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!