Today’s crisis in liberalism—in the free-market, British sense—was born in 1989, out of the ashes of the Soviet Union. At the time the thinker Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history”, the moment when no ideology was left to challenge democracy, markets and global co-operation as a way of organising society. It was liberalism’s greatest triumph, but it also engendered a narrow, technocratic politics obsessed by process. In the ensuing quarter-century the majority has prospered, but plenty of voters feel as if they have been left behind.
Their anger is justified. Proponents of globalisation, including this newspaper, must acknowledge that technocrats have made mistakes and ordinary people paid the price. The move to a flawed European currency, a technocratic scheme par excellence, led to stagnation and unemployment and is driving Europe apart. Elaborate financial instruments bamboozled regulators, crashed the world economy and ended up with taxpayer-funded bail-outs of banks, and later on, budget cuts.
Even when globalisation has been hugely beneficial, policymakers have not done enough to help the losers. Trade with China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and brought immense gains for Western consumers. But many factory workers who have lost their jobs have been unable to find a decently paid replacement.
Rather than spread the benefits of globalisation, politicians have focused elsewhere. The left moved on to arguments about culture—race, greenery, human rights and sexual politics. The right preached meritocratic self-advancement, but failed to win everyone the chance to partake in it. Proud industrial communities that look to family and nation suffered alienation and decay. Mendacious campaigning mirrored by partisan media amplified the sense of betrayal.
Less obviously, the intellectual underpinnings of liberalism have been neglected. When Mr Trump called for protectionism this week, urging Americans to “take back control” (see article), he was both parroting the Brexiteers and exploiting how almost no politician has been willing to make the full-throated case for trade liberalisation as a boost to prosperity rather than a cost or a concession. Liberalism depends on a belief in progress but, for many voters, progress is what happens to other people. While American GDP per person grew by 14% in 2001-15, median wages grew by only 2%. Liberals believe in the benefits of pooling sovereignty for the common good. But, as Brexit shows, when people feel they do not control their lives or share in the fruits of globalisation, they strike out. The distant, baffling, overbearing EU makes an irresistible target.