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The tribulations of wishy-washy Liberalism

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Liberalism, perhaps the dominant political ideology in the modern world, is under attack everywhere these days. Its core ideas – namely, constituting the political community in a manner that protects fundamental human rights, liberty and equal opportunities for all citizens – are being rudely dismissed. The norms that it cherishes and promotes – for instance, a public sphere that promotes free and open debate and discussion of the great issues of the day in a manner that is respectful of all participants – are being ridiculed by sundry boors, thugs, and loudmouths with megaphones. Within liberal constitutional democracies, the challenge is coming from populists and nativists. Outside these democracies, the challenge is coming from autocracies… a growing band of hard men and maximum rulers. In Africa, for instance, rather than the building of vital and strong institutions we have the saddening return of the Big Men. They win power and refuse to leave, even when they become doddering old fools.

I submit that all this would not matter that much if Liberalism itself were in rude health. But it is in a bad way. The following are some of the reasons why this is the case.

Quote of the week: Bob Dylan

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"Whatever the counterculture was, I had seen enough of it. I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics and that I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese."

- Bob Dylan, in his memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (pg. 120), on how some critics have interpreted and studied his music, calling him the voice of a generation.

The global technocracy confronts an inconvenient beast

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Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.  --Frederick Douglass
Suddenly, the tumultuous on-rush of clarity. As the technocrats and leaders who run the global economic system reflect on widespread angry reactions to globalization and rapid social change, a new language is permeating the discussion of economic issues. Top economic policy leaders are now saying that ‘inclusive growth” is crucial. They are saying globalization must “work for everyone”. We are hearing exhortations about paying attention to public opinion (that famously unruly and inconvenient beast!). According to Larry Summers, a notable commentator on these matters, (in a Financial Times piece titled: “Voters sour on traditional economic policy”):
People have lost confidence in both the competence of economic leaders and in their commitment to serve the wider public rather than the global elite.

A number of traditional economic leaders in the public and private sector seemed to be making their way through the traditional grief cycle – starting with denial, moving to rage, then to bargaining and ultimately to acceptance of the new realities.

Will anything change though? There is reason to be skeptical. For, at bottom, the issue is that the global technocracy insists on economic policy being the exclusive preserve of experts. So, once the experts do the numbers and they declare a trade agreement beneficial that should be the end of the matter. Or, once the experts decide that what appears to be a high level of immigration to the ordinary citizen is actually economically helpful they tell leaders to ignore public opinion and go for it. The point, naturally, is not that expert input into policymaking is not crucial. Of course it is. The point is: it is just an input. Wise leaders must add other considerations.

Quote of the Week: Dani Rodrik

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“The main constraint on the global economy right now is not that it is not sufficiently open. It’s very open. The main constraint is really that the system lacks legitimacy."

Dani Rodrik, a Turkish economist and Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He was formerly the Albert O. Hirschman Professor of the Social Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He has made significant contributions and published widely to the areas of international economics, economic development, and political economy. He is best known for his work on industrialization, growth policies, and political economy of globalization. His works include Economic Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science and The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy. He is also joint editor-in-chief of the academic journal Global Policy.

Quote of the Week: Michael Ignatieff

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"The liberal agenda of constitutional reform, devolution, rights empowerment, a transparent state, and a political style committed to rational policy argument does not hold much attraction for those left behind in globalisation's wake."

Michael Ignatieff, Canadian author, academic, and former politician. In addition to leading the Liberal Party and the Official Opposition of Canada from 2008 until 2011, he has held senior academic posts at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Toronto.

Can the middle class really guarantee good governance?

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When social scientists and historians look back on the transformation in the quality of governance that took place in, first, Great Britain and, later, much of Europe in the course of the long 19th century, one explanatory factor often stands out: the rise of a large enough middle class.  What is large enough is, of course, a question of fact, and varies depending on the particular country context. This explanation is often contested, but it has stuck. People refer, for instance, to the revolts against monarchies that occurred across Europe around 1848 as the middle class revolutions. The sense that this explanation makes sense is so strong that when you attend seminars on improving governance in developing countries at some point or the other someone is bound to say: “Let’s be patient folks. Once these countries have a large enough middle class the pressure for improved governance will be unstoppable.”

I write about this now because I have just read an essay by Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development that restates the view with some sophistication. Please see: “Middle –Class Heroes: The Best Guarantee of Good Governance.” The essay is worth reading in full. I am going to focus only on her core case. Key quote:
Having a large middle class is also critical for fostering good governance. Middle-class citizens want the stability and predictability that come from a political system that promotes fair competition, in which the very rich cannot rely on insider privileges to accumulate unearned wealth. Middle-class people are less vulnerable than the poor to pressure to pay into patronage networks and are more likely to support governments that protect private property and encourage private investment. When the middle class reaches a certain size – perhaps 30 percent of the population is enough – its members can start to identify with one another and to use their collective power to demand that the state spend their taxes to finance public services, security, and other critical public goods. Finally, members of a prospering middle class are unlikely to be drawn into the kinds of ethnic and religious rivalries that spur political instability. (Italics mine.)

Quote of the week: Philip Stephens

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"Once in a while capitalism has to be rescued from the depredations of, well, capitalists. Unconstrained, enterprise curdles into monopoly, innovation into rent-seeking. Today’s swashbuckling “disrupters” set up tomorrow’s cosy cartels."

- Philip Stephens, an associate editor and chief political commentator of the Financial Times

Quote of the week: Edward Snowden

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"We are living through a crisis in computer security the likes of which we’ve never seen, but until we solve the fundamental problem, which is that our policy incentivises offence to a greater degree than defence, hacks will continue unpredictably and they will have increasingly larger effects and impacts.”

- Edward Snowden, an American computer professional, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, and former contractor for the United States government who copied and leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 without authorization. His disclosures revealed numerous global surveillance programs, many run by the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance, with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments.

Are campaign consultants, and their techniques, of any use?

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Political communication consultants (in their modern incarnation, an American invention) have become global celebrities. Political leaders in particular listen to the major ones with rapt attention, and their books and diaries tumble unto bookshelves with regularity. An example is Dispatches from the War Room: in the Trenches with Five Extraordinary Leaders by Stanley B. Greenberg. In the memoir, Greenberg, one of the most notable pollsters and campaign consultants of his generation, chronicles the campaigns he ran with Bill Clinton of the United States, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Tony Blair of Great Britain, Ehud Barak of Israel, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of Bolivia, and many more. What is more, major documentaries and movies are being made about what these political communication consultants do. The most recent is Our Brand is Crisis (2015), starring Sandra Bullock and Bob Thornton. 

Not only are these consultants getting to work all over the world and earn container- loads of cash, their methods are spreading. And the methods are also influencing what other campaigns do, including efforts by social movements and civil society organizations worldwide. The challenge is more or less the same: how do you get citizens to make a move (vote, protest against injustices, support a good cause/reform efforts etc.)?

Quote of the week: Adam Gopnik

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"There are sins of omission but there are also virtues of patience. Many of the wisest things we do, in life and in politics, are the things we don’t. Affairs not started, advice not given, distant lands left uninvaded—the null class of non-events is often more blessed than the enumerated class of actions, though less dramatic."

-Adam Gopnik, writing in the The New Yorker August 29, 2016, "Learning from the Slaughter in Attica: What the 1971 uprising and massacre reveal about our prison system and the liberal democratic state." Gopnik is an American writer and essayist, best known as a staff writer for The New Yorker—to which he has contributed non-fiction, fiction, memoir and criticism since 1986.