Challenges, challenges

Challenges, challenges

It is perhaps too easy to assume that Western democracy, capitalism and liberalism will continue to thrive and prosper, certainly in the West, and that they will continue to act as a model for countries elsewhere. To counter any complacency, here are two long-term challenges which the Western model faces.

Money or freedom?

Paddy Ashdown said that the biggest mistake the West made in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan was to fail to make the rule of law and security the first priority. Economic activity and democratic structures need this basic framework. Without it, corruption thrives and embeds itself. People need security before they can contemplate parliaments, opposition, debates about policies and all the liveliness and unruliness of a healthy democracy.

For all the risks posed by terrorism, the lack of physical security is not the primary problem for the West. But the failure to provide economic security is. Most voters are not wedded to democracy or capitalism as a matter of principle. They prefer the democratic capitalist system because it has proved the most effective way to combine relative freedom and ever increasing living standards for the widest group of people.

But what if it stops doing so? What if the fruits are concentrated in ever fewer groups, whether of people, companies or regions? What if other systems manage to provide greater economic growth and wealth more reliably and widely?

China has, after all, been very successful in extending wealth amongst its citizens and doing so without feeling the need – or being put under domestic pressure – to liberalise politically, let alone adopt Western democratic norms. It is one of the few states which has managed to clip the wings of the global tech giants. And now it is extending its reach into Africa. Why then should African states look to the West as their model? Why should the Middle East – especially after the chaos unleashed in part by recent Western interventions? Or Asia?

The US no longer seems willing to set itself up as an example. And if the Chinese model continues to succeed and the West continues to stagnate by comparison, how certain can we be that Western electorates will continue to value and maintain a system which no longer produces results – or the results electorates have come to expect? The willingness of voters to vote for unconventional leaders or movements in recent times should maybe be seen as a warning sign that results matter to voters, rather more perhaps than the theoretical elegance or historical longevity or formal legitimacy of their political/economic systems.

Diversity of opinion?

It is ironic and not a little depressing that at a time when diversity – of culture, identity, lifestyle – is so feted, diversity of opinion, beyond a relatively narrow circle of received and impeccably liberal opinion, is increasingly viewed with disdain. (Substitute “conservative” for “liberal” in that phrase and it would describe mainstream opinion in most of 19th century Europe.) Even asking a question in a university about whether colonialism might have brought some benefits seems to excite horrified disapproval.

We seem in danger of losing the belief (best expressed by JS Mill) that what our society should be and think should emerge from people, as many people as possible, expressing their views, debating them and negotiating compromises. If we determine in advance how society should be organised, what its principles and values should be and ban or ignore or otherwise make it impossible for any views which do not fit with a predetermined outcome to be heard, how can we answer the question “Why?” when (not if) it is put?

There is something very brittle and unselfconfident about a liberalism, about any dominant opinion, unwilling to argue its corner. The self-righteous intolerance of those seeking to deny others a voice is its shrill companion. In truth, both have a curiously religious approach to the idea of debate. The all too frequently used “You can’t say that.” / “I am offended” / “Bigoted” / “He’s a Marxist” / “hate speech” mantras are in danger of making mini-Torquemadas of us all.

And there is something very complacent about a capitalist system which assumes that its benefits are obvious and seems to have no answer, beyond more of the same, when those who are locked out turn elsewhere. Capitalism should have a better justification than “Well, look at how awful Marxism was.” To those contemplating a life of paying off student debt and renting, “Venezuelans have no loo paper” is an eccentrically irrelevant answer.

And yet debate, winning the battle of ideas, defeating bad ideas by putting forward better ones, by arguing for something, by arguing why – and showing, with examples – why democracy is good, why fairness matters, why discrimination is wrong, why social cohesion and looking after one’s neighbour matter, why capitalism can work and how, why free speech matters, why liberty benefits people, why the rule of law matters to all of us, why the right to own property securely is important, why the state should not be permitted to act overbearingly or retrospectively or without restraint are the only way in which our society and economy can renew and refresh themselves. Too often in recent years the answer to the questions posed (by our young, but not just them) has been “umm…” Time for a more vigorous response.


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