In an article published by the Financial Times (FT) titled “Liberalism will endure but must be renewed”, the writer Martin Wolf explained the meaning of liberalism, and how it links to economic performance and democracy.
Mr Wolf said that in order to understand the meaning of liberalism, one has to first forget what they know about liberalism – the opposite of conservatism.
“This is a uniquely American meaning that makes sense in the unique American context: immigrants who founded their new state on a set of liberal ideas – liberal in the European sense, in opposition to authoritarian,” he explained.
When it comes to the origin of the word, the root word in liberal is libel – which is the Latin adjective describing a free person, the opposite of a slave. Basically, liberalism is not exactly a precise philosophy, but rather an attitude, where liberals belief in “individual human agency” and that human have the capacity to decide things for themselves.
“This belief has radical implications. It implies the right to make their own plans, to express their own opinions and to participate in public life. These attitudes were realised in the system we call ‘liberal democracy’, wrote Mr Wolf.
He also noted that individuals who support liberalism “belief that agency depends on possession of economic and political rights”. However, agency also rely on “markets to co-ordinate independent economic actors, free media to allow the spread of opinions, and political parties to organise politics”.
Mr Wolf added, “Behind these institutions are values and behaviours: the distinction between private gain and public purpose needed to curb corruptions; a sense of citizenship; and belief in toleration.”
Liberalism relates to prosperity
It is explained that certain liberals believe more in economic freedom and oppose an active state, whereas others support equality among citizens and dread plutocracy. However, Russia’s Vladimir Putin despises the idea of liberalism as he has formed a system that is controlled by his cronies, favouring their unlimited power over the state.
Mr Wolf also noted that economic and political freedoms tend to go hand in hand, probably because they both follow the rule of law. “Liberalism, so measured, is associated with prosperity: liberal society tend to be rich and rich societies tend to be liberal.”
Based on the chart, Singapore ranked the highest, scoring average growth of GDP per head at 100,000. Other advanced countries that are below Singapore include Ireland, Norway, Hong Kong, the US and the UK.
However, Mr Putin has turned away from liberalism and this caused Russia’s economy to be in a poor condition. Although the gross domestic product per head is less than half US level, average of GDP per head between 2009 and 2018 was only at 1.8% per year. In fact, Mr Putin has placed Russia in the world stage in an attempt to divert Russians’ attention away from “his regime’s corruption and its failure to give them a better life”.
However, liberalism has its share of problems, especially on their ability to absorb immigrants and manage inequality. This needs to be managed, or else, people may be unhappy and this will give power to those who hate liberal democracy.
“Liberalism may be much the most successful approach. But in many liberal democracies people, especially elites, have forgotten the balance that needs to be stuck between the individual and society, the global and the domestic, and freedom and responsibility,” wrote Mr Wolf.
As such, he highlighted that liberalism “requires constant adaptation and adjustment”.
“Mr Putin has no idea what this means: he cannot conceive of a social order that does not rest on force and fraud. We know better. But we also need to do better — far better,” he said.