Essay

Liberalism lives of hope, trust and optimism - Dirk Verhofstadt

This evening I have been asked to talk about European liberalism and its differences with American liberalism. The title of this debate, Liberalism on a discord, assumes there are differences, even contradictions within the term liberalism. I don’t agree with this statement. Of course there are a lot of variations in liberalism – after all uniformity is the opposite of liberalism – but the core of liberal thinking is and remains the pursuit of freedom and justice. Tonight I will give you my personal vision on the content of liberalism and I will leave it to your judgment if what European, American and other politicians, writers and philosophers say and do in the name of liberalism, can be considered as liberal or not.

It is correct that the term liberalism is often abused. A fact that Friedrich Hayek already stated in 1944. Let me quote his book The Road to Serfdom: “My own impression is more and more that the use of the word liberalism, without a long explanation what it means, causes as much confusion, that the label gives more trouble then delights.” Politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margareth Thatcher appealed to ideas from classical liberal thinkers but their political acts were everything but liberal. It is even the case today. Vladimir Zjirinofsky is the president of the Liberal Party in Russia but in fact he is an extreme nationalist. Jorg Haïder is the leader – in German they call it the führer – from the Freedomsparty, but in fact he is a racist. Slavoj Zizek was presidential candidate for the Liberal Party in Slovenia but in fact he is a pure Marxist. These are only a few examples of people who act in the name of liberalism but they have nothing to do with it. At most they use or abuse certain elements of liberalism to give their own conservatism, nationalism, racism or egocentrism a smell of dignity and cultivation. On the contrary to Hayek I don’t find this is a reason not to use the term liberalism anymore. I believe it is our duty to keep liberalism, with al its outstanding social and human values, out of the hands of those who misuse it. For the same reason I resist to adjectives or addition as there are leftist liberalism, social liberalism, neo liberalism, ultra liberalism, libertarianism and so on.

Liberalism is based on individualism, another concept that often is misused. Some people say that individualism is the same as egoism, egocentricity or hedonism, but I could’nt disagree more. In fact, individualism is a special positive power allowing people to determine their destiny themselves. Individualism leads to self-respect, self-fulfillment, self-development and emancipation from traditional relations, socio-political groups and structures. Individualism is the anti pole against increasing anonymity, bureaucracy and uniformity of modern society. It lifts people from the grey masses and gives them the opportunity to find their own way within our society. It is correct that individualism goes hand in hand with self-interest, but there is nothing wrong with that. Self-interest is the source of prosperity and development. However individualism is more than self-interest. It is a never-ending process towards increasing liberty and self-reliance. For the citizen it is also a process of adaptation to social and environmental behaviour. Individualism is not an obstacle, but a condition for true solidarity. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”, John Stuart Mill wrote in his book On Liberty. Starting from this definition, individualism may not be tempered, but on the contrary, must be encouraged, especially in those communities where people are suppressed due to religious, social and cultural traditions. ‘Individualism is the cornerstone of society’, says the Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater, and he is right.

Here we come to the most important distinction between liberalism and the other ideologies. Only liberalism beliefs in individualism, in freedom and the autonomy of the individual. Therefore it stands against each form of collectivism, nationalism or traditionalism in which men are inferior to the community, the collective morality or the nation. It is clear that liberalism has nothing to do with socialism, conservatism or nationalism.

Liberalism and individualism are without a doubt the most successful thoughts in history. They are the driving forces of anti dogmatic thinking. One of the first to recognize the importance of individualism was Pico delle Mirandola, a philosopher from the Renaissance. In his book Oration on the Dignity of Man he formulated his idea of man being his own creator. Man has its fate in own hands. Man can degenerate to bestiality, or raise to divine. For his ideas Pico was condemned by the pope in 1486. Afterwards, liberal thinkers such as John Locke, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill elaborated these ideas. But it was Immanuel Kant – the father of Enlightenment – who acknowledged very clearly the interest of individualism and liberal thinking. His central idea was ‘Sapere Aude’, ‘Dare to know’ or ‘Dare to use your own sense’. He made clear that every human being is not a tool, but a goal. He defended the categorical imperative ‘Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law’. In other words, each human being has the duty to care for his fellow humans.

