Few countries in the developed world eye liberalism with such scepticism as we do. I’ve never quite understood this fear. In part this comes from the misidentification of liberalism with neoliberalism, two radically different political propositions, but which seem to be equated in the minds of most of our citizens. Liberalism does not aim to destroy the social welfare state. It does not aim to ally itself with the rich or big capitalist interests at the expense of the poor. It is not impervious to the suffering of the more fragile members of society.
On the contrary. The social welfare state as we know it, was created by liberals and not social democrats or socialists as is often thought. There is no confessed liberal thinker, past or present, no existing liberal party, that does not continue to defend a social state, where certain key services, like health and education, need to be provided by the State. John Maynard Keynes, a great defender of public investment and an accommodating fiscal and monetary policies to achieve full employment was a confessed liberal. Sir William Beveridge, the architect of the English “welfare state”, who set out to abolish what he considered the five evils of society, namely: “want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness” was a member of the Liberal Party and not the Labour Party.
Equally, there is no liberal thinker that does not defend a strong State. A strong State is essential to guarantee the rule of law, equality of all before the law, an efficient and impartial judicial system, and to oversee the proper functioning of a free market when faced with market failures – be they in the form of the provision of public goods, concentrated market power, asymmetric information or negative externalities. No liberal believes that a free market left to its own devices allocates resources perfectly at all times. Corrections need to be made. Excessive deregulation ultimately leads to an inefficient market, one that accentuates inequalities and that ultimately works against one of the central principles of liberalism: where each individual should be empowered to realise his/her full potential.
The equivalence between liberalism and neo-liberalism has been one of the most successful public relations campaigns that the socialist party and their more radical left-wing friends have consistently carried out. We all know that “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Perhaps this goes some way in explaining why referring to someone as a liberal in our country is almost an insult. The irony is that in all the countries we aspire to be like – Germany, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Sweden and so forth – there are strong liberal parties. At the same time, they all have higher levels of social justice, there is greater respect for the rule of law, less corruption, and citizens profess greater levels of happiness and wellbeing. In short, liberalism, be it political or economic, does not equate to social injustice.
I’ve also never understood why public sector workers would have a greater understanding of the common good. What makes them more enlightened? It is true that they are not motivated by the profit motive like the private sector. But equally, they often find themselves captive to clientelism, vested interests and party politics tribalism, none of which have the common good in mind.
The belief in progress and that we can build a better world is central to liberalism. Classical liberals are committed to individualism, liberty, equal rights, limited government, open markets, equality of opportunity and the common good. Individualism does not mean that we have a licence to do as we wish and disregard the well-being of others. Unfortunately, most people are only aware of the “invisible hand” analogy of Adam Smith (the father of our modern-day market economy), whereby the market would ensure that the pursuit of self-interest would ultimately produce socially beneficial effects. In his earlier lesser known work, “A Theory of Moral Sentiments”, Smith noted that: ”no matter how selfish we suppose man to be, there is obviously something in his nature that makes him interested in the fortunes of others, and makes their happiness necessary to him, even if he derives nothing from it other than the pleasure of seeing it.” Although Adam Smith would write about the role of self interest in human affairs, he regarded the attempt to explain all of human action in terms of self-interest or self-love as patently absurd. Man is not only driven by greed, but by belonging and esteem. He values loyalty, fairness and mutual obligation. Smith was actually a strong precursor of public education.
Individualism affirms that we are all born with certain inalienable rights, that despite our differences we all have equal value and the right to exercise agency. A good society is one that permits individuals to pursue their own ends and to reach their maximum potential. As a rule, individuals know better than the State what is best for them. This does not mean that they won’t commit errors. But they should have the freedom to do so as long as they do not harm others.
How do we secure such a society? Liberals believe in constitutional governments, checks and balances, the rule of law, equality of all before the law, and the existence of certain inalienable rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom to own property and so forth. They believe in a strong and effective State, to secure these liberties, but they also recognise that the State can pose a threat to liberty. A healthy balance needs to exist between State and civil society.
Liberalism has always been an engine of change. It holds a strong faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform. Liberalism made the modern world, and for all its imperfections, human beings have never had it so good. It was the free market and globalisation that enabled millions to escape from extreme poverty. Steven Pinker in his highly acclaimed book “Enlightenment Now” argued against a commonly-held public perception that the world is in a terrible place. In the industrialised world “people will sooner die of obesity than starvation.” Compared to the mid- nineteenth century, people live longer and healthier lives. Global life expectancy has risen from a little under 30 years to over 70. Literacy rates are up more than fivefold. Civil rights and the rule of law are incomparably more robust than they were only a few decades ago. In many countries individuals are now free to choose how they live – and with whom. All this was achieved through reason, science and liberal humanism.
True liberals contend that societies can change gradually for the better and from the bottom up. They differ from revolutionaries, of the left or right, who insist that to build a better world you first have to bring down the one in front of you. They differ from conservatives because they assert that aristocracy and hierarchy, indeed all concentrations of power, tend to become engines of oppression. The end of slavery, decolonisation, women’s rights, racial desegregation, and most recently the LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter movements were able to occur because of the liberal ideal.
What should be the role for the State? This pandemic has once again brought this question to the centre of the political agenda. António Costa believes it has exposed the utter failure of neo-liberalism. In all truth, we have never had excessive liberalism – let alone neo-liberalism – in Portugal. What we do have is excessive statism, a State that complicates the lives of its citizens with its excessive bureaucracy, “overlapping” institutions and excessive taxation given our current income per capita. As a result, the State is ineffective at attracting productive foreign and national private investment, innovation and progress. Above all we have a State blinded by its ideological bias that private enterprise is bad and a threat to the common good.
At the same time, we have a weak State, one where the judicial system is inefficient and ineffective and where the regulatory authorities have failed time and time again, yet are never held to account. We have a State that believes its role is to run enterprises instead of establishing clear rules. We have a State that only believes in redistribution (and fails miserably at that), overtaxes its citizens, consistently runs huge deficits, is riddled with clientelism and cronyism, and prefers a weak civil society that is highly dependent on it.
I believe in a strong State, that can guarantee the rule of law and an efficient judicial system, one that believes in and encourages a robust economy, and that is at the service of the community. I believe in a State that is inclusive, can guarantee equality of opportunities for all, that assesses its public policies according to whether they work and not according to abstract ideological doctrines. The State should not be the motor of the economy. It should empower the individual and the private sector, encourage national and foreign investment through competitive fiscal policies and scrap unnecessary regulations. If we were to compare a liberal State to a top athlete, what we see in Portugal is a State that is more akin to an athlete that is both overweight and slow.
We have a large deficit in investment and capital, especially national capital. We are losing our more qualified young professionals that seek better opportunities abroad. A country that already has an underqualified adult population, compared to our European counterparts, cannot afford to lose talent, skills and qualifications. It needs to reskill and upskill its adult population. Without a robust economy, we cannot have a Social State that invests in health, education, social services or takes care of the more fragile members of society effectively. There is no social justice without the creation of wealth.
Revolutionary zealots of the left or right have never managed to improve equity nor contribute much to social justice. Where the judicial system is ineffective, corruption is rewarded. I believe in an open society, one that is not blinded by ideological dogmas. A society with a robust market economy and an effective social welfare state. A society that invests in its citizens, knowing that they are our most valuable asset. A society that cares for those unable to care for themselves. If all this makes me a liberal, then I am proud to be one. Personally, I think this it’s just common sense.