I said recently that that politics today looks disconcertingly unfamiliar to those of us whose views were formed in the 1980s. This is true in another sense; the value of freedom, it seems, has collapsed in both the UK and US.
What I mean is that whereas Thatcher and Reagan regularly extolled the virtue of liberty, we rarely hear such words today. Quite the opposite. The rise of Trump and the vote for Brexit both show strong support for authoritarianism. The strongest political demand in the UK now is for immigration controls which, whatever other virtues they possess, are fundamentally illiberal. And Ms May’s inaugural speech as PM contained much talk of injustice but none of freedom*.
This poses the question: why has the language of freedom disappeared? Here are some theories (at least for the UK; I don't know how they apply to the US.).
One possibility is “events, dear boy.” The financial crisis reduced faith in free markets, and the threat of terrorism has shifted public preferences from liberty towards security.
Another possibility is that voters still have excessive faith in state capacity; they trust it to control borders justly and to administer a complex welfare system.
Related to this is a lack of awareness of the power of obliquity. Hayek said – rightly – that the benefits of freedom were unpredictable whilst the alleged benefits of regulation seemed clear. This, he said, means that “when we decide each issue solely on what appear to be its individual merits, we always over-estimate the advantages of central direction.”
Another possibility is a form of the rise of narcissism. Richard Sennett has described how people form “purified identities” whereby ““threatening or painful dissonances are warded off to preserve intact a clear and articulated image of oneself.” This leads to students demanding “noplatforming” and to older voters fearing the cultural change that immigration brings.
Yet another possibility is that there’s a significant body of research which suggests a trade-off between well-being and liberty. If you are indoctrinated to do as you’re told – as we are in school - freedom can be disconcerting.
And then there’s simple tribalism. Under New Labour, keyboard “libertarians” were vocal in their hostility to the illiberalism that gave us thousands of new criminal offences – and I think rightly so. Many, however, became less noisy when the Cameron government continued that trend.
But perhaps there’s something else. Maybe Thatcherites and Reaganites were never truly sincere in their love of freedom. The fact that they objected more to the lack of freedom in the Soviet bloc than in apartheid South Africa suggests that the freedom they most valued was the freedom of capitalists to make profits. This freedom has been won – and in fact, as Nick Cohen and Chris Bertram have documented, it is capitalists who are now among the greatest enemies of liberty. Freedom now, it seems, has no clients: the last thing crony capitalists want is a truly free market.
My point here is a simple one, but often overlooked. When I say that the ideological climate is hostile to leftism, I get pushback from many on the right. What they ignore, however, is that the climate is also hostile to liberty.
* Of course, justice and opportunity can be recast in the language of liberty – but it is telling that Ms May didn’t do this.