FOR a certain kind of liberal, 2016 stands as a rebuke. If you believe, as The Economist does, in open economies and open societies, where the free exchange of goods, capital, people and ideas is encouraged and where universal freedoms are protected from state abuse by the rule of law, then this has been a year of setbacks. Not just over Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, but also the tragedy of Syria, abandoned to its suffering, and widespread support—in Hungary, Poland and beyond—for “illiberal democracy”. As globalisation has become a slur, nationalism, and even authoritarianism, have flourished. In Turkey relief at the failure of a coup was overtaken by savage (and popular) reprisals. In the Philippines voters chose a president who not only deployed death squads but bragged about pulling the trigger. All the while Russia, which hacked Western democracy, and China, which just last week set out to taunt America by seizing one of its maritime drones, insist liberalism is merely a cover for Western expansion.
Faced with this litany, many liberals (of the free-market sort) have lost their nerve. Some have written epitaphs for the liberal order and issued warnings about the threat to democracy. Others argue that, with a timid tweak to immigration law or an extra tariff, life will simply return to normal. That is not good enough. The bitter harvest of 2016 has not suddenly destroyed liberalism’s claim to be the best way to confer dignity and bring about prosperity and equity. Rather than ducking the struggle of ideas, liberals should relish it.
In the past quarter-century liberalism has had it too easy. Its dominance following Soviet communism’s collapse decayed into laziness and complacency. Amid growing inequality, society’s winners told themselves that they lived in a meritocracy—and that their success was therefore deserved. The experts recruited to help run large parts of the economy marvelled at their own brilliance. But ordinary people often saw wealth as a cover for privilege and expertise as disguised self-interest.
After so long in charge, liberals, of all people, should have seen the backlash coming. As a set of beliefs that emerged at the start of the 19th century to oppose both the despotism of absolute monarchy and the terror of revolution, liberalism warns that uninterrupted power corrupts. Privilege becomes self-perpetuating. Consensus stifles creativity and initiative. In an ever-shifting world, dispute and argument are not just inevitable; they are welcome because they lead to renewal.
What is more, liberals have something to offer societies struggling with change. In the 19th century, as today, old ways were being upended by relentless technological, economic, social and political forces. People yearned for order. The illiberal solution was to install someone with sufficient power to dictate what was best—by slowing change if they were conservative, or smashing authority if they were revolutionary. You can hear echoes of that in calls to “take back control”, as well as in the mouths of autocrats who, summoning an angry nationalism, promise to hold back the cosmopolitan tide.