The West’s Dominating Political Ideology — Genius or Obsolete?
by Shirley Yue Chen, News & Campus Life Staff Writer
Since the 17th century, liberalism has been a philosophical cornerstone of the Western world. It advocates for liberal democracy, individual rights, and free trade. But recent critics have blamed liberalism for a growing list of social issues, from the environmental crisis to economic inequalities.
Is liberalism still our best answer to big political questions, or do we need a new theory?
The Munk Debates has been hosting the world’s brightest minds to discuss global issues such as this one for 15 years. Previous debate topics covered the Russia-Ukraine War, the trustworthiness of mainstream media, and the state of American democracy under the Trump presidency.
On November 3rd, the autumn 2023 debate continues this tradition in Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall.
Its motion: “Be it Resolved, liberalism gets the big questions right.”
Arguing for the motion were George F. Will, Pulitzer-winning American writer, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, British MP and former cabinet minister. Opposing the motion were Ash Sarkar, U.K. journalist and lecturer, and Sohrab Ahmari, American columnist and best-selling author.
The pre-debate vote saw 75% of the audience agreeing with the Pro side and 25% with the Con side.
The Pro side argued that as a champion for individual freedom, liberalism upholds the freedom of speech, religion, association, and other fundamental rights.
Will highlighted the government’s neutrality under classical liberalism: “Liberalism gets the big questions right by leaving many big questions out of politics.”
As such, liberalism does not force everyone to pursue a perfect vision of society; it instead lets each person decide on their beliefs and actions. Liberalism emphasizes the democratic rule of law that no state power can supersede. Under these principles, individuals can govern themselves, accommodating for differences and keeping social peace.
Liberalism also maximizes wealth and opportunities through free trade. A liberal market produces inequality because everyone has different aptitudes and attitudes. However, this is not necessarily bad since liberalism aims for a meritocracy where everyone is awarded for their labour accordingly. Envy among the population is minimized when inequalities resulted from impersonal market forces and not government favoritism.
This strategy has led to the continued prosperity of Western societies and a global reduction of absolute poverty — from 36% in 1990 to 9.2% today. The freedom to consume and possess also provides individuals with a zone of sovereignty and security that the government cannot infringe upon.
“When we look around the world, it is liberal societies and liberal economies that have succeeded.” Rees-Mogg then cited the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Soviet Union’s deaths due to a liberalism deficiency in their system. “These liberal ideas provide [Western societies] with a stable government, even when politicians make mistakes.”
“Who has seen the cost of their housing go up in the last 18 months?” Sarkar opened with a question.
Many hands shot up from the audience.
“There we have it.” She jokingly concluded. “Liberalism has failed.”
Sarkar then argued that liberalism imperils freedom. Under liberal capitalism, economic disparity traps many in poverty without real choices while others hoard wealth freely. The installation and maintenance of a “free” market is far from free and requires state coercion, from appropriating Indigenous lands to imposing rising rents on tenants and exploiting the Global South’s cheap labour.
By extension, the liberal consumerist market intensifies the climate crisis, which its invisible hand cannot seem to fix.
“An unequal society is an unfree society.” Sarkar warned. “We will not be free in a +4 degrees climate, where millions of people die so oil shareholders can stay rich.”
Armed with a different approach, Ahmari argued that liberalism gets the fundamental question about human nature wrong. Western philosophical traditions believed freedom is not only about a lack of external constraints. Through political association, we naturally seek a common good, which is also our own good. This frees us from our selfishness and makes us fully human.
Ahmari saw liberalism — asserting that humans are self-interested brutes — as a devastating rupture to this long-standing consensus.
“[According to liberalism,] we form political communities because we fear each other, so the best we can achieve is to let everyone maximize their self-interest and hope that the public good emerges spontaneously out of this ceaseless clash of human atoms.”
In this liberal system, Ahmari saw only coercion of a different kind by private actors with economic power: big corporations enact censorship and hedge funds “privatize the gains while socializing the costs.”
After presenting their main arguments, the two sides sparred head-on.
Will illustrated how people from all over the world are dying to try to get into liberal-democratic societies for greater economic and social security.
Sarkar immediately disagreed: “It’s not a huge surprise to me why people from countries that we have destabilized, bombed, and hit with embargoes and sanctions might want to escape.”
Regarding the environmental crisis, Rees-Mogg cited liberal countries, such as the U.S., which decreased or stabilized their emissions with liberal market solutions; meanwhile, totalitarian China is the world’s biggest carbon emitter.
“This is because Western countries keep consuming Chinese products under liberal-capitalist free trade,” responded Sarkar.
Rees-Mogg pushed back against the Con side’s criticisms of capitalism by highlighting the substantial increase in life quality and leisure time.
Ahmari responded that this is not because capitalists became nicer but because of labour movements.
Rees-Mogg countered that smaller businesses that flourished under liberalism gave workers more alternatives, thus strengthening their stance against big corporations.
Ahmari stressed the illusion of a liberal meritocracy, as in the U.S., it now takes six generations for generational wealth to disappear. More and more working and lower-middle class families are left behind and live on government benefits.
Will criticized the hypocrisy of the Con side supporting social welfare programs that are funded by liberal-capitalist revenues. He argues that these programs fail when they forget this fact, as Margaret Thatcher warned: “Sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money.”
Ahmari concluded that liberalism’s freedom is for a few at the expense of the many — Jeff Bezos was free to maximize Amazon’s profits and reduce the break times of warehouse employees, forcing them to pee in plastic bottles. True freedom requires restraints on market tyrants to ensure human flourishing.
Will acknowledged that while liberalism is chaotic and spontaneous, it is also democratic; it protects people’s right to their own selves and achievements. He argues that no ideal of a common good is good enough to justify using coercion to obtain it.
“Classical liberalism is like sex.” Will concluded. “If it’s not messy, then you are not doing it right.”
The post-debate vote revealed a shift in opinion: 61% Pro and 39% Con.
The Con side won by a 14% gain.
Eva McGuire is a fourth-year Philosophy student at U of T.
From the debate, she gained new understandings of liberalism, such as the importance of individual action within all political systems.
“Many arguments against liberalism were examples of individuals or groups abusing the freedom or power that liberalism has secured for them to exploit others. The insight I took away was that for liberalism to achieve its high goals of social peace, a fairly high bar of moral education of individuals needs to be met so that they actually use their freedom for good. While this may be challenging, it is worthwhile.”
Eva found the debates refreshing in contrast with mainstream media, which to her, often show one-sided stories. She strongly recommends the Munk Debates to fellow students.
“I enjoyed seeing proponents of both sides of this important topic given the license to express themselves to their fullest, making it a very informative (and entertaining!) experience for everyone.”