Book Reviews

The Rumors Have Been Exaggerated

Two new books, by Edward Luce and Bill Emmott, are part of a larger trend of writers and pundits overstating the decline of western liberalism.

By Charles Kenny

Tagged BrexitDonald TrumpEuropeLiberalismUnited KingdomUnited States

The Retreat of Western Liberalism by Edward Luce • Atlantic Monthly Press • 2017 • 234 pages • $24

The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea 
by Bill Emmott • The Economist • 2017 • 256 pages • $28

Over the last two years, a small majority of British voters, alongside a large minority of Americans, went to polling stations and stabbed ballot pencils in their eyes. The British opted for disengagement from the European Union while Americans voted to make Donald Trump their President. In both cases, there is growing evidence of buyers’ remorse. In turn, this has generated the demand for an explanation to the following question: Why are we facing a seeming crisis in democracy? Two high-quality products to meet that market have been written by respected British journalists Edward Luce (of the Financial Times) and Bill Emmott (formerly of The Economist).

Both The Retreat of Western Liberalism and The Fate of the West see Trump and his European confreres, including Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage, as symptoms of an underlying malaise. And the authors both share the fear that Western liberalism has been weakened and requires immediate repair if it is to survive. They have a point, and both argue it cogently. But both—and Luce especially—meet the demand for explanations of civilizational doom too well. For all the horrid idiocy of Brexit and the Trump Administration, reports of the death of liberalism are exaggerated. If anything, the combination of democracy, respect for individual rights, and broad economic freedom continues its slow progress toward global ubiquity. And if politicians in the United States and the UK professed greater faith in liberal institutions themselves, perhaps they could avoid a repeat of 2016.

As you would expect from their authors’ pedigrees, both Emmott’s and Luce’s books read beautifully. The Fate of the West looks at recent political and economic trends across countries. The middle chapters study the United States, the UK, Europe, and Japan as problem cases, yet another chapter juxtaposes these with more hopeful developments in Sweden and Switzerland. The book is a trove of information on what worked and what didn’t in policy reform across this swath of economies. The shorter Retreat of Western Liberalism, which focuses primarily on the United States, is the best kind of polemic: engaging yet combative and wide-ranging.

Emmott and Luce present many similar signs and symptoms of breakdown. The Retreat points to lower workforce participation, the opioid epidemic, the rise of insecure jobs in the gig economy, growing income inequality, and increased inheritance of that inequality across generations. The Fate discusses the economic sclerosis created by large firms that exert inappropriate control on their regulatory environment, the gap between older employees on full time contracts with over-generous pensions and younger workers on temporary and part-time contracts with few benefits, and weak tax and education systems.

Luce and Emmott also agree that the principle cause of crisis lies within. Behind liberal democracy lie two “lodestars,” suggests Emmott—openness (to new ideas, new elites, new opportunities) and equality (not only of wealth but of voice, rights, and treatment). In the United States and Western Europe, equality has eroded, leaving the majority aggrieved by the beneficiaries of openness. Similarly, Luce proposes that what has been lost “is the public’s trust that societies are all in this together.” The crux of the West’s crisis is that “our societies are split between the will of the people and the rule of the experts—the tyranny of the majority versus the club of self-serving insiders.”

For all of the common ground, The Retreat and The Fate differ in their sense of the depth and breadth of the malaise. Francis Fukuyama’s End of History makes its (inevitable) appearance in both books and illustrates this gap. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy was the end point of human evolution and the final form of human government. Emmott broadly agrees that nothing new has come along to rival liberalism and democracy, even if we haven’t seen “the full demise of the old alternatives.” But for Luce “[w]e can no longer have any confidence” that the whole world craves to be Western.

That difference spills over into their views about the future. Luce predicts the retreat of liberalism may turn into a rout. Automation and competition from China means that the downward pressure on middle class incomes in the coming years will be “relentless.” “[T]he surge of bytes in a networked world favors cyber chaos,” he argues,” we are entering a period where instability is growing and the center will struggle to hold.” But perhaps no one will notice: The Internet has propelled us into Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and we are too busy watching YouTube to care about the liberal order’s imminent collapse.

Luce’s policy prescriptions focus on further retreat from the liberal high ground: not least, abandoning what he calls “the drive to deep globalization.” In particular, he calls for tighter controls on the movement of people. “Europe should have secured its external border before it scrapped its internal ones,” he claims, because the region “does not have the capacity to absorb millions of Africa’s economic migrants.” While he calls for universal health care in the United States as well as greater rewards for the technical and service jobs performed by the middle class, he rejects a universal income, worrying it would encourage immigrants and might create a “kind of Hunger Games, in which the poor are kept afloat while sating themselves on dog-eat-dog reality entertainment.” It is a powerful image of bread and circuses for a declining empire in the digital age.