During history, liberalism and individualism increased with lots of ups and downs. Think about the twentieth century. Think about nationalism making humans suborbinate to the national community. During the First World War millions of young people died without a meaning. Think about communism threating man as an object, a tool that could be switch on or off, used or throwed away. In order to achieve their goal, the ideal equalized society, communist leaders such as Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot drove millions of people into death. It was a catastrophy. Think about Fascism making humans suborbinate to the will of the Führer. Also under this system man was not considered as a goal, but as a healthy or unhealthy part of the national community. People who would not fit into the system were destroyed as happened with dissidents, phisical and mental handicapped persons, gypsies and jews. The ‘Übermenschen’ found all of these people not worth living. Think about fanatic religious communities in which people were submitted to holy texts. Even today, in our Western countries, hunderds of thousands of people, mostly women, are suppressed in the name of God or Allah.

Only liberalism fights this. The fight against nationalism, against communism, against fascisme and against religious fanatism. And the fight is successfull. With the impuls of the liberal aspiration for freedom and justice, universal human rights were accepted, abuses condemned, dictatorships eliminated. The idea that we are not born Belgian, Dutch or American, but as citizen of the world with a number of untouchable rights and liberties. Since the sixties in the Western hemisphere, liberalism provided more freedom, allowing us to have our own lives more under our own control. 1968 was a crucial year. Some intellectuals consider May ’68 as a failure, as an upsurge of leftist activists and rebellious youngsters who sympathized with collectivist spectres. Those who examinated this period carefull see that it meant the final breakthrough of individualism and liberal values throughout all strata of society. Look at the civil rights movement, the feminist movement and later on the gay rights movement. So many taboos disappeared during those years. Here lies the basis of secularization, the fall of the sociopolitical blocks, tolerance, rights of men, the equality of the sexes, antiracism and above all individual freedom. Breaking loose from the chains of imposed morality, the liberation of women from their corset of religious dogma. The impact of this movement is still visible. It’s not a coincidence that in the Netherlands and Belgium, with liberal rulers, new laws are implemented on abortion, euthanasia and gay-marriage.

During the past decades liberalism was also succesfull on the economic field. Until the eighties socialist parties and politicians protected collectivism, nationalizations and a greater impact of the state on the economy. That Keneysian thinking led to a fat state, an ineffective bureaucracy, a lack of creativity, high unemployment and huge depts. Such depts that in the next twenty years we and even our children will have to pay them off. Today most socialist parties transformed themselves into social-democratic parties and accept free trade as the best system to create welfare. Under impulse of liberalism Western governments stopped subsidizing loss-making branches of the industry like coal and textile. They slimmed down their bureaucraties. They abolished unnecessary rules. They privatized branches like telecom and aviation. They all became more orthodox on the budget. I realise that some of these transformations are to slow, that there are still to many bureaucratic rules and that we need more adaptations and applications to keep our economies competitive. Social-democrats and conservatives are still in the grip of unions and other pressuregroups. They refuse or postpone necessary measures and they forget that the best way to protect our social and educational system is a good working economy. So we have to go on and convince others of the necessity of further liberal reforms in order to make the state more efficiënt.

Some even prefer to go much further. They not only want to remove the fat from state, but they also wish to dismantle the state, even in its most essential tasks. They call themselves neoliberals, libertarians or anarcho-capitalists. This leads to marketfundamentalism. In contrast to Karl Poppers warning that we may not accept dogma’s, they have a blind believe in absolute freedom, absolute property rights and in the absolute free market. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the thesis of the The end of history of Francis Fukuyama, neoliberals and libertarians consider free market as a sort of scientific certainty. Liberals never followed this dogmatic concept because they understand that besides freedom also justice is necessary for a better society. Liberals never adored the absolute freedom because they know that absolute freedom frequently causes negative effects for fellow humans and the whole society. Liberals refuse to submit themselves to blind capitalism because money and extreme sefishness are frequently bad advisors and can hurt society and freedom, and hamper opportunities for fellow humans.

