Liberalism must not surrender to the populist tide

It is now something of cliché, and not exactly wrong, to say liberalism and globalism are in retreat as populist nationalism is in the ascendancy. Fortunately, it is probably hyperbolic to think we’re seeing the end of liberalism or the death of Western civilisation. Still, protectionism, industrial strategy, and nativism have tragically blundered back into respectable discourse and seem set to shape policy and political culture in the immediate future.

This raises the question of how liberals should respond. Simply defending the status quo is unsatisfactory for a few reasons. Although globalisation, open markets, trade, and migration have made the world an infinitely better place over the last thirty years (and, indeed, the last three centuries), widespread dissatisfaction cannot be ignored. That is, unless you take Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign or the end of David Cameron’s career as models of success.

Secondly, liberals should not view the status quo as wholly acceptable on our own terms either. The idea of ‘neoliberal hegemony’ has always been something of a myth (or an outright lie). Regional trade agreements are, at best, a poor substitute for non-preferential multi-lateral free trade. Pernicious and nonsensical regulations have continued to restrict and distort markets, with occupational licensure and planning restrictions being obvious examples. And almost all developed countries continue to have convoluted, inefficient, arbitrary, and perverse tax regimes.

Equally liberals should not simply compromise with and capitulate to populism. If ‘protecting liberalism from itself’ means closed borders, ‘strategic’ protectionism and interventionism, disdain for the judiciary and the rule of law, the annihilation of privacy, and normalising ethno-nationalism, it’s not clear that there’s anything left that’s worth protecting.

Nevertheless, if only for pragmatic reasons, neoliberalism cannot be, and more importantly cannot be seen to be, inflexible market fundamentalism. It is arguable (though far from clear, let alone certain) that free trade does not benefit everyone, even if it clearly provides net benefits for each economy as a whole. But, rather than meekly accepting that this means that ‘reasonable’ protectionism can be acceptable, we must argue for distinctly liberal responses. For instance, providing a basic income could ease any transitional periods of structural unemployment for workers formerly employed in uncompetitive industries.

Similarly, we can recognise issues like in-work poverty without capitulating to socialist illiteracy or nationalist xenophobia. There are reasonable neoliberal responses, such as introducing a Negative Income Tax and abolishing, cutting or raising the threshold of National Insurance. Populist concerns can be recognised, without populist values or solutions being validated or respected.

At the same time, a radical and unapologetic defence of globalism, free markets, consumerism, and liberty is needed now more than ever. Just because alternatives are being advanced, it does not mean they have even a sliver of merit. And just because economic self-harm and cultural degeneration are fashionable it does not mean it is wise to accept this and follow suit.