In a country like Canada, one benefit of modern capitalism — paired with a set of social safety nets — is that most areas of the country1 are basically good places to live as far as material well-being is concerned.
Even low-income families see children enjoying modern conveniences like internet access — not to mention the devices that connect to it — within the home, or, at the very least, through an institution like a public school.
In this sense, the wealth of the average person has grown tremendously, and it would be silly to try and compare present wealth to that of, say, 100 or 200 years ago.
Of course, a very rich person can get up tomorrow and buy three Lamborghinis and, odds are, most people reading this can’t, but that’s not the best way to understand the increasing material well-being of the average person over time — stopping to think about what you’re reading this article on, and how are you connecting to this site, is.
Working at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart is often viewed as a lowest-rung-on-the-ladder job, but even working there doesn’t necessarily mean you need to live in a gutter and wonder where your next meal is coming from. That Marxist caricature does not exist in most of the developed world: Managers and business owners are not all cigar-chomping, feast-eating sociopaths that oversee a toiling mass of ash-covered serfs dying of dental issues.
Capitalism has done tremendous things. The economic progress and growth that flourishes under it means the old trope of the rising tide raising all ships has truth to it. Technological improvement and increasing societal wealth have definitely lifted all boats as far as material well-being is concerned. And, although relative incomes are anything but equal in mostly free-market-oriented societies (nor should they be), people on the lower end of the income ladder enjoy certain aspects of everyday life that, in an absolute sense, would have blown the minds of the richest just one-hundred years ago.
Without a doubt, improvements to material well-being is a crucial puzzle piece we need to individually recognize when we take a step back and marvel at the big picture that is the well-being of developed nations.
Many that consider themselves classical liberals (henceforth just “liberal”) do an excellent job of championing these facts as they outline the wonders of a society that has a relatively free market, and they aren’t wrong when they say the more economic freedom the better.
However, while it is useful to compare the well-being of the average person of today to the average, or even rich, of the past to demonstrate the wonders of capitalism, this compare and contrast tends to be over-emphasized by, and sometimes the near sole focus of, many that attempt to demonstrate the benefits liberalism has brought to everyone. The problem with over-focusing on economic well-being and progress is that many liberals virtually remove themselves from seriously participating in important discussions and critiques on other fronts, especially ones concerning social justice. In this way, many lose the opportunity to make an overall appeal for liberalism, rather than just an economic one.
The state of everyone’s economic well-being today, as compared to the past, is an amazing thing and so is the civility and social improvement that has come with it. However, sometimes liberals allow this point of great interest to overshadow the fact that divisions in our society, and how people view and treat each other, can still rest upon relative income levels, and do rest on other factors like education level, occupation, religion, ethnicity, authority structures, and the particular private interests of class — to name just a few.
Failing to hold issues of social justice and progress up to the same level of importance as lectures that explain the miracles of capitalism and charts that show the average person’s wealth increasing over time means that liberals are prone to getting a little too comfortable (consciously or unconsciously) with the idea that much of the battle for liberalism has been won by the tidal wave that is modern capitalism, and the rest is simply cleanup duty; sure, there’s still crony-capitalism we have to speak against, overbearing democratic institutions to fend off, but, overall, look how great the world is today! People in poor countries have cellphones! Great job, fellow liberals!
Too much of this slant is how you get a reactive “conservative” type of liberalism that defends the current order, rather than a proactive one that seeks to continually bring the same passion for the fight for more economic freedom to the one for social justice, progress, and proliferation of liberal attitudes.
The liberal can slip into a false sense of comfort by thinking of developed nations and relatively capitalist arrangements as being “close enough” to their own ideals or at least on the right track. Instead of looking for the next battleground for economic or social liberalism to take up arms on (something integral to the essence of liberalism), many liberals spend nearly all of their time highlighting and defending the good elements of the current order rather than spending an equal amount of time seriously critiquing the bad ones, and panicking any time someone from outside of their ideological camp brings forward critiques — the worry is that if the others had their way, they’d try and fix the bad elements with even worse remedies, like socialism, and, to be fair, that’s not always an unfounded concern.
The problem with a constant defensive formation is that it prevents liberals from spending the amount of time they should in the seat of concern for social justice and progress at the table that discusses overall human progress and the human condition. Whether we like some of the other people at that table or not (often more left-leaning folks, economically speaking), serious liberals have always had a lot to contribute in that seat. It would be a shame to ignore the place many liberals historically have earned at that table, and in doing so do a disservice to a very rich area of the liberal tradition. Modern liberals should always remember that considerations of life, liberty, and property were not argued for as a foundation to pursue material wealth through economic freedom only, and that a great deal of time was spent addressing social justice and the injustices that came with concentrated power, unjustifiable hierarchies, and malformed institutions.
