Abstract painting of subject, generated by DALL-E 2

Why liberals lose

29 Jan 2010 - Bruno Prior

I have been lucky enough to be involved in several discussions recently in small, ostensibly-liberal* groups including some leading figures in public life and other fields. They were all private gatherings, and some were under Chatham-House Rules, so I am not going to talk about the content or the individuals, but about a depressing conclusion, which the combination of experiences makes it hard to avoid.

Most of these supposedly-liberal figures are not really liberal. They talk a good game about the generalities and principles of smaller government, but when you push them on the details, they object to the government's winner-picking not on the basis that it's not what governments should or can do effectively, but on the basis that they believe the government has been picking the wrong winners. They have a list of their own winners, and believe that picking winners would work fine if only the government took better advice (i.e. picked their winners).

That is depressing enough - that in a society where self-professed liberals are probably in a minority, only a minority of that minority really are liberal. But that is just the context, not the truly depressing conclusion.

I have seen it said, and believe it to have more than a grain of truth, that one reason why (real) liberals lose is that liberal beliefs are ill-suited to the political fight. The liberal believes in other people's rights to do and say what they want, and respects contrary opinions. His respect for reason, principle, freedom, and the rights of the individual means that the ends can never justify the means. The socialist, or conservative or other authoritarian, believes himself to be possessed of moral superiority over his opponents, that the purpose of government is to steer people towards outcomes that are good for them (whether or not they realise it), and that the ends therefore often justify the means. While the liberal tries to achieve his ends armed only with his powers of persuasion, the authoritarian uses whatever means he judges effective to achieve his ends, without worrying about treading on toes and breaking eggs. Collateral damage is a price worth paying. He will gather many people to his side by such means as self-interest, fear or appeal to base emotions, and undermine his opponents by such means as misrepresentation or tricks of rhetoric and false logic, while the liberal struggles to persuade many people to his view.

That also is depressing, but is also not the depressing conclusion I have in mind. After all, having realised this, the liberal may (though rarely does) alter his approach. I, for one, have no problem with the illiberal imposition of liberal policies. They may not realise it, but those liberals who are not prepared to bite that bullet might as well give up on political delivery of their ideals. They are unlikely to achieve anything other than passing on their ideas to the sympathetic minority.

As I listened to the pseudo-liberals at these gatherings, with their pet technologies or solutions, I began to realise another reason why it would always be difficult for genuine liberals to gain enough political support to implement a genuinely liberal programme. One pseudo-liberal's magic bullet is rarely contradicted by another's magic bullet. But they are both contradicted by the real liberal's opposition to all magic bullets.

The pseudo-liberals can deploy the "politics of -and-", while that luxury is not available to the real liberal. If one pseudo-liberal likes coal and another likes nuclear, they can agree that the government should promote the use of coal -and- nuclear power. The real liberal cannot compromise in the same way. There is no meaningful trade-off to be had. They cannot agree to have no winner-picking, but also to pick coal (or nuclear) as a winner.

Of course, the "politics of -and-" dissolves once in power, faced with the reality of budget constraints. (The pseudo-liberals and authoritarians never have properly understood the concept of scarce resources.) So they compromise again and have (in their respective views) not enough coal and not enough nuclear, but (through the alchemy of taxation and government-debt) more of both than can realistically be afforded or would have been justified by undirected investors. This compromise provides the handy excuse (or "saving lie") when their winner-picking fails - it wasn't their idea or the whole concept of winner-picking that was at fault, but the other person's bad idea. They then start building new coalitions and new compromises, which they believe will work better next time. And so on, -ad infinitum-.

Only in one rare and fleeting circumstance can real liberals hope to get the reluctant support of enough pseudo-liberals to implement a genuinely liberal programme - when the economy collapses so badly under the weight of complex and contradictory initiatives, that few people can fool themselves that there is enough money to fund the magic bullets. Some may even be converted to real liberalism by the evidence of pseudo-liberalism's failure, at least for a while. Most of them will gradually convert back, though, as the economic improvements created by the real liberal policies provide the funds to rekindle the belief that economic outcomes could be improved by a bit of judicious targeting here and there. Their reversion will be justified by the ridiculously high standards to which they hold the highly-imperfect, trial-and-error mechanism of the market, whereby any imperfections of outcome are seen as failures that could be improved through intervention, even though experience should have taught them that the outcomes of intervention were very much less perfect than the imperfect outcomes from the market. 

The truly depressing thought, then, is the combination of all of this:

  • that opportunities for the implementation of genuinely liberal programmes will be rare as hen's teeth,

  • that many liberals may be singularly ill-equipped to seize these opportunities when they come,

  • that (based on the number of pseudo-liberals still promoting their magic bullets) we are nowhere near one of those moments psychologically, even though economically things are already pretty bad,

  • and that things will therefore have to get absolutely dreadful, and for long enough for people slowly to surrender their magic bullets, before circumstances are right for the implementation of a genuinely liberal programme and the start of the rebuilding of our economy. 

It's more grist to the Schumpeterian and Marxian mills. Circumstances like 1979/80 only come round once in a blue moon, and when they do, liberals will face severe competition from extreme authoritarians pushing the communist or fascist delusions. We may not be so lucky in the swing next time, and if we aren't, you can get locked into an authoritarian nightmare for a very long time.

But I still don't believe the Schumpeterian or Marxian theories that the collapse and replacement of capitalism is inevitable. I still believe it's a question of individual choice (aggregated as democratic choice), and that the promotion and defence of real liberal ideas is a fight that one must keep fighting. But, my God, it's an uphill battle, with no end in site, nor many allies, nor a strong chance of winning. It makes one appreciate the small number of allies there are, like the IEA, and the Cobden Centre, and Progressive Vision. At least their number is growing slowly, and some new initiatives (like the Cobden Centre) offer some prospect that it may start growing a little faster, and with stronger intellectual foundation.


  • I am, of course, using the term -liberal- here in it's true sense, which I often qualify as -classical-liberal-, and not in the modern sense (used particularly in America) of -social-democrat-. 

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