Defend Truth


Western liberalism is screwed, and we’re worse off for it


Natale Labia writes on the economy and finance. Partner and chief economist of a global investment firm, he writes in his personal capacity. MBA from Università Bocconi. Supports Juventus.

Something has gone awry with notions of Western liberalism. Fundamentally, classical liberalism holds that universal respect for individual rights, the rule of law, open markets and restrained government interventions are the most effective driving force for economic and social progress.

One need not be an ardent Thatcherite to argue that these have historically been prerequisites for peaceful, sustainable and equitable societies. For much of post-World War 2 Western political and economic thought, this was the orthodoxy.

Debates and reforms around policy and ideology – essential parts of liberalist philosophies – tended to operate on where one positioned oneself on the market-versus-state continuum, from north European social democratic liberalism through to Reaganist market fundamentalist libertarianism. These were healthy and vibrant debates of degrees and extents, not ham-fisted narcissistic confrontations.

How things have changed. It is no surprise to see that liberalism is under attack from “outside”. China has branded it decadent and unstable, while Vladimir Putin has been even more explicit, exclaiming that “liberalism has become obsolete, it has outlived its purpose”, in a now-famous interview with the Financial Times.

But what is surprising is that liberalism is under attack at home and indeed from within western political establishments.

Nowhere is the fight fiercer than in America where, clearly, it is the Trumpian right that is its most dangerous threat. Such populists vilify cornerstones of liberal thought (such as science and the rule of law) as elaborate façades of the deep state against “the true people”. Liberals, a term that seems to have no correlation at all to the original meaning of classical liberalism, are branded as enemies of social order itself.

However, it is the left – also dubbed the “illiberal left” – that has started to denounce those same tenets. Seemingly spreading from elite universities, graduates have taken ideological purity and an agenda obsessed with a narrow vision of obtaining justice for oppressed minority groups as being more important than the principles of liberal thought. It is not through “cancelling” those with whom one does not agree that liberal ideas can flourish; indeed, quite the opposite is essential for the liberal reforms and debates on which social development is predicated. A “confessional state” is merely the flip side of the same populist coin as Trump.

Milton Friedman once wrote, “a society which puts equality before freedom will end up with neither”. He was right. So the question must be, why has this happened?

Seemingly, it is this reactive world we live in where populists and progressives feed off each other’s misguided arguments. There is no room for pragmatic policy-based discussions – you are either in my camp, or in the other, all while the hatred that each tribe feels for the other inflames its own devotees.

In similar ways, liberals in South Africa find themselves at a moment of intense crisis. South Africa, clearly, has had a complex and largely fractious relationship with liberalism, such is the reality of the South African political economy. But that does not discount the important role liberals have played throughout the modern history of South African politics and economics.

Before democracy, it was the liberal agenda of the Progressive Party of Helen Suzman and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, who were the only opposition to apartheid in Parliament.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the hard-line Westminster-style liberal tactics of Tony Leon that ensured free markets, privatisation and making SA a business-friendly destination for investment were topics of discussion. Although they were not times of agreement between the DA and ANC, at least they were moments of essential debate.

All of which makes the paucity of such discussions from contemporary South African “liberals” eminently depressing. The DA, which should be championing what many South Africans want – the rule of law, respect for individual rights, an open-market economy conducive for growth and restrained government interventions – seems to have sacrificed such levels of debate for the fleeting temptations of the dark and dingy cesspit of Twitter and vicious infighting.

The disputes over billboards in recently traumatised parts of the country indulging in what can only be called racial vote-baiting is the most recent and extreme example of that – the “wokerati” progressives against the “true” liberalist populists.

Van Zyl Slabbert and Suzman would surely struggle to understand and recognise what has happened to these self-appointed heirs of the South African liberal tradition. Sadly, as in so many parts of the world, the battle of true South African classical liberals has never seemed harder.

This remains a cause worth fighting for. A sizeable portion of voters in the western world and indeed in South Africa – from across all parts of society – surely agree that it is the very least they can expect from their political representatives. DM168

Natale Labia writes on finance and is a partner in Lionhead Capital Partners.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • Denzyl Harper says:

    The way of the west is hampered by many underlying scenarios chipping away at it armour. Take asylum seekers seeking greener pastures there, where their countries of abode are disintegrating, non functional, plagued by factionalism and wars, idle economies or just plain greed and corruption amongst those elected into levers of power, whatever those may entail. Trump, Thatcher and Reagan all were the darlings of Wall Street, London Mile, Paris and Bonn financial markets. They stood up and crushed the overbearing workforce wanting an equatable share of the capitalist dream and pie. These and the likes of Conservatives in all the western world still rule the roost to this day. Communism and socialism have been the arch enemy of capitalism from inception. These isms bang heads constantly, albeit China has branched out and expanded its Ism to include a measure of lucré to boot, that it now wants to reign in those amongst top earners so as to spread the pie amongst the workers and people at large. The west understandably has its eyes craned wide opened on Ping, wondering what the heck he is up to, testing supersonic ballistic rockets that can be reused or loaded with nuke heads. The trade wars at play are but the beginning of eventual full blown hostilities to come, if the yellow haired Oldman gets his second term, albeit in split form. Biden needs to chart the upcoming US elections well to give the world a chance at peace. Trump’s roller-coaster ride, even with europe, bodes ill.

  • Craig Ulyate says:

    Complex topic. We are very definitely in a battle for equality vs freedom. And are very obviously short of leaders and clear thinkers on both sides of our political podia.

  • District Six says:

    Freedom and equality are two sides of the same coin; not binary opposites. There can be no true freedom without equality; and no true equality without freedom. What we are seeing is the corruption of liberalism as me-myself-I libertarianism. This is certainly the DA’s problem: it is unable to distinguish between the two.

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