Neoliberals and libertarians see the state as an ennemy. They reject the ideas of actual liberal thinkers as there are Amartya Sen, Fernando Savater, Hernando de Soto and Martha Nussbaum who prooved, each in their way, that a good organised state, with reliable education, an efficiënt social security, a modern infrastructure an effective legal system are necessary to give people the opportunity to live a fulfilling live. The notion ‘absolute freedom’ is false. It’s like putting someone in the middle of the desert and saying ‘you are free’. There you are, without any protection, without drinking water, without compass. Ill, older and handicapped people need tools to practice their freedom. Children need reliable education to receive the knowledge and capacities to make their own descisions in their later life. People needs an effective legal system, not only for the protection of their property and personal rights, but also to protect their human dignity. As Martha Nussbaum says, an efficiënt state is necessary for people without ‘fundamental capabilities’ to maximize their right on self-determination.

In fact there is a deep gap between liberalism and libertarianism. Libertarians narrow the liberal notion of justice to lawfullness. They hold a plea for a minimal state, only taking care of protection of propertyrights and acts against violence. Some of them plea even for no state at all. They want the privatization of everything, even jurisdiction. In any case they reject redistribution by the state. ‘Redistribution is a form of theft’, said Robert Nozick. The hungry, homeless and diprived people can not make an appeal to the government. Possibly fellow citizens can give something to the poor, but this is not an obligation and neither is it a task for the state. This leads to egoism, paternalism and the exploitation of fellow humans and nature. This is at right angles to the social and human values of liberalism.

In the concrete application of their dogmatic proposals libertarians fix the organization of human values quickly by an utopian pattern of thoughts. Taxes are unacceptable, but who will take care of courts, schools, roads, police forces, garbage collection, fire brigades and jails? Libertarians say that the users of services have to pay for them. The financing of these services depend of the free will of potential users to pay for them. This means a complete privatization without any safety net for the poor. Libertarians allow all voluntary transactions between individuals, even for drugs, weapons or unsafe products. They reject all restrictions like minimum wages, security measures and ethical duties. Employers may discriminate and recruit employees on basis of race, skin colour, gender, philosophy of life or sexual preference. Every regulation and control of prices, even on medicines and food, expires. The libertarian ideas would lead to the dismantling of public services, such as education, social security and infrastructure.

Liberals don’t agree. For an open society, a week state can be as dangereous as an authoritarian state. Justice cannot be reduced to individual freedom and property. Every person has a duty towards his fellow humans. The sick, the elder and the handicapped may not be handed over to the ‘goodwill’ of others. They must be helped structuraly by a system of redistribution. It’s the only way for all people to determine their own destiny. According to Kant the concept of freedom is hiding a duty: Du Kannst, denn Du Sollst. In contrast with libertarians, liberals realize that we have to support and help fellow humans, even if they do not belong to our society. Not alone out of charity but also structural. Trough an efficient state.

All of this seems theoretical, but hurricane Katrina made it real and so much clear. America knew long in advance about the impact of the disastre. On August 25 – four days before the disastre – the authorities were informed by scientists about the probable consequences of the hurricane. Nobody reacted. The federal government relied on the own capacity of citizens to face a hurricane. According to them it was not necessary to send extra doctors, nurses, policemen, firemen, bus drivers or technicians. Even the dramatic intervention of the mayor saying that ‘This is a threat that we’ve never faced before’ could not wake up the federal government. When Katrina hit New Orleans and its suburbs on August 28, nobody was prepared. Presdent Bush stayed a few more days on holiday. Only five days later, on September 2, he visited the disaster area. Meanwhile tens of thousands of victims were crying for help. Where was the National Guard, where was the police, the fire department, the doctors, the busses and the helicopters? What we saw on television was a powerless state leaving their citizens literally in the cold. Disastrous pictures which diserve only one classification: inhuman!

