What is liberalism? To an American audience, liberalism means, broadly speaking, the left wing of politics. US Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, for example, has been described as “too liberal to get elected in Denmark” and, along with Elizabeth Warren, one of the “most liberal” candidates.

In Europe, liberalism seems to have a different meaning depending on the specific national political context. In Germany, for example, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) is considered a centre-right, classical liberal party supporting free markets and limited government. Other liberal parties, however, such as the Danish Social Liberal Party, often emphasise social liberalism over economic liberalism to a greater or lesser degree.

What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Gabriella, who argues that liberalism, as an ideology, has failed comprehensively. She thinks that “extreme liberalism” has “killed” traditional social and family values, and made drugs, alcohol, and single-parent households more common. Has liberalism destroyed really social values by emphasising individual freedoms?

To get a response, we put Gabriella’s comment to Daniel Kaddik, Executive Director of the European Liberal Forum, a political foundation affiliated with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party. What would he say to Gabriella?

I would ask her: when have people ever been as free as they are right now? You have all these opportunities people couldn’t dream of even a few decades ago, nobody is telling you how and what you have to be. Has it ever been the case that we’ve had this much freedom? And, in the past, when you did have more restrictive regimes with so-called family values, when was there ever a time that these values were adhered to? Alcoholism existed long before the present, for example. If you look at the good old times, don’t forget that, in Europe, women were not allowed to work without the consent of their husband or father. People were imprisoned for wanting to be in consenting relationships. People were forced to take a job or barred from others – often by their family or the state. Were these really such good old times?

Of course, we have challenges to confront today. We are exposed to so much information and choice, but is it really worse? Or do we have the opportunity to make the most of our lives? Finding out what that is and working for it, that is the challenge. Would you rather live today, or 50 years ago when you, as a young woman, would not be allowed to do anything without the consent of your father? A world in which progress was hindered by social norms is, I think, not a world many of us would want to live in.

Other readers, however, were more critical of economic liberalism than social liberalism. For example, we had a comment from Christos complaining about “ultra-liberal nut jobs” that put citizens “at the mercy of markets, the big companies, [and] multinationals”.

Is Christos’ criticism more about so-called “neo-liberalism” than mainstream European political liberalism? How would Daniel Kaddik respond?

I think one of the major problems is that people need to put a label on something, so they are able to express their thoughts. Neo-liberalism is something completely different from what many people think it is. Neo-liberalism is the new school of liberalism that wants to position the state as the referee in the game. It wants to have some form of social welfare state. The German social market economy is a neo-liberal concept.

On the one hand, I find it quite bemusing, but on the other hand I think it’s quite worrying that citizens associate liberalism with these dangerous things. You don’t want to be at the mercy of the market, but then who do you want the referee in your life to be? If you want a strong state, you are at the mercy of a state that tells you what to think, what to do, where to go. I lived in Eastern Europe, and citizens were told by the state what to do, to think, to say. Is that what you want? Or do we want something enabling freedom and progress, which is the free market? Without the free market we wouldn’t be communicating like this right now online. Most of the jobs in Europe today are a result of the free market. It is easy to say we are at the mercy of the markets, but all the good things around us come from the ingenuity of people who were able to make use of their opportunities offered by a liberal society. Yes, I agree we need some sort of social welfare system, but we do not need a state to tell us what to do.

Finally, for another perspective we put Christos’ comment to Jürgen Martens, a member of the German Bundestag for the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).

How did he think this negative image of liberalism as an ideology has come about? And can it perhaps explain the FDP’s poor performance in the recent 2019 German state elections?

No, the state election results for the FDP were the result of specific conditions in those states. It was about whether the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) or Social Democratic Party (SPD) would win as parties of the middle, or whether the Alternative for Germany (AfD) would win as a right-wing populist party. In such a situation, the Liberal parties are out of the public eye. So that is specific, not based on the bad image one tries to impose on the party from the outside. I believe that where Liberals espouse their perspective with rational policies, they continue to have good electoral chances.

Has liberalism failed? Is political liberalism too socially liberal? Too economically liberal? Both? Or neither? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

Image Credits: Public Domain – Pixabay (pdz51); Portrait Credits: Martens (c) Team Martens; Kaddik (c) European Liberal Forum

20 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar

    It hasn’t failed, but it slowly being replaced from the inside by marxism and internationalism. Classical liberalism has strong patriotic and nationalistic views and throwing those away is not the right way forward for the European states.