Emmott is comparatively optimistic about the future, and holds closer to the values often espoused by his former employer The Economist. He suggests that openness is at the core of what “Western” means and what makes it worthy of our protection—while equality is what is needed to make it last. He presents robots as an answer to the challenge of an aging workforce and notes “when technology develops incrementally, even if rapidly, the effect is not a shock but an adjustment.” More broadly, he sees some progress against the forces that concern him: New labor laws in Italy that trim the rights of full-time permanent workers while giving increased protections to younger employees, a “flexicurity” labor system in Denmark, Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement in France.

Emmott’s vision for a domestic agenda on both sides of the Atlantic includes improved access to education, higher inheritance taxes, deregulation of professions and employment, and better regulation of banks. But he still suggests that openness without policies supporting equality can create political backlash so “not everything has to be open, all the time.” On immigration, he echoes Luce in suggesting that phased, rather than immediate, introduction of free movement of people would be better for future EU members (though it is perhaps a sign of optimism that he thinks there will be new members at all).

Both books are calls to arms, and rallying cries don’t do well with caveats. This risks painting too grim a view of the world at present, as the authors are aware. Luce warns that journalists are “liable to over-interpret the latest big thing.” Emmott notes that the Trilateral Commission issued a report in 1975 on The Crisis of Democracy; the end of liberalism has been long forecast.

This nod to past existential concerns regarding liberal democracy leads to the hope that current pessimism may not age well. Already, both Trump’s election and Brexit are looking a little less apocalyptic than a few months ago. The incompetence of the U.S. Administration has blunted its impact. Courts have reined in some of Trump’s immigration restrictions, Congress is restraining some of his cuts and is providing cover to independent investigators. And it is still possible that Brexit will not happen—at least opinion has turned against a “hard Brexit” that would have meant no access agreements with the European Union. Even with such an exit, predictions are that it will shave a few percentage points from the UK GDP. Not good, but not a civilizational collapse. That is to say nothing of the thumping victories of Emmanuel Macron in France and Justin Trudeau in Canada, or the recent defeat of extremist parties in Austria and the Netherlands.

And the idea of liberalism remains in reasonable shape worldwide—although Fukuyama himself is perhaps less confident about his thesis than he once was, it still has legs. The World Values Survey of attitudes across the planet suggests we are slowly converging toward common opinions on liberal values. Take the statement “democracy may have its problems, but it’s better than any other form of government.” World Values Surveys responses in favor of that statement ranged from 81 percent in the former Soviet Union to 92 percent in the West in the middle of the last decade. Since the turn of the millennium, progress toward democratic governance has indeed flat-lined according to most available measures, but we are still close to the all-time peak, far higher than during the Cold War.

It isn’t just about the ability to vote, either: There is growing global commitment to liberal values of equality as well. Take views toward homosexuality: Again according to the World Values Survey, the proportion of people who thought homosexuality was never justifiable has dropped from an average of 59 percent to 34 percent between the early 1990s and the turn of the last decade. That matches heartening worldwide progress over the past twenty years toward legal recognition of gay rights, including in North America and Europe, but also in Uruguay, Taiwan, and South Africa. Globally, we do still face an immense amount of homophobia, sexism, racism, and nativism. Illiberal democracy is strong. But the long-term trends toward inclusion are positive, not negative.

And while Luce worries that support for democracy has “plummeted across the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall,” that might be overselling things. Take attitudes toward having a strong leader who does not have to answer to parliament or elections: According to the World Values Survey, 80 percent of Germans thought this was a bad idea at the turn of the millennium, although that number dropped five percentage points by this decade. In the United States during the mid-1990s, 71 percent opposed, now that number is 63 percent. A worrying decline to be sure, but hardly a plummet. And there has never been a time with more widespread equality of rights and treatment in the country—compare that to the Jim Crow era, or before the Equal Pay and Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, or even before the 2015 Supreme Court decision that declared same-sex marriage the law of the land.

Legal changes, once again, reflect broader changes in attitudes. Take racism: Support for interracial marriage in the United States only crossed the 50 percent barrier in 1997. It is now at 87 percent. Hate crimes in the country fell by almost half between 1994 and 2015. The percentage of Americans who think immigrants strengthen the country through hard work and talents has climbed from 31 percent in 1994 to 59 percent in 2016 (although the uptick in support is concentrated amongst Democrats).

