“The Retreat of Western Liberalism” by Edward Luce of the Financial Times is well worth reading.
It analyses the causes of the loss of trust in the modern world.
Elites are under fire. Experts are not trusted. Business is not trusted. The media are not trusted. The young do not trust the old, and vice versa.
Increasingly, our societies seem to be torn, between the will of the people and the rule of the experts.
The world has 25 fewer democracies that it had in 2000. Voters have become consumers of politics rather than active citizens. Political parties have become hollow shells.
International tension is rising, notably and dangerously, between the United States and China. Popular feelings are driving diplomacy.
Luce claims that the secret of any nation’s diplomatic character is embedded in its popular imagination, as illustrated by British popular attitudes to the EU, and Chinese attitudes to Taiwan.
Popular opinion in China and the US holds very different notions of fairness in international relations and trade. National pride can induce people to make foolish decisions.
In the US and the UK, income inequality has risen dramatically, although this trend is less marked in other free market economies.
There is no one to speak for those left behind because, according to Luce, the
“Western Left has abandoned the politics of solidarity to embrace that of personal liberation”.
Individual rights trump solidarity with neighbours.
The author identifies what he call “welfare chauvinism” in Western Europe as being behind hostility to immigration.
Europe has only 7% of the world’s population, but over 40% of the world welfare spending, and its voters are reluctant to share the welfare benefits with newcomers.
He says the
“link between benefits and citizenship should be restored”.
GROWTH IN QUESTION
The strongest glue in society is economic growth. Choices can be made without anyone losing, when the economy is growing. For example it is very hard to introduce pension reforms when the economy is stagnant as President Macron is discovering..
Since the crisis of 2008, the notion that it is natural and inevitable for the economy to grow, once set free, is under deep challenge. Even negative interest rates are not enough to get firms to invest as much as they used to. Productivity per worker is suffering.
Luce writes of the “toil index”, the number of hours an American worker must work to pay the rent, and says it has risen from 45 hours per month in 1950, to 101 hours today. I suspect the toil index has risen in most countries, as more and more people move to cities.
Growth, purchased at the cost of a loss of security and community, is unacceptable to many, especially to those who lose their jobs.
Luce feels that the elites in Western countries do not empathise with these popular anxieties, and this is creating a divide in society. He is right.
Growth purchased at the cost of climate damage has become unacceptable to many others.
Indeed it is hard to see how there can be ANY overall growth in global income per head, if the rapidly growing populations of Africa and Asia are to be accommodated at an acceptable living standard, in a carbon neutral world.
Windmills and solar power will not be enough. The intense rhetoric about climate change is not matched by realistic plans, that people might actually vote for.
That has huge implications for domestic politics in western countries. Once the rate at which the cake is growing gets slower, the more bitter become the disagreements about how to divide it up.
Luce says the technological advances that sustained rapid economic growth from 1870 to 1970 have run their course. They were an abnormality. The world economy hardly grew at all in the 1500 years prior to 1800.
The lack of economic growth lies behind the bitter partisanship in politics in some countries (notably the US and the UK). Luce’s critique has its greatest relevance to the United States, where he works, and to the UK, from which he originates. It is slightly less relevant to continental European countries where there is greater social security. But the underlying forces he describes work there too.
He prescribes no readymade solutions. That is for the politicians!