The Liberal Order — An Explanation

In my previous post “Libertarianism and Representative Democracy,” I made the claim that libertarianism has always been weak when it comes to defending a “liberal order.” My hunch is that my statement can easily be misinterpreted. In a way this is unavoidable: Such terms are ambiguous, there can be many interpretations which are different in essential ways. Some clarification is hence in order.

In 2011, Anders Breivik killed 77 people in two terror attacks: one with a van bomb and the other in a massacre on the island of Utøya. In parallel, he released a lengthy manifesto on the Internet. I downloaded and skimmed through it to understand his motivation. My impression was that Breivik was not crazy in a clinical sense — I’m no expert here — although there were indications of a certain delusion of grandeur. What was crazy, though, was his worldview.

Basically, it was a dystopian vision of decay that could only be stopped by brutal means. Unfortunately, I found many parts of it eerily familiar. They were what would now be called the “alt-right,” which was already around at the time. I also knew them from history: The anti-Semites from the 19th century on had similar views, the old Right in the 1920s and 1930s, and, of course, also the Nazis all had their versions. Breivik rejected anti-Semitism, though, so the equivalence was not perfect. But if you replaced “Jews” with “Muslims” a lot carried over. As far as I know, he has by now self-identified as a National Socialist, so his take on anti-Semitism was perhaps dishonest and tactical in 2011.

As I said, I was familiar with the elements of Breivik’s worldview, which were not that uncommon at the time. Others, however, subscribed only to some, not all, and often stopped short of exploring the implicit logic of their assumptions. Breivik, though, brought them together, and he was determined to draw the ultimate conclusions from his premises. The internal logic was quite consistent how he viewed terror, which was supposed to be a first stage in a general European civil war, as some sort of desperate self-defense.

I found all this far more disturbing than if Breivik had prattled on about extraterrestrial aliens who were out to get him. My point is not that he is some great thinker who will have an effect himself. His manifesto is a weird combination of something that is shocking and at the same time extremely boring. I would view him only as a symptom of what the implications of a certain worldview are. In as much as such a worldview or parts of it were common, the conclusions were implicitly there beyond Breivik himself. They were diffuse, but still too ubiquitous to miss. I had misgivings about what might be in store.

Around the time I read articles on the topic, one was at Reason. In the comments, Americans were baffled by Breivik’s worldview and had a hard time understanding it at all. That was in 2011. It might be different now. One commenter had a very good explanation in my view: He noted that all major political directions — conservatives, libertarians, and progressives — were basically branches of one old Liberalism. Despite their quibbles, they shared a common ground. However, in Europe you always had reactionary ideologies that were fundamentally opposed to this old Liberalism and its offshoots. That’s why Americans found it hard to make sense of Breivik’s worldview.

I think this was a great insight, but unfortunately the latter part has perhaps not aged all that well. We would now have to be somewhat more restrictive with who is included in the fundamental consensus: conservatives in a pre-Trump-Bannon sense, libertarians without the Mises Institute universe, and progressives minus the Chavez fans. But I think then this is still a broad spectrum in the US, and that is why I am rather optimistic although the electoral system works against a cooperation.

In my view, what is necessary these days all over the world is that as you would say in Germany: “all Democrats have to stand together” (alle Demokraten müssen zusammenstehen) and defend the liberal order against its enemies, now against the Reactionaries, as it was against the Communists in the 20th century. “Democrats” here is not to be understood in the American partisan sense. It refers to the Democrats of the Revolution of 1848. The main parties in Germany are, either directly or indirectly, descended from this old Liberalism: the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats, the Free Democrats, and as a later addition the Greens (note the “Democrats” in their names).

The historical experience in Germany was different from that in the US. The old Liberalism was initially strong, but it was in the opposition and under siege from the start. The Revolution of 1848 was crushed by the Reactionaries. Imperial Germany accomodated some demands, but only at the price that the Reactionaries kept their grip on power. The line then goes through the “Interfraktioneller Ausschuß” (Interfactional Committee) of the majority parties in the Reichstag (national parliament) during World War I (Social Democrats, Progressives, and Center Party) to the Weimar coalition and on to the core of the current party system.

From a German perspective, it is not a given that the old Liberalism will prevail, it often has not. I think this also explains why classical liberals in the 19th century could often put differences aside and cooperate with other parties in the spectrum. They saw the common ground. The Social Democrats unfortunately adopted Marxism which posed its own problems on the Left, But they recovered their Democratic roots (in the sense of 1848) in a long process starting after World War I. That had been latent already before.

The basic lesson from German history is that you can fight it out on the common ground when things are fine. Differences may indeed be huge. But in the face of an enemy to the liberal order, Benjamin Franklin’s dictum applies, admittedly out of context: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

The US has had a different historical experience where the old Liberalism was never really challenged. So it was easy to lose sight of the common ground. I would also think that the electoral system plays a part which favors a clash between two blocks, but my impression has been for a long time that the underlying problem is cultural: the Right and the Left could not view each other as different visions within the same framework, but as enemies and as just evil people.

