For example, it might be justified to forbid smoking in public offices, but in their home everybody should be allowed to smoke as much as they please (smoking might be a little more expensive for the health care system but it surely is cheaper for the pension system). The culmination of this over-regulation is the unspeakably harmful war on drugs and all its side effects (which is at least slowly getting better in a variety of countries). A more ludicrous example is the suggestion of mandatory sugar warning labels on sweet groceries.

Liberalism is the torchlight of reason that once expelled the feudalistic reign of the Dark Age that had been justified with religious fairy tales and loyalty to tradition. Considering this, it seems ridiculous how vehemently many self-named liberals try to deny the social influence that culture and religion can have. During the recent influx of refugees into Europe, for a long time leading European politicians denied the fact that the inflow of millions of traumatised muslims might increase the threat of Islamist terror. One can accept this threat and other problems and still think that refugees should be taken in and provided with shelter (as I have argued before). Any religion that claims that infidels will burn in hell, dictates its members how to live and despises those who leave it, contradicts liberal values if it is practised just a little seriously and influences a community’s interactions. To deny these issues means to take the people for idiots and to play into the hands of the simplifying populists. You can believe all you want and say all you want but if you restrict the rights of your children or whomever because your imaginary almighty friend told you so, a liberal society should make it quite clear that you are at fault. At the same time, a liberal society has to treat everybody equally and with the benefit of the doubt, no matter whether they find peace of mind in God, Allah, Buddha or Netflix. Cultural tensions will not go away by pretending they do not exist and if there will not be an open public dialogue, the only people who will be heard are those who scream in panic.

Liberal societies have to face the problems that the corrosion of a cohesive Leitkultur entails. The waning influence of Christian religion, Western tradition and national identity has made room for a mainstream nihilism that scares many people and makes them long for a deeper meaning. This void has to be filled with new passionate liberal values. The disintegration of the traditional family and the blurring of gender roles has robbed many of the feeling of emotional security that a hedonistic society fails to replace. The development towards a more liberal society is gratifying but comes at a cost. Only those who openly communicate the price of liberty can be perceived to be credible.

Related to the common avoidance of cultural matters is an issue that many call Political Correctness that often hinders an open public discussion. I want to make clear that so far, there is no such thing as “liberal censorship” and it is beyond me how the followers of new alternative movements do not get the irony when their leaders claim on national television that they are not allowed to say anymore what they just said ON NATIONAL TELEVISION. There is a difference between not being allowed to say something and being widely criticised for saying something. And often times, the conservatives’ perception of an unfair treatment is due to the fact that to the privileged, equality can feel like oppression. Nevertheless, in Western countries there is a development towards a mainstream consensus that denounces a wide array of alternative opinions as borderline racist or offensive and often avoids a true discussion. Let me exemplify this with two recent controversies.

During the US presidential election, there has been somewhat of an outcry in the media about the fact that Trump said in an interview in 2004 that pregnancy is an inconvenience for a business. What do those who are offended by this statement think that a pregnancy of one of their employees means to a business under current laws in most countries? It is a reality that even in 2017, a pregnancy most often generates additional costs for a business. If you do not like that, try to change it. Call for your politicians to improve paternal leave programmes, buy at companies that have child-friendly employment policies and support a culture that accepts the fact that children are a society’s most important asset and have to be priority number one. It is meaningless to fall into a sense of alarmism when somebody addresses this issue. There are a thousand stupid things that Trump has said, but this is not one of them.

In 2016, a leading politician from the Alternative for Germany commented that the use of firearms is a country’s last resort to protect its borders from illegal immigrants. This was answered by most established German parties with allegations of racism. Now you might think of this obviously calculated breach of taboo what you want. But why should the parties in power automatically have the moral high ground and the support of the media in this matter? These are the same parties that finance a brutal president in Sudan in order to stop immigrants and pay a Turkish despot for closing his borders and likely protecting them with the use of firearms if necessary, that encourage the delivery of guns into war zones and actively support countries that have killed thousands of civilians in an illegal war on terror. Why should the consideration of the use of firearms at national borders be inherently so much worse than the actual bombing of numerous countries? Might it be the case that some self-named liberals only take an issue with the use of violence if there is a high chance of pictures of it appearing in their voters’ Facebook timelines?

The world is not all sunshine and rainbows and societies always have to choose from imperfect options. But if there is no open, liberal public discourse about the darker sides of society, self-imposed taboos will always be exploited by populists. It is no wonder that a bullshitter like Trump who ostensibly “tells it like it is” succeeded in a country that tries to manage the balancing act between universities with “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and at the same time a military that drops three bombs every hour of every day in shady wars.

Social liberalism has achieved great things for the citizens of many countries. The rise of democracy, equal rights for women and minorities and the acceptance of homosexuality come to mind regarding civil matters. Economic achievements include health and unemployment insurance and progressive taxation. However, in recent decades, over-regulation and -bureaucratisation have made the economy illiberal and tax cuts for the rich have made it unsocial in all the wrong places. Moreover, civil rights are being stripped for a false feeling of security and a wrong sense of moral superiority has led the politicians and many journalists to suffocate a truly liberal public discussion. If the rise of more loud narcissist populists into power is to be avoided, voters have to be offered an alternative that again embodies social liberal ideals. I’d like to conclude with words from a man wiser than me (a US president who knew how to give an inspiring inaugural address):

“If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all-except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the Bill of Rights is the guardian of our security as well as our liberty.” – John F. Kennedy

Cultural References

Music –Jimmy Hendrix – Freedom, Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Nine Inch Nails – We’re in this Together

Film – Killing Them Softly, Good Night and Good Luck

Written by Jonas


Author: Jonas Send

I share my creative writing - currently working on a novel. I analyse current topics that interest me in opinion pieces and share my research in economic articles.

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