A Thin & Precarious Crust – Threats to Liberal Democracy

This is another newsletter from my new book Beautiful Lies [in sidebar]. It’s a review of an important book by journalist Edward Luce about threats to liberal democracy,  The Retreat of Western Liberalism. He works for the Financial Times, and is such a good writer.

I like reading this book because our opinions are quite similar, but he has much better evidence. Of course that is the perfect example of confirmation bias in action, but it’s not like we have the same start-point. Since my opinions are largely derived from understanding people, values and change while his come from extreme exposure to global business elites, I reckon we might be onto something.

Our Shared Opinions

What I particularly like is that he seems aware of most of his [and my] personal biases. For example, he critiques ‘smug’ meritocracies as leading to the growing phenomenon of ‘hereditary meritocracy’. People who initially succeed by merit, pass their advantages onto their offspring and a new caste develops.

He also argues that, however great the impact of the current technological revolution has been, it’s not the greatest. The scientific and technological revolution of the late 19th and early 20th century had much more impact on our lives. It gave us:

“Commercial electricity, the internal combustion engine, penicillin, synthetics, refrigeration and the telephone – to name just a few of the new wonders [that] turned life inside out”

A Future War With China?

Luce has worked in different parts of the world and it shows. He writes with more clarity about global economies than most Western authors – especially Americans.  For example he give due deference to China for its rising global economic influence. Lest we forget: “in terms of purchasing power parity – measured by what you can buy in the local currency – China’s economy surpassed the US in 2014.”

He points out later that this rapid rise is incredibly dangerous: ‘Historians call it the Thucydides trap, after the Greek historian who chronicled Sparta’s response to the rise of Athens. How does the established power react to the rise of a potential challenger? . . A 2012 Harvard study examining fifteen such instances since 1500 found that in eleven cases the trap had culminated in war.’.

Threats To Liberal Democracy.

The best thing about this book is that it helps you to think big things through. There’s room to insert your own prior knowledge into the mix. Overall Luce seems to identify three key threats to liberal democracy.

The first is the decoupling of the link between social democracy and national wealth. Countries like China have shown you can have wealth without very much political freedom. Faced with a choice of being rich or being free/equal/outspoken, more people seem to be choosing to follow the money.

The second is the growing division between the haves and the have nots in democracies – and the fear and alienation that grows as a result. Luce documents steeply rising costs of housing and education [and of health care in the USA]. He also points out the enormous contempt that wealthy people have for the poor and alerts us to the new term ‘oikophobia’. Say it out loud.

The third threat is the mess that the USA has made of its role as post-Cold War superpower. He means not just militarily [for example in the destruction of Iraq] – but also economically. Luce reflects that the GFC was not in fact a global phenomenon. Along with other parts of Asia, China continued to grow and build its economic ties with the rest of the world.

Are We Water-Spiders Too?

The thing that resonated most strongly with me concerned a paper that John Maynard Keynes gave in Bloomsbury in 1938. He was reflecting on life before the first World War. This life provided, ‘at a low cost and with the least trouble, conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages’.

Luce writes: ‘Looking back, Keynes saw himself and his generation as”water-spiders, gracefully skimming, as light and reasonable as air, the surface of the stream without any contact at all with the eddies and currents underneath”’.

Keynes told the assembled listeners:

‘We were not aware that civilization was a thin and precarious crust erected by the personality and the will of a very few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skilfully put across and guilefully preserved’.

Earlier in the book, Luce, referring to whistle-blowers from the Nixon era, had written:

‘There is no way of knowing how many Felts, Throwers and Walterses are lurking in Trump’s Washington. But their stories remind us that it is character, rather than laws, which upholds a system.’

We have just witnessed another election in New Zealand, one of the staunchest Western democracies. But even here, neither compassion for the poor nor fear of the social effects of inequality seem to have been sufficient to sway enough of those who already ‘have’ to vote against their class interests. Most of us recognise that “there’s a lot of people worse off than me”. But perhaps that is more of an expression of smugness than compassion.

In The End It’s All About Vigilance

Luce ends his book conventionally enough with THAT quote by Benjamin Franklin: ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance’. His last words urge us [the liberal elites] to be very aware of the path to tyranny:

‘Someone once said that the difference between erotica and pornography is the lighting. There is an equally hazy line between illiberal democracy and autocracy. We will know the difference when we see it.’

That’s a bit glib from a person who can also envisage a scenario where Trump leads the world to the brink of a cataclysmic war with China, only to be reined in by Putin. But failure to stick the landing should not stop you from admiring Luce’s deep insights. Don’t think of it as a document of despair. Consider it a moment of truth.

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