Image credit. Make sure to read the article from which I have borrowed the chart.
I have argued in a paper that liberty has grown (increased, become more complete, more widely efficacious and available) since 1850, in the West. I wonder whether my claim is robust enough to withstand criticism. My main thesis, however, concerns the paradoxical spread of liberty without the help of a congenial champion.
Since 1850, classical liberalism has been in decline. Simultaneously, the social democratic mind set has been gaining currency to the point of dominance in all Western countries characterised by advanced civil societies.
By civil society I mean an open access society, one in which individuals and organisations are assured extensive independence from arbitrary interference, not only by other private agents, but also from trespass by public agents specialising in violence and governance. Civil societies have ensured the greatest extent of personal freedom in the history of large human communities.
For the last 160 years, liberty has grown at the same time that liberal parties have been politically marginalised compared to forces accommodating ideas and policies rejected by liberals as statist, interventionist, paternalistic, and anti-capitalist.
The paradox