As I’ve touched on above, sometimes there’s a little too much comfort with — and an inordinate amount of time spent on— occupying another seat we have reserved. In this seat the focus is mostly on the “lower taxes and less state” discussion. Here is where there is overlap with folks many liberals are traditionally more comfortable with, like conservatives2. In most cases, there’s nothing wrong with this overlap, especially in regard to political strategy — nothing will ever get done without forming alliances that can unite on specific tactics.
However, it should not go unnoticed that many outside of our ideological circles have and now think that terms like libertarianism and classical liberalism are interchangeable with forms of conservatism. This isn’t because people outside of our circles are stupid.
Perception is reality, and if it is perceived that we echo what conservatives are saying (more or less) on economic issues but are silent elsewhere, the question of how we can seriously be considered liberals in a distinct and meaningful sense becomes a reality. At that point, all we’ve tactically succeeded in doing is amplifying their voices on issues we agree on, and not being as loud, or sitting out, while others discuss in areas we disagree on like social issues — and many conservatives are only too happy to speak on social issues.
Those who consider themselves liberal have to be careful to not miss out on a huge part of the conversation that allows them to further their understanding of the world’s social issues and contribute serious recommendations for improving them.
Leaving a gap in the tradition of liberalism where a vital conversation and awareness of social issues should be leaves our reserved seat at the table for social issues vacant. In the best case, no one will really know where we stand and we’re just leaving more room in the conversation for reprehensible views, whether that’s neo-fascism, state-communism, or anything else. In the worst case, we’re letting others easily lump us into camps we don’t completely fit in. In either case, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
It is not becoming of the liberal mindset to forget about the importance of — to name only a few — issues and conversations on: civil rights; gender and racial equality; the struggle of newly landed immigrants integrating into society; the dangers of collectivism and nationalism; access to markets; access to education; income status relative to others today; the concentrated interests of private power (especially the business community); the structure and arrangement of authority in certain communities or overall; the structure and nature of certain laws and their disproportionate effects on certain groups; the nature function of governing institutions, including democratic ones; and how all of these play into the larger conversations on social justice and affect the autonomy of the individual. These questions are not so simply answered with stock answers and calls for “smaller government,” descriptions of utopia, and leaving it at that — not only because this is the easy way out, but also because they don’t deal with the realities at hand that people face every day. If we grant that capitalism’s current arrangements aren’t perfect, then the liberal can’t shy away from voicing critiques when they’re deserved, lest they cease to have reasoned principles and simply have dogma.
The small and large struggles, and victories won, in many of the aforementioned areas deserve the same amount of active appreciation that capitalism does, and it’s worth noting that many of these victories were certainly not always won by people who considered themselves liberal in the same sense of the tradition that many of us do — that doesn’t negate their importance, or their contributions, and whether they should be celebrated.
Incumbent on the liberal thinker is to not rest on the laurels of capitalism’s successes and become apathetic with social liberalism and justice. Focusing the entire narrative of human well-being disproportionately on economic progress tosses aside many elements and complexities of justice that liberals should concern themselves with, and that many have, traditionally. Developed countries are much more civilized and sympathetic places than they once were, and it’s not only because people in lower income classes have iPhones, and a king from three-hundred years ago didn’t.
China is often looked at by liberals as a case study of the benefits of economic liberalization as trade and the adoption of a semi-capitalist order propelled its GDP growth upward in the late 20th century and into the 21st. A once-poor country now has sophisticated facial recognition software in super markets to facilitate shopping — yay progress, yay capitalism! Not so frequently spoken about in the same crowd is the fact that the country also uses the same kind of technology to segregate and control its people, and has built an Orwellian social credit system that rates its citizens and their behavior “with regard to their creditworthiness, adherence to law and compliance with the government’s ideological framework3.”
I’m not calling for the pendulum to swing completely the other way. The easily visible milestones of the human condition, like economic well-being and material improvement, are very important and are success stories of liberalization, but they are merely one part of the overall story that is the improvement of the human condition and, more importantly, the work that still needs to be done and the battles that need to be fought.
If one seeks to bring about or promote forms of social or attitudinal change that lean toward the whole liberal ideal and not just one part of it, acknowledging and obtaining a better understanding of the subtle, and sometimes overt, circumstances, arrangements, attitudes, divisions, and social issues around us — and contributing solutions based on that understanding — is not only helpful to the cause, but a vital part of it.
The liberal can’t be content to always point to the rising economic tide while avoiding seriously discussing the other aspects of the ocean, or pretending it’s not there. Doing so succeeds only in disconnecting the ideals we wish to promote from the reality they intend to influence, dooming them to abstract seminars and living room discussions while the world continues as it always does — with social justice issues and others addressing them, often in ways we don’t like.
1 The emphasis here is on the arrangements most people are living with in Canada, and it should not be forgotten that many First Nations communities, for a variety of reasons, live in conditions that can be much worse than the average Canadian.
2 It’s worth noting that the state of modern conservatism, especially in the United States, brings into question whether or not those who call themselves conservatives really do believe in what can properly be called “markets” anyway.
Photo from Bloomberg