Liberty under attack from enemies within

Just as generations did before us, we are learning that a belief in liberty is not self-evident and its expansion is not inevitable.

Second world war propaganda poster.
Second world war propaganda poster. Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

It is easy to look around the world at the building tensions and think that the greatest enemy of freedom comes from a nefarious, despotic regime in Russia, Iran or China. We should, however, resist the temptation to blame the outside world for the crisis in liberalism. The greatest threat to our liberty isn’t truly to be found in some far-off, foreign capital. It is right here, in our own societies. Past generations in the free world created societies that cherished liberty, and developed states compatible with it. But the argument for liberty, whether in the market or in discourse, has to be won anew in every generation, and our institutions renewed or replaced as they decay. The trade-offs between liberty and safety, fairness or cultural cohesion must be constantly adjusted to take account of new technologies, power dynamics and economic imperatives.

In other words, the most serious threats to our liberty come from within. Broadly, they fall into three categories: economic, demographic and technological. I will lay out each in turn.

At the end of the Cold War, the argument for freedom was easy to make. Freedom not only brought abstract, political privileges, such as the right to vote. It also made us rich. Pop music, cheap goods, home ownership and well-funded public services: these were the rewards of a market-driven economy. But with the arrival of the Chinese economic miracle and the stagnation of growth in free societies, it started to become clear that freedom and wealth weren’t necessarily two sides of an unbreakable bargain.

In the early days, it was common to hear the argument that the Chinese political system couldn’t stay autocratic for long. Once the middle classes grew rich, said the received wisdom, they would demand political rights. And for a long time, Beijing played along with this fantasy. Indeed, some voices among its collective leadership prior to 2008 even believed it.

Then the 2008 crisis arrived in the West, with its vast state bailouts, and the argument for a free-wheeling, self-correcting Western model became much harder to make. On the back of this ideological turnaround, a technologically enhanced but fundamentally old-fashioned autocrat called Xi Jinping came to power and set about restoring the primacy of one-party, one-man rule. He could do it because getting rich had not, in fact, triggered a liberal awakening among China’s new office classes, but a sense of pride in a uniquely Chinese system.

Shaken by the crash, free societies have now started to entertain the terrifying possibility that dictatorship might actually be more efficient. Financial regulations have been redrawn in Europe with a nod to the ‘Asian macro-prudential model’. We now look, with awe, at the transformation of dodgy backwaters like Shenzhen into one of the world’s most innovative cities. We see China building eight new airports a year. We see that if Beijing wants to build a new high-speed rail line, it doesn’t waste years surveying the newt population or measuring decibels. It just smashes down whatever is in the way and builds.

And we look at our own countries and wonder why productivity and investment have barely grown for a decade. But what is there to wonder about? Just watch the UK government as it enters yet another round of consultations and legal challenges on building a third runway at Heathrow, the country’s most crowded and valuable airport. Look and despair at the sight of France’s once world-leading nuclear programme bogged down by huge costs and design flaws, and at the wasteful rundown of Germany’s entire nuclear industry. Cross your fingers whenever you cross an Italian bridge in case it is the next one to crumble. And marvel at the unfathomable cost per mile of the UK’s High Speed 2 rail project, the world’s most expensive infrastructure project, or our inability to build enough homes for our population. There is nothing so damning for the future of Western civilisation as our sheer inability to build the things we need.

Yet those who suggest sweeping away many of the regulations and legal norms ensnaring our economies are told that it simply isn’t democratic. It’s said that everyone must get their say, the regulator needs to double-check this, workers must have their rights, everyone must file their objections, have their cases heard in court, and so on. Or else, the state can’t get involved, we must trust the market; we can’t afford it, it’s all too expensive (no wonder it is). And all of it raises the uncomfortable question: is democracy and respect for everyone’s rights, from the local bird-watchers to the local construction guild, just too inefficient to sustain the growth and development we need?

Central banks and governments have generally shielded their populations from the effect of this rising tide of regulation and inefficiency in two ways: by a sustained period of low interest rates and a long period of globalisation. The first has made everyone feel richer by allowing us to borrow to our heart’s content. The second has made everyone feel richer by moving large chunks of production offshore, to jurisdictions like China, that aren’t bound by our regulations, our limits on carbon emissions, our labour or privacy laws.