    • avatar

      we are talking about economic liberalism here

    • avatar

      Not only. Read the whole text. The question is general about liberalism in Europe.

  2. avatar

    Social liberalism is riding the wave right now. It can be dangerous in certain cases, cause it can take society to lose certain values.
    Economic liberalism has failed. Not everywhere, but surely in certain social democratic countries

  3. avatar

    Liberalism from economic perspective is something in between,but we can see transmutation of the radical left that later grow to something crazy like Social Justice Warriors and continue with to mutate even further to more radical movements that getting more to Communism side. I have a book that is 100 years old and even in those times it predicted the problems of this ideology. To bad still many people are blind and don’t see it.

  4. avatar

    Describing political views with only one-word labels has failed long ago, so the question in the topic is pretty unclear. What do you mean by liberalism? Do ee have it in Europe?

  5. avatar

    Completely… human stupidity took over normal values under the name “liberalism”.

  6. avatar

    In our opinion liberalism still exists because if you think, many years ago you could not go out without the head of the family’s permission and women could not have a job because they had to take care of the house and family.

  7. avatar

    The fact that you can ask this question on social media with minimal interference clearly shows it hasn’t .

  8. avatar
    catherine benning

    And Liberalism is? Subjugation!

    The previous poster is totally correct.

  9. avatar

    Liberalism… the ability to recognise and respect other viewpoints. If it has failed then that would mean what, we do not tolerate other opinions anymore? Nope, I would saw we have information overload as humans and those who are ‘new’ to the internet are just pushing back and ‘reclusing’ a bit

  10. avatar

    Has it failed? NO! We have a very balanced, healthy and prosperous world for everybody

  11. avatar

    In the current form liberalism in the EU is equal to Marxism and Bolshevism

  12. avatar

    Did we try it yet? Must have missed it.

  13. avatar

    The quasi-hegemony which liberalism enjoyed since the late 80s-early90s and with the current phase of globalization, also bears the seeds of its decline. The* question that should preoccupy us is, what the alternatives will be, especially since nothing is to be expected from either the old (working class) or new (bohemian yuppie) Lefts. Sure a number will emerge. But at present it is not clear which ones.

  14. avatar

    Sometimes I feel that people crave security rather than freedom.

  15. avatar
    Catherine Benning

    Liberalism has failed drastically in the UK. We have been taken over by a strange kind of ‘non democracy’ not previously known of or realised by our indigenous population. It has left us in a peculiar kind of no mans land legally and in respect of our governing body.

    The people in our parliament are lacking any sense of responsibility or even knowledge of our constitutional history or its purpose. Or, if they are aware of it, it is so distorted from the way it used to be administered we are now unable to function as a proper civilised first world country. This is directly as a result of being signed up to European rule. We have lost our instinctual compass.

    Our society does not work as it was set up to do prior to entry into this new unsustainable system emanating from Europe. The subjugation of our laws and practices because of incoherent breaches of democracy in the European expectations. The EU style oppressive government, is basically unelected. Therefore the uncontrollable management we presently witness in the UK should be a lesson to the world on the real motive described as Liberalism. We were historically a unified, stable and thriving people, with a sound economy. We now flounder, without sensible direction or appropriate vision of a future suitable for modern scientific lifestyle.

    The new leader of our Liberal Democrat Party is an infantile, sobbing individual, unable to remain directionally focused on policy and clearly inadequate as a capable choice for leading a political party of any kind. She is seen as suitable to use by those in Brussels who push us to remain in their incoherent mess It is suggested by media her husband has a company paid 3.1 million GBP by European sources within that union.

    The Withdrawal Agreement or really the new Treaty offered by Brussels is so destructive to those Liberalists in our HOC, it cannot be passed. Even should it be able to get through our system, it is not Brexit in any shape or form. We shall, in fact, be tied into the same subjugation entered by previous administrations the voters now want to completely disassociate from. And are desperate to dismantle this enforced, impractical political strait jacket European ‘Liberalism’ has entwined us in.

    Of course it has failed. Just look at the UK. And I believe this obvious enforcement seeping from Europe is both intentional and purposefully disabling. What we pay, in the billions for this incredulity, is a direct result of being stuck with forty years of fraudulently imposed legislation, via those intent on our cultural destruction. It simply cannot be otherwise. I do not believe the European administration is oblivious to its progress.

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