Katrina proved in one deafening bang the lack of state in the United States. Soldiers were not available because most of them were fighting in Irak. The budget to reinforce the dykes and the banks was cut back. Hospitals did not have the disposals for the necessary medication. Some tens of thousands refugees, including mothers with babies, children, senior citizens and sick people waited several days in the open air to rescue them from this nightmare. The lack of state was visible by the total anarchy in the abandonned city where looting became normal. The poor from New Orleans felt abandonned. In a column in The New York Times the Canadian writer Michael Ignatieff wrote that ‘in America, a levee defends a foundational moral intuition: all lives are worth protecting and, since this is America, worth protecting at the highest standard. This principle was betrayed by the Army Corps of Engineers, by the state and local officials who knew the levees needed repair and did nothing, and by Congress, which allowed the president to cut appropriations for levee renewal’. I admit that the Bush administration does not follow the libertarian minimal or no-state ideas. Bush follows a neo conservative policy in ethical issues and a neoliberal policy in economic issues. Bush spend a lot of money for the war in Irak and the fight against terror, but he cut in public services like education, social security and infrastructure. By doing this he acted as an enemy of the state.

For liberals the state is not the enemy. They don’t want a fat state but an efficient state as a vital instrument to provide freedom, justice and protection. They follow the Theory of Justice from the American philosopher John Rawls. He demonstrated that people are able to combine freedom and justice in a rational way. In order to come to an effective social justice Rawls uses a thought experiment. He starts from an initial position whereby people find themselves hidden under a veil of ignorance. He asks everyone to try and imagine how he would see social cooperation and distribution of means if he were to find himself in an original position not knowing whether he is rich or poor, black or white, man or woman, healthy or ailing, etc. Following this train of thought man will always take into account the potential situation in which he will necessarily have to appeal to the support of others. The collective result of this reflection will be justice as we would want it originally. It makes sure that reasonable limitations are established by a rational free will. Individualism in this train of thought does not form an obstacle to a free and rational agreement between people, on the contrary, it is a necessary basis for this agreement. It is remarkable that Rawls ideas were applied more in Europe than in his homeland. A great majority of European citizens choose resolute for this system of redistribution. They put their trust in an efficient and cautious government but don’t want to be strangled by to many rules by that same government.

A good example is the fight against terror. Of course almost every European rejects the use of blind violence and expects protection from the state. But at the same time we refuse to sacrifice fundamental rights for a virtual freedom. The colour-coded ‘threat levels’ as used in the United States are ridiculous. They do not promote security but create a situation of permanent fear. What means green? That the situation is safe? Can someone guarantee you that everything is save and nothing can happen? What means ayellow or red? That you have to walk home instead of taking the train or the tube? Those ‘threat levels’ cause Fear’s Impire as Benjamin Barber explained in one of his books. For terrorists permanent fear is the goal and permanent fear is what the neo conservative administration of president Bush is putting into place. Liberals must resist this.

Off course we have to fight terror, but if we want to eliminate the real origins of evil we must dig deeper and cast doubts about our own Western attitude. We have to question if we do enough to help our fellow humans in poor countries. We have to question if and how existing globalization provide more freedom and justice all over the world. In his book World Poverty and Human Rights, philosopher Thomas Pogge states that ‘Despite a high and growing global average income, billions of human beings are still condemned to lifelong severe poverty, with all its attendant evils of low life expectancy, social exclusion, ill health, illiteracy and effective enslavement.’ This growing gap is a danger. In his book Jihad versus McWorld Benjamin Barber explains this danger accurately. “If justice cannot be shared equally, injustice will be imposed equally.” Let us find out from a liberal perspective how we can reduce poverty and create welfare in poor countries.

Experts from IMF and the WTO – who follow the so-called Washington consensus – tell us that globalization will automatically lead to more prosperity in all countries opening their borders for unconditional free trade development. Anti-globalist movements pretend that globalization, as we know it today, will increase the existing problems in the lesser rich countries and that the gap between rich and poor will rather increase than decrease. Anti-globalists position themselves against a free market and in favor of a stronger grip on the national and international economies by governments. My perception is that both are wrong. Neither neo-marxist anti-globalists, nor neo-liberal market fundamentalists offer satisfactory solutions for less developed countries. Anti-globalists try to pretend that liberalism had been experienced and that it doesn’t work. They ask for new forms of nationalization, for subsidies and price controls. They claim to be the protectors of the poor while most of them protect particular interests. Most unions claim for more rules on multinationals. But by imposing high labor and environmental standards they extinguish the competitive advantages of small nations. On the other hand, market fundamentalists expect immediate and positive results from privatization. They look for deregulation and a minimum of government influence. They seem to forget that a free and liberal world means more than just economic freedom. Let me quote the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa: “development, the progress of civilization must be simultaneously economic, political, cultural, and even ethical or moral”.