This is not a side issue. It is fundamental. Take UK carbon emissions, for example. In theory, the UK has reduced its emissions by 41% since 1990. But by far the majority of that reduction is a result of offshoring production. In other words, we have shut down our own industries by raising costs at home, through measures such as climate and employment regulations, and we now get the goods made elsewhere – largely in countries like China with poor records on the environment and workers’ rights – and then import them.

Taking this effect into account, number crunching by the World Wildlife Fund shows that emissions related to British consumption of goods and services has, in fact, only fallen by 15% since 1990. This is not a story of emissions reduction, but of emissions displacement. With the economic and political backlashes now here, the twin strategies of easy money and outsourcing seem pretty clearly to have reached their limit. The potent brew of quantitative easing and stimulus spending unleashed in response to Covid flooded our economies with new money and, combined with the war and sanctions, has fed through into the mother of all inflation shocks. Central banks are now belatedly putting up interest rates to try to avoid a damaging wage-price spiral. Whether they succeed or not, it is clear that the days of printing money without consequences are over.

Meanwhile, we are realising that relying on Chinese production for everything from our telecoms equipment to our nuclear power plants and surgical gloves, far from being cheap and reliable, is risky and fragile. Markets may not yet realise it, but the decoupling of the West from China is already underway. In the name of zero Covid, Beijing is accelerating the process, but that alone won’t release us from our own bog of over regulation, zombie companies and under-investment.

Add into all of this the requirement for net zero carbon emissions in our energy systems (these targets still don’t count offshoring) and the increasing care needs of our ageing populations and you have a recipe for pretty stark economic decline. Can liberty and the political norms that sustain it survive if they are seen to deliver a system of falling living standards?

Economic decline is being compounded by another factor: demographics. By and large, free countries rely on a Ponzi-scheme system of funding for old-age and health care. Current workers pay in to fund services for the needy. This system works if your population of workers is growing and the population of dependents is shrinking. Unfortunately, in much of the free world (and outside it too – notably, in China), the trends are going the other way. The predictable result is gradually rising taxes and failing services as our models buckle under the burden of ageing.

So, what’s the logical, hard-nosed economist’s response to this? Well, they say it’s obvious. If a labour force is shrinking, one should simply replenish it using the millions of aspiring young immigrants queueing up at the border. But in the typical way of economists, these thinkers are replacing human beings with numbers and ratios and assuming that they are fully fungible, like lumps of coal.

If the migration crisis of 2016 taught us nothing else, it’s that our populations do not see it that way. What they see in mass migration is a reckless social experiment performed on their societies without their consent. And when you zoom out to look at the longer history of this issue, they are, in fact, correct. Genetic records from ancient DNA studies suggest that it is rare for a significant ‘population replacement event’ to occur within the space of a few centuries. Aside from the violent events we know about from imperial expansions, the fastest such event of this kind that’s known about from prehistory is the 80 percent replacement of the British population that built Stonehenge over a 200-year period. Was this a peaceful event? I have my doubts.

In Europe, within a couple of generations we’ve gone from non-European immigrants accounting for an almost negligible share of the population to comprising 10–20 percent, and this is rising due to divergent birth rates. Of course, this is not a straightforward ‘great replacement’, as the far-right sometimes terms it. It involves, rather, the accelerated creation of a new population born of mixing between existing Europeans and immigrants or new Europeans. The speed of this event makes it highly unusual in human history.

Why does this matter for liberty? Well, if you listen to thinkers such as Douglas Murray, you’ll hear that a large proportion of the people coming to Europe are steeped in cultures that are at least unconcerned with, if not outright opposed to, freedom. He argues that we cannot expect our organically evolved political and cultural institutions to maintain this wonderful, delicate thing called liberty in the face of such rapid change.

And it’s not hard to see examples of this. We’ve seen a return of religious prohibitions, with the UK cinema chain Cineworld recently cancelling the screening of a film about Mohammed’s daughter, due to protests claiming it was blasphemous. We have the case of the teacher at Batley Grammar school in the UK who has been in hiding since the day in March 2021 he dared to show his class cartoons of Mohammed. And then there are the scandals involving the grooming and systematic abuse of young, working class girls by gangs of predominantly Asian men in numerous towns across the country. In Sweden, a country where violent crime was until recently almost non-existent, politics is now being driven by the explosive issue of gang violence by migrant groups in previously safe neighbourhoods. Across Europe, we have seen trucks wielded as weapons, bombs, knife attacks, the harassment of women, and the routine stationing of armed guards outside synagogues and Jewish supermarkets.

