On Friday, George Will squared off against Sohrab Ahmari in the Munk debate on “the crisis of liberalism”. But the crisis didn’t come up.
Will is a prominent conservative commentator who writes for the Washington Post. Ahmari is an author, editor and publisher who has advocated “common good conservatism”. They debated whether ‘Liberalism gets the big questions right’ at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, a British Conservative MP and the most dynamic speaker of the evening, joined Will to support the motion. Ash Sarkar, a writer and lecturer who called herself a libertarian communist (“I’m a tall short person”) argued alongside Ahmari to oppose it.
The proceedings missed the plot. The audience did not get a definition of liberalism, nor a clear sign of what the debaters believed the ‘big questions’ to be. Standard tropes littered the stage. Liberalism produces prosperity, said the Pro side, and has raised millions out of poverty across the world (true). But free trade with countries like China has decimated Western working classes, argued the Con side, who suffer from an epidemic of drug addictions and despair (also true). Sarkar turned out to be a plain old communist whose dogmatic drivel grated on the ears.
Even the quotes were predictable (Will from Margaret Thatcher: “The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money”). But the biggest problem was that the speakers equated liberalism with conditions in Western countries as they presently exist. The evening turned into a debate between champions of the current order (Will and Rees-Mogg) and those advocating for more government (Ahmari and Sarkar). Everyone seemed to agree that the West, even today, is liberal.
If only it were so. Liberalism is a political philosophy of individual freedom. The word ‘liberal’ derives from libertas, the Latin word for liberty. “Don’t tell me what to do” is the liberal mantra. Liberals – real liberals, not modern woke progressives, who are anything but liberal – believe that people own their own lives. They should buy and sell what they want, say what they think, have sex with and marry whom they please, worship as they wish, be responsible for themselves, and leave other people alone. And most importantly, they believe that the state should not interfere. Liberalism means that people are free to sail their own ships.
Non-liberal systems of government have one thing in common: some people rule over others. As Frederic Bastiat wrote, the legislator “bears the same relation to mankind as the potter does to the clay. Unfortunately, when this idea prevails, nobody wants to be the clay, and everyone wants to be the potter”. The alternative to liberalism is illiberalism.
For periods, political cultures in Western nations at least aspired to the liberal ideal. The purpose of government, says the American Declaration of Independence, is to secure individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If you live in a Western country today, you still have more freedom than most of the rest of the world at most other times in history.
But Western liberalism is fading. Over many decades, managerialism, not liberalism, has become the West’s prevailing ethos. An expansive welfare state regulates, supervises, subsidises, and controls modern life: markets and financial systems, public schools and universities, health care, media, food production, energy production, telecom services, the professions and even speech. Free market capitalism is in retreat, replaced by cooperation between governments and big business.
People are subject to the arbitrary discretion of Government agencies which pursue their own agendas. Identity politics reign and the surveillance state expands. Moreover, the public has been convinced that Government administration is necessary. Civilisation has become too complex, they believe, not to be managed by an expert bureaucracy.
Genuine individual autonomy has become so foreign to our expectations that the word ‘liberal’ now has a different meaning. To be called a liberal does not mean that you believe in liberty but in the nanny state. Today’s liberals are not individualists but ‘progressives’ seeking to shape society in their best judgement. They support higher taxes, social justice, wind turbines and non-gender pronouns.
During Covid, the erosion of real liberalism accelerated. Suddenly, in the name of an airborne virus, state authorities assumed unprecedented powers to control movement and behaviour. They imposed the most serious peacetime restrictions on civil liberties in modern history. Governments colluded with pharma companies to abbreviate established processes for developing and approving vaccines, and then to mandate their use.
In the Munk debate, none of this even came up. No one mentioned Covid restrictions. No one mentioned the decline of the rule of law and weaponisation of the legal system for political ends. No one mentioned Government censorship or media collusion. Will cited Covid vaccines – one of the most significant Government projects in Western history — as the triumph of a free market. Ahmari claimed them as the successful outcome of Government intervention. Ironically, no debate could have demonstrated better the West’s crisis of liberalism.
Bruce Pardy is Executive Director of Rights Probe and Professor of Law at Queen’s University. This article was first published by the Brownstone Institute.