Liberals support privatization. But they do not accept that public monopolies are turned into private monopolies in order to enrich a particular industry, company or person. Liberals support deregulation. But they do not accept the law of the jungle, the exploitation of people or the dismantlement of a basic social protective system. Liberals support a smaller state, but don’t want the government to withdraw from all fields of public life. An efficient state is necessary to strengthen its legal system in order to protect property rights and contracts, to provide security and freedom, to fight monopolies, trusts, cartels and corruption. Most of the time liberalism never delivered prosperity, simply because in most countries liberalism never existed. The problems in the world are not due to too much liberalism, but to a lack of liberalism. The lack of opportunities for people in poor countries is, for the major part, due to protectionism in rich countries. Unions, employers organizations, agricultural confederations and their political friends consider their own interests more important than the public interest. Different from pressure groups - which in Europe are mostly linked to socialist, social-democrat or conservative political parties - liberals reject each form of protectionism.

The most important protectionists are the United States, the European Union and Japan. Every year they subsidize their economies with billion of dollars, euro’s and yens. They protect their own companies, they close their markets for import from poor countries and above all they allocate export subsidies to dump their over-production on to the world market. This policy in the United States, Europe and Japan is not liberal but protectionist. They do not implement a free market policy, they obstruct it. They apply import taxes on food, textile and steel, damaging other countries. Protectionism disrupts local markets in poor countries and keep local workers in poverty. Anti-globalists are wrong. Actually liberal free trade does not exist, only market disturbing protectionism or forms of monopolies. But liberals are also opposed to monopolies and trust cartels. Protectionism is a continuing tragedy, causing unnecessary hunger and disease. According to Johan Norberg, author of the book In Defense of Global Capitalism, protectionism may lead to even bigger problems in the future. He says: “We in the West used to tell the developing countries about the benefits of the free market. And we promised wealth and progress would certainly come if they changed and adopted our ways. Many did, only to find that our markets are closed to them. No wonder, then, that Western countries are seen as hypocrites, producing resentment and a fertile ground for anti-American and anti-liberal ideas in many regions at a time when the West needs friends more than ever.”

Another liberal tool to reduce worldwide poverty is the attribution and protection of the right of ownership, especially in poor countries. During decades socialist thinkers explained and even fooled the poor by stating that collectivism and nationalizations would solve their problems, but it always failed. Peruvian researcher Hernando de Soto demonstrated that just this policy was pernicious for the creation of welfare. Millions of migrants established themselves in the slums around big cities, in the favelas, the bidonvilles, the shawnty towns. Automatically they enter a world without any official legislation. They have their own social rules, which in no means mean that they are not active. On the contrary. Nowhere else is there so much activity and entrepreneurship than among poor people. And poor people do not only work for and amongst poor people. They also fill gaps in the legal economy. They drive busses and taxis without licenses, they take on jobs on the side in hotels and in restaurants. They do construction work. They take on jobs in non-registered shops, in offices and in factories. This leads to De Soto’s surprising conclusion that the illegal or unofficial world is the norm. His conclusion is not only surprising but important: the poor are not the problem, they are the solution. Give the millions of people who lives in the slums the opportunity to convert their poor properties into economically usable assets. Give them the opportunity to start up a business easily. Simplify the acquisition of properties and estates. Property means economic potential. Bringing the poor into a legal and official environment would lead to an enormous accumulation of welfare. A multiple of all the development assistance from the last decades. Does this mean we should stop all development assistance? Not at all. We not only have the duty to help the poor, the sick and the older in our own societies but also the weak in the rest of the world. Money must be used more efficiently and end up with the people and not with corrupt regimes and their leaders. According to Amartya Sen, development assistance must go to education, health care and basic infrastructure of the poor state.

