Web Letters | The Nation

Optimistic about ‘the liberal democratic model’

A timely topic—and some excellent points made. A bit unfortunate, then, that there were some excellent points unmade. This in part, I assume, was a limitation of space—but my deeper suspicion is the limitation of geography. The authors may have fallen into the trap they describe—assuming that in matters of political economy, ethnicity trumps all—in their focus on Europe and the USA, and the restriction to commentary from those particular polities. We antipodeans have suffered a lifetime of Euro-arrogance, but have been lucky enough to enjoy a lifetime of Indo-Asian experimentation. The latter gives some hope that the liberal democratic model—changeable beast that it is—provides the right template for aspiring politicians.

The main point left unmade is the success of globalization measured in jobs, health outcomes and living standards. You could throw in some nonmeasurables like information flow, the bastard child of the liberalism that has capped population growth rates everywhere but Africa. These “successes” have bought with them any number of unintended consequences—some quite nasty—but all of them probably addressable. Not, though, by economics alone—let’s avoid the Marxian trap of seeing life as a series of economic transactions.

Karl M. may have mediated the debate for 100 years, but through our fixation on him we have relegated ethics (and philosophers) to the stands. The authors are perpetuating the trend by the selective interpretation of both the Runciman and Habermas position. Both philosophers seems to me to be reasonably optimistic about the liberal democratic machinery—while remaining clear-eyed about the messy way it runs. We would do well to listen closely to them, as well as to the Confucian take on the idea being tested in the various Chinas.

What the economists can tell us is that the policies that thrust the European Social Democrats into power have run their course—as the author points out, the rising tide of postwar growth floated a well-appointed welfare boat, but that growth is over. No amount of taxation will pay for the welfare net being demanded by electorates today. The adjustment will be painful, and involve a reassessment of not just socialism but the role of the family, environmental values and individual ethical values.

“It turns out that these were crises [WWI/WWII/oil shortages/nuclear war] that democracy was able to surmount. But all of this provides scant comfort to those who worry about the crises of today.” Maybe not to the authors, but to this reader this record provides significant comfort. Not just the surmounting but the (reasonably) nonviolent process by which alternatives are emerging.

Rob Fraser


May 26 2014 - 1:06am