The liberal provocation

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 2 November 2018

“Freedom or Socialism!” Behind this battle cry, many conservatives gathered during the Cold War.

The slogan did not just unite them against their Soviet, socialist and communist enemies. It also reminded them of what they themselves wanted to stand for: the liberal, Western order.

If only today’s conservatives had a similar self-awareness.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain, conservatives first lost their traditional enemies. Then they lost the ability to define themselves.

Being a Western conservative was easier when Soviet socialism was a daily reminder of everything one was not. Conservatives stood for property rights, not collectivism. They believed in authority, not in authoritarianism. They preferred markets, not a command economy.

Conservatives, or at least conservative politicians, were no ideologues. Indeed, the essence of conservatism is clinging to the state of affairs and slowing down change. No ideology needed for that.

Seen from this angle, could there ever be a genuine philosophy of conservatism? If conservatism’s purpose was defending the status quo, then its direction would always depend on whatever happened before.

That was Friedrich Hayek’s critique in his essay, Why I Am Not A Conservative: “Conservatism may often be a useful practical maxim but it does not give us any guiding principles which can influence long-range developments.”

For Western conservatives after World War II, their political positioning was determined by three major historical developments.

The first was the Enlightenment and, at least in the Anglosphere, the age of classical liberalism, whose inheritance they set to defend. More immediately, they were struck by the twin catastrophes of national socialism and fascism. And, as mentioned before, they faced a radical challenge to the status quo in the Soviet Union and its satellites.

All three historical developments shaped conservatives into a political group that could be confused with genuine classical liberals. Both were sceptical of state power, sided with the individual and embraced capitalism.

The difference was that classical liberals defined their positions by reference to a set of values independent of historical events. The philosophy of classical liberalism had developed over centuries and it had evolved in tandem with economics.

At its core, both classical liberalism and economics had the individual making free choices. And both classical liberalism and free-market economics explained how this paradigm of choice led to individual and social flourishing.

It is an abstract way of understanding the world, and it lacks any promise more concrete than the vague pursuit of happiness.

Conservatism and classical liberalism were strange bedfellows in the late 20th century: the former an intellectually vacuous way of resisting change, the latter an abstract ideal.

But together they turned out to be the winning formula in the Cold War. And together they laid the foundations of the flourishing of globalisation from the mid-1990s.

What has happened since can only be described as a slow divorce. Conservatives and classical liberals have grown apart, not least because they have lost their common enemy of Soviet-style socialism.

Classical liberals still believe in the same things they believed in 30 years ago, 100 years ago or even 200 years ago. Their creed and their mission have not changed (and never will). What has changed are the conservatives.

At the time of the Cold War, conservatives such as US President Ronald Reagan, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and (to a lesser degree) German Chancellor Helmut Kohl found themselves aligned with classical liberals. Reagan was close to Milton Friedman, Mrs Thatcher was an acolyte of Friedrich Hayek and Mr Kohl was governing with the free-market FDP.

The contrast between those centre-right leaders and their successors today could not be stranger. These new leaders can barely be called conservatives because they have even lost the ability to define those bits of the status quo they would like to adhere to. Conservatives have renounced the principles they never really had.

In Germany, Angela Merkel has turned her party into an empty shell that occupies the noncommittal centre ground.

In the UK, Theresa May has publicly distanced herself from Thatcherism without ever offering an alternative philosophy. And in the US, it is hard to believe Donald Trump presides over a party once led by President Reagan.

Mr Trump’s populism, sympathy for authoritarian regimes and rejection of free trade are the antithesis of what the GOP stood for little more than a generation ago.

Conservative parties have manoeuvred themselves into positions that have little to do with what they once stood for.

As Mr Hayek predicted way back in 1960, conservatism “may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.”

The current political landscape leaves classical liberals not just alone but genuinely isolated. Their positions, which they once assumed were shared widely, are now exclusively theirs.

In a world of shrill political promises, they alone hang on to values and principles. Their unwillingness to enter a bidding war for political giveaways makes them appear aloof, detached and uncaring. Their values will forever be a provocation in the eyes of everyone else.

Yet it is the fruits of classical liberalism that the modern world still enjoys and takes for granted: the freedom to live one’s life as you wish, the liberty to interact with whomever you want and the individual rights to make all this possible.

Without the support of conservatives, and against the promises of other political ideologies, classical liberals must stand strong and remind the public of their beliefs or at least their existence.

Classical liberals must do it. They must do it better. Even if they have to do it on their own.