In addition we need more democracy in the international organizations. It’s absolutely necessary that the different regions in the world get more influence in world policy. The composition of the Security Council of the United Nations is not longer acceptable. As you know the US, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France are the permanent members of this Council. I propose a better balance and representation. Why can’t we accept a Council with one representative from North America, Europe, Africa, Russia, the Arabic world, China, India, South East Asia and Latin America? Representatives of the different regions in the world should also be involved in the strategy and policy of other international organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. Today those organizations work to much as an extension of the economic and financial interests of the United States and Wall Street.

Finally and especially because we are in Holland tonight, I would like to give my opinion about a case in which liberals should take the lead for the benefit of millions of people. I am talking about the further enlargement of the European Union and the candidacy of Turkey. According to my Kantian way of thinking and my plea for individualism my concern does not go to Turkey as a country. My concern goes to the individual Turk, to the individual Kurd, to the individual Armenian, and so on. My concern goes to individuals who hope for a better future and especially for their final protection of their rights and freedoms in the European jurisdiction. As Europeans and citizens of the world we have the duty to give those people a perspective. The perspective to enter into the great European family in a few years. A family in which their children will find peace and welfare.

I realize that the European Union needs urgent deepening, a more transparent and democratic way of acting. But this cannot be an excuse to draw a final line. The European Union is a liberal project. It is not based on a common language, religion or even history. It came from the free and resolute will from people who understood that we could only maintain peace by connecting our destiny and by sacrificing small pieces of our national sovereignty to a higher interest. Democracy, human rights and a free market economy are the common values of it. In this sense Europe is a universal project. Let me quote Jean Monnet, one of the Founding Fathers of the European Community: “We are not forming coalitions of states, we are uniting men”. The shortage of a clear and common identity is not a lack but on the contrary an advantage. This is an important difference with European nationalists and conservatives who wish to keep the historic ‘Avondland’. They frighten people and plea for a preservation of or even a return to the classic nation states. The worst thing we can do with regard to the Turks, but also to the Bulgars, the Roumanians, the Ukrainians, the White Russians, the Georgians and so on, is definitely closing the door and blowing up all perspectives. It is my personal conviction that the absence of perspective is the breeding ground for fanaticism and terrorism. As long as people have a perspective, they have hope and turn away from extremists. Take away any perspective and you give fanatics the possibility to spread their pernicious ideas.

Liberalism must go on. We may not let it misuse by conservatives. Friedrich Hayek made the difference between liberalism and conservatism very clear in his essay Why I am not a Conservative that appeared as postscript in his book The Constitution of Liberty. ‘Conservatism’, said Hayek, ‘indicates an aversion against change’. Conservative parties try to inspire fear and are nurtured by the feelings of uncertainty that every progress causes. And we all know that globalization will cause a lot of changes. Liberals have confidence in people to change things in a good way. This does not mean that liberals set little store by traditions. Traditions can be important, but they may never be a brake for progress. In this sense liberals will do anything to take away all obstacles for emancipation and self-fulfillment, even obstructions thrown up by the government.

The title of one of my books is Human Liberalism. It elected immediately the question if there is something like ‘inhuman liberalism’. I don’t believe so. I wanted to make clear that in liberalism the human being stands central and nothing else. Not profit, not the economy, not the state, not the nation, not a race. Only the human being and his freedom to make his own choices. Liberalism does not need a jerk to the left or to the right, no jerk to conservatism or to populism, but a more offensive liberalism. Liberals must claim again their ideology and act against all parties, politicians and others who misuse the word. By every political choice liberals should ask themselves if a concrete measure leads to more freedom, more emancipation, more opportunities for the individual, more welfare for fellow humans here and in the rest of the world? If the answer is no, liberals must reject it. If the answer is yes, liberals should support it. Other ideologies live off fear, uncertainty and insecurity. Liberalism lives of hope, trust and optimism.

Dirk Verhofstadt



Lecture in Utrecht, October 5, 2005


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