Still, others would argue – and they may be right – that the real enemy of liberty is not the immigrants, the vast majority of whom simply move to Europe for a better life, but rather the paranoid, race-based prejudice that immigrants are somehow unsusceptible to the appeal of decent and universal Western liberties. The rise in far-right violence, which has seen politicians murdered, gun massacres unleashed and decent citizens abused, is at least as worrying as its Islamist counterpart. What we should fear, these liberals argue, is not the way migrants change our society, but the way we change in response to migration. Whichever way you cut it, however, we need to view immigration not simply as a mechanical fix for low birth rates, but as a process that should be managed according to social and political needs, as well as economic calculations.

Few phenomena have disappointed modern liberals as much as the arrival of the internet age. The spread of digital communication is a change as profound as the invention of the printing press, which we tend to associate with the arrival of the Reformation and a great liberation of thought. But the printing press also brought with it other spectacles, such as the frenzy of witch hunts that gripped Europe in the fifteenth century after a deranged text denouncing a scourge of witches went viral for its age. And the Reformation, in turn, brought the counter-Reformation and wars of religion.

It was the same in 1920s Germany, when many intellectuals thought that the spread of mass literacy would bring about a great, democratising liberation. Walter Benjamin talked about the written word being ‘pitilessly dragged out onto the street’ and pasted up on billboards, stripped of authority and made into a tool for the common man. He thought this would lead to a great revolution for liberty. Instead, it facilitated the rise of the Nazis.

The arrival of social media hasn’t yet unleashed a war in Europe, but it is fundamentally changing our societies in ways that traditional institutions, like political parties, universities and workplace bureaucracies, are struggling to manage. The dissemination of ideas between peers has, for good or bad, forever undermined the authority of the office edict or the medical diagnosis. At first, this was supposed to be a technology that made us hopeful. Social media could link up parents of children with rare diseases. It could allow a new clothes designer to sell her wares to the public without a middleman in the way. It was credited with helping to get the US’s first black president elected and facilitating the mass uprisings of the Arab spring.

But it didn’t take long for us to see the dark side. Nowadays, it’s easy to go online and join or initiate a digital witch hunt to drive someone out of their job or push them towards self-harm and suicide. We have seen sophisticated propaganda campaigns persuade people to leave normal lives and travel across the world to join Isis. Algorithms designed to harvest human time and attention have divided the virtual town square into echo chambers that lose the ability to debate one another.

Authoritarian regimes have found in the internet a perfect tool to make efficient their dreams of totalitarian surveillance and control. Even in democratic societies, governments and corporations have responded to the tide of digital horror and lawsuits by putting forward new, centralised ways of policing free speech, including ‘fact checking’ tools and the UK’s mooted Online Safety Bill.

Even if you discount the most sinister effects of this technological revolution, few can deny the corrosive effect of technology addiction and the epidemic of a sense of meaninglessness that comes with it. Philosophical exhaustion, nihilism and ignorance are draining the sustenance from the soil that liberty needs to thrive, and into this void, a new jungle of ideologies, tribal identities and mental health problems is expanding. This is truly the death of God that Nietzsche talked about and, just as he predicted, it is bringing with it the ‘revaluation of all values’. The notion of liberty is being rewritten, reclaimed and rejected a thousand times every day.

Just as generations did before us, we are learning that a belief in liberty is not self-evident and its expansion is not inevitable. We cannot rely on the persuasive power of democracy, economic efficiency or cultural riches to make the case for liberty by proxy. We cannot succeed by protecting our decaying institutions from all change, or by going without them. The external threats to the free world from dictatorial regimes are a growing danger. And yet, it’s also possible that by reminding us of what the grim alternative to liberty is, these threats will, in the end, be the trigger needed to renew and reunite free societies so they can overcome the greater enemies – the enemies within.


Juliet Samuel