This last statistic suggests that anti-immigrant views aren’t quite the inevitable mass response to the growing challenge of inequality that the media might have us believe. Indeed, data for the United States and the UK illustrate the fact that these are the attitudes of an aging and shrinking minority. Fifty-five percent of retirement-age voters supported Donald Trump—that compared to 31 percent of those aged 18 to 29 (the old in America have long been more right-wing, but this demographic gap is growing). Brexit votes similarly skewed toward the elderly. And as Emmott points out, retirees cannot justify their move to the political extremes as resulting from increased dispossession—they are a group cosseted with guaranteed pensions and free health care. Nativist pandering isn’t aimed at the left-behind, and most of those left behind know it won’t help them.

More positive attitudes toward liberal values—especially among the young—might, in part, reflect material circumstances that are not quite as grim as suggested by The Retreat. Globally, the last twenty years have seen the fastest reduction in absolute poverty ever. Economic performance in Europe and America, meanwhile, has lagged. But while Luce points to stagnation in incomes for most people in the West over the past three decades, it is perhaps better seen as a slowdown from historically unprecedented growth of the post-war period. Economists Branko Milanovic and Christoph Lakner look at the incomes of those in the 81st to 90th percentiles of global income distribution in 1988, a group predominantly made up of the poorer half of Western countries and former communist nations. Income growth for that group was about 1 percent a year over the subsequent 20 years. That is a cumulative total of around 20 percent between 1988 and 2008—less improvement than the bulk of those below them in the global income distribution as well as the world’s richest ten percent, but not nothing. (U.S. median household income in particular did decline in the fourteen years between 1998 and 2012, but it has largely recovered since then.)

This somewhat more positive view extends to a number of other measures of the quality of life. Luce notes that, since 1985 in the United States, the cost of higher education and health care has exploded. True, but thanks to the lower cost of food and other manufactured goods, alongside policy reform like the Affordable Care Act, it is also the case that more people can afford them (if accompanied with greater student debt). The percentage without health insurance has fallen from 15 percent to 9 percent between 1997-2016, with the most notable decline coming after 2014. With the failure of Congressional efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, that number should stay depressed. Meanwhile, the percentage of 18-24 year olds in college in the United States climbed from 31 percent in 1989 to 41 percent in 2015.

Although there is continued belief in liberal values across much of the West,  political leaders in parts of Europe and America still do face a credibility problem. Only 20 percent of Americans think that government in Washington can be trusted to do what is right most of the time. But we first hit the one fifth nadir more than two decades ago, and both numbers look grim compared to a peak under President Johnson of 77 percent. The festering war in Vietnam followed by Watergate cratered faith in the federal government well before the end of the Cold War. That suggests incompetent and immoral leadership was the initial cause—it had little to do with recent trends in inequality or migration, let alone the financial crisis. And surely the constant drumbeat of more and less credible stories of corruption since the 1970s—from Iran Contra through Vince Foster and Monica Lewinsky to Katrina and Iraq, fake birth certificates, and Libyan cover-ups—has played some part in convincing people that incompetence and immorality have remained a problem.

If economic arguments are insufficient to explain the rise of Trump and Brexit, it is doubtful that economic policy responses alone will be enough to adequately improve future political outcomes and restore trust. That might also take a change in the way politics is done. It should come as little surprise that political candidates who traded on half-truths and regularly cried liar at their opponents had little credibility when it came to calling out the serial fabulist Donald Trump, or that British politicians who delighted in disparaging Eurocrats were less than convincing on the calamity that would be Brexit. Those who compete for office by running against Washington, Westminster, Brussels, and “the swamp” should not be surprised when they are viewed as part of the problem once they themselves finally take up residency in that swamp. Policy reform mustn’t be forgotten, but political leaders must learn another very simple lesson as well, if they are to restore trust: Stop talking and acting in ways that suggest they are unworthy of it.

While both The Retreat and The Crisis might be over-pessimistic about the last few years and what they portend for liberal institutions, Luce has a warning for the more optimistic among us: He reminds readers of how before World War I there was a sense in the West of unending progress backed by decades of peace. He quotes Keynes in the inter-war period: “We were not aware that civilization was a thin and precarious crust.” No one who has lived through the last 24 months in Europe or the United States should be sanguine about the inevitability of liberal progress. But two narrow victories of illiberal forces in Britain and America cannot justify a panicked retreat from the openness that has driven so much global progress.

Read more about BrexitDonald TrumpEuropeLiberalismUnited KingdomUnited States

Charles Kenny is senior fellow and director of technology and development at the Center for Global Development. He is the author of Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding and The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Great for the West.

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