The leader in this week’s Economist struck a nerve. It was entitled ‘the threat from the illiberal left’ and discussed the tension between classic liberalism and the growth of more populist thinking. The key tenet of the piece is that ‘progressives’ see the foundations of liberalism are inherently biased towards those vested in maintaining the status quo – essentially those of privilege. I have a confession to make – I am a left leaning liberal. I have also been blessed with growing up in a good environment, have received an excellent education and been employed in well paid jobs. I think I can safely say that if there were a box to put me in, ‘classic liberal’ could well be on the label.
This provides me with a bit of a dilemma when faced with the arguments posed by the populists (both right and left). As a liberal I believe in fairness and free speech, yet because the fundamentals of my beliefs are flawed by being what I am, any counter argument I pose will at best be held with suspicion and at worst dismissed for lack of legitimacy. The outcome is either a non-opinion or a recognition that inherent bias means the populist must be right. As Niall Fergusan, historian at Sanford’s Hoover Institute puts it in the Economist: “The liberals defer to progressives. And the progressives defer to out-right totalitarians.”
I recall at university there was a time when I had more sympathy with such nihilistic thinking. As an aspiring barrister with a particular interest in human rights, I looked with some suspicion at the greyed bastions of the establishment and wondered how justice could be applied for all, irrespective of gender, ethnic or social background. But beyond the edifice of the legal institutions, I did – and do – believe in the underlying tenets of justice and a belief that fairness and equality will prevail. If my interpretation of the concerns of the Economist are correct, then the populists believe these principles are equally as flawed as the philosophy of liberalism.
Radical thinking and challenging the establishment at university is almost a rite of passage for most students. But as the Economist puts it “The question is whether, outside the ivory tower, the ideology with retain its intolerant and belligerent zeal or …mellow into a benign urge for society to be a little fairer.”
For whatever reason, that mellowing seems not be taking place. Instead, the anger and suspicion are entering the workplace and broader society and to deal with it anxious tiptoeing around what can and cannot be said. We seem to have moved beyond the premise of free speech where we try to decode meaning and intent and seek common ground, to one where we automatically assume prejudice and bias, resulting in polarised opinion and division.
It probably isn’t popular but I for one agree with the Economist’s sentiment, “Liberalism is still the best engine for equitable progress.”