Libertarians figure into this because they mostly aligned with the Right. This is very ironic: classical liberals in Germany were the Left before the Social Democrats became the dominant force. They saw the main threat from the Reactionaries and hated it when the Lassalleans and then the Marxists began to attack also from the extreme Left, which weakened the old Liberalism in its struggle.

What American libertarians often miss in my view, and German libertarians who are mostly their offshoot, too, is that libertarianism is a branch of the old Liberalism. There should be more respect for the other branches and also an appreciation that we share a common ground. There can be challenges to the liberal order from without, and in their face we have to stand together.

What then is the old Liberalism that to a certain extent is fictional because it never existed as one force with a unified ideology? It is set of common values. And the liberal order is their realization. Historically, much of this stems from the Enlightenment, but a lot also evolved later. Since it encompasses political directions that may seem far apart at first glance there is some unavoidable vagueness. But that makes the term by no means meaningless.

The liberal order at its core is about personal, economic, and political liberty, and that’s why calling it “liberal” is only appropriate. There are sometimes huge disagreements about how far these liberties may go, but we can agree that prima facie they should be defended or established anew if they have been extinguished.

This implies a political system that is flexible enough that any of the different branches can see their specific vision prevail for some time, ie. a system of representative democracy. The other directions are then in the opposition, they can remain critical and appeal to the electorate to try something else. But as long as the common liberal order stands, they should accept its outcomes for the time being and not attack the order itself. You may not like the current policies and you are free to disagree, but you can survive it and change it later. Hence I don’t use the term “liberal order” in a narrow interpretation where it is just your specific vision.

There are other conclusions that flow from this consideration apart from representative democracy. There should be no “divine right of kings,” no “right of the strongest,” no “avantgarde of the proletariat” and no justification that a leader acts on behalf of history, religion or providence. It implies a separation of powers and the rule of law as opposed to personal, arbitrary, and corrupt government. There should also be a constitution that enshrines the liberal order and has to be defended against its enemies. Germans will find the term perhaps over-used, but it bears repeating: It is the “freiheitlich-demokratische Grundordnung” (roughly: the liberal-democratic fundamental order).

More broadly, I would see four basic principles that we as the three branches of the old Liberalism should get behind although we have differences about their exact interpretation:

(1) Universality: The principles apply because we are all human beings. There are no groups or individuals who are left out.

(2) Equality: The principles apply to everybody equally. There should be no groups or individuals who have more or less rights, or more or less of them.

(3) Individualism: The liberal order is about individuals, and not about groups.

(4) Liberty: Personal, economic, and political liberty are the presumption. There may be restrictions for very strong reasons, but the core is sacrosanct.

Maybe all this is too obvious for Americans, or at least it was. I found the bafflement of the commenters in 2011 endearing because my takeaway was: Americans just cannot understand how a liberal order could be challenged. But then this is perhaps only the result of a much more fortunate historical development compared to that in Germany. Every single one of these points and all of them together have been challenged over and over again. It is not a given that people will support a liberal order. If things go wrong, it has to be defended.

Here’s where I think that many libertarians fail, but other directions have these problems, too: Libertarians often can’t see that they are one of the branches of the old Liberalism, and that the others are opponents, not enemies. Part of the deal is that you accept that for the time being policies are not to your liking. But as long as the liberal order stands you have the means to change it.

Libertarians should also understand that there can be real enemies of the liberal order. If you look to other countries, this is obvious. But also the US is probably no “Insel der Seligen” (island of the blessed, something outside of this world). It is facile to stand by when the enemies of the liberal order mount their assault. First it has to be defended, then we can talk about quibbles between opponents within the framework. If you think this or that policy you can survive for some time is more important, I would say you get something deeply wrong. Also Lenin’s maxim “the worse, the better” is just as stupid as everything else from Lenin.

As noted above, I am rather sanguine about the situation in the US although it is in for a rough stretch now. My impression is that the alt-right has shallow roots, and that the old Liberalism is still intact. In the best case, the alt-right goes down with the losers and haters: Bannon, Trump, et al. Maybe this is more like a fever. However, there are also specifically American strands that the alt-right can draw on. So I am not so sure. And then also shallow roots can grow further into the ground.

I am less optimistic for many countries in Europe where there is more of a reactionary tradition. It was sidelined for a long time, but realistically it has always been there. This is not to say whole societies have fallen or will fall for it. But there is a pre-existing constituency that will not go away any time soon. So we might be in it for the longer haul on this side of the Atlantic.

No matter what the forecast, when the assault is there, and it is there in many ways now, those who can agree on the liberal order should stand together. Anything else would be a dereliction of duty of historical proportions. We should not only stand together in our countries, but also on the international level where the challenge is even more real than within our societies. Or once more: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”