Saving Liberalism

In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
Foto: Ap
La Jornada Maya

Martes 18 de junio, 2019

In a hard-hitting speech at Harvard University recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel exhorted students to “tear down the walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness, for nothing has to stay as it is”. While she did not mention President Donald Trump by name, her speech came across as a criticism of the mindset governing US politics and a strong defense for liberal democracy that is coming under attack by populist leaders on the right and the left.

She also noted that “Protectionism and trade conflicts jeopardize free international trade and thus the very foundations of our prosperity”. This just a few days before Trump announced on Twitter that he is going to impose a 5 per cent tariff on all Mexican imports, and that the rate will rise monthly as long as Mexico does not take steps to curb illegal migration from Central America.

She went on to note that “...we can find good answers even to difficult questions...if we don’t act on our first impulses even when there is pressure to make a snap decision”. President Trump is well known for following the views he sees on FOX News or the last thing he hears from friends. His “government by Twitter” has left the US bureaucracy out in the cold, weakened US governance institutions, and left allies and foes confused and, often, angry.

Merkel will leave office in 2021, and, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s and French President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity plunging among their respective voters, there appears to be no liberal democratic leader on the scene who can lead the fight against the authoritarian populism that has erupted around the world.

What can liberal democrats do to stem this rising tide and reestablish liberal democracy as a workable governance model?

First of all, recognize that the neo-liberal economic model has failed.

According to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, “...growth is lower than it was in the quarter century after the second world war, and most has accrued at the very top of the income scale. After decades of stagnant or even falling incomes for those below them, neoliberalism must be pronounced dead and buried”.

Both personalities focused on the negative impact that today’s protectionist drive on the part of the United States and the increasing manifestations of rabid nationalism around the world don’t represent viable options if populations are to increase their standard of living and economies achieve the levels of economic growth that can provide for the services that lower income earners need not only to fashion a respectable future for themselves and their children. Governance mechanisms must also eliminate current high levels of frustration among voters that are leading to increased social and political instability.

Since the 1980’s, governments have deregulated to an alarming degree. I say alarming because although some deregulation was required to strengthen the economy and allow the private sector to grow and provide more and cheaper services to customers, a lot of deregulation has taken place at the cost of public safety. And a lot of government downsizing has put public safety and health at risk.

Education has also been hard hit. In many jurisdictions, budgets have been slashed, meal allowances for poorer students reduced or eliminated, and after-school programs cut. In the Canadian province of Ontario, the new Conservative government has cut 3500 teaching positions, increased classroom size, and reduced the after-school programs that provide children with training in sports and the arts, and keeps them away from street gangs engaged in violent crime.

So, what is required to correct the abuses of the neo-liberal model?

I believe that we need engaged government and responsible capitalism on the part of the private sector.

Capitalism creates wealth and produces the jobs we need to ensure personal and economic growth.

But the neo-liberal interpretation of health and education expenses being costs is wrong.

In any prosperous society, health and education are major investments in the future of economies and citizens. They provide the wherewithal to compete physically, mentally, and intellectually, in an increasingly complex economy. The private sector must work with government to ensure that the work-force is healthy and well educated, works in a safe and clean environment, is capable of facing the technological challenges we all face, and able to change their sectors of expertise as economic and industrial conditions change.

As well, ignoring environmental concerns as the Trump administration and other conservative governments in North America have done puts at risk the health and well-being of all citizens and will have a negative impact on future economic activity if it is not addressed now. Climate change is real and threatening, and political leaders who simply decide to ignore the science are not only worshipping at the altar of ignorance, but are also ensuring the eventual destruction of human society.

Yet another challenge facing the United States is the exponential increase in the public debt resulting from the massive tax cuts that the administration has given to the wealthy while cutting essential services to the middle and lower classes. Yet, as President Trump has been quoted in the Daily Beast on December 18, 2018, when discussing the future impact of current challenges, “I won’t be around to suffer the consequences”.

This is definitely not leadership. Yet many voters and legislators in the US follow this policy blindly, with a “damn the consequences” attitude.

As stated above, some aspects of de-regulation have provided a welcomed boost to the global economy.

Free trade has created new markets and additional wealth, and communications technology has created new and exciting industries.

But globalization has also created massive dislocations in the job market, leaving many marginalized citizens unemployed or under-employed precisely at a time when governments are cutting costs in education and social welfare benefits.

It has led to the unequal distribution of its benefits, with the wealthy getting richer, while the middle and lower classes face declining standards of living and reduced opportunities.

This has led to voter frustration that has increased the power of populist politicians to attract votes and take power democratically, with a resulting weakening of democratic institutions in many countries and the establishment of stronger and sometimes violent divisions along ethnic, racial. or religious lines.

As well, the weakening of multilateral institutions through political criticism and budgetary constraints is limiting the ability of these institutions to address and mitigate the effects of communicable disease and environmental degradation.

Stiglitz has some answers that bear analysis.

In his view, “A comprehensive agenda must focus on education, research and the other true sources of wealth. It must protect the environment and fight climate change with the same vigilance as the Green New Dealers in the US and Extinction Rebellion in the United Kingdom. And it must provide public programs to ensure that no citizen is denied the basic requisites of a decent life. These include economic security, access to work and a living wage, health care and adequate housing, a secure retirement, and a quality education for one’s children”.

Is Stiglitz’s proposal too much of an economic or political challenge?

Can common sense override the ideologies of the right or the left that only lead to stagnation and division?

Is it too late for liberal democracy?

I would hope not.

There are examples of liberal democracy modernizing its vision and policies in creative ways. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern performed brilliantly in her handling of the massacre of Muslims in a Christchurch mosque recently and attracted global interest and praise for her leadership abilities.

On May 30, 2019, she introduced her government’s budget that focused on the “wellbeing” of her country’s citizens over economic growth or other priorities. She announced that her government would focus on mental health services, child poverty, homelessness, and domestic violence.

She noted that “One message I want to repeat is this – I have always said that politics is all about priorities. You have a limited budget and you have to try and balance the need to grow the economy, create jobs, balance the books, and look after our people and our environment”.

New Zealand Finance Minister Grant Robertson noted that ““For me, wellbeing means people living lives of purpose, balance and meaning to them, and having the capabilities to do so. This gap between rhetoric and reality, between haves and have-nots, between the elites and the people, has been exploited by populists around the globe.”

Indeed, Canada’s Liberal government created a Child Benefit Program that has raised over 800,000 Canadians out of poverty since 2015.

Creative ideas and political strategies can address the attraction of populism as some leaders meld the inclusion of all citizens in the governance process while respecting fundamental democratic institutions.

If other liberal democratic leaders don’t emerge soon, if governments do not take steps to address the problems that face many of the dispossessed around the world, and if the private sector doesn’t undergo a change of mindset and realize that the course that we are on currently leads to nowhere, voter frustration may lead to populist victories, and we may be in for increasing social and political turmoil.

There are alternatives.

What is required is leadership with vision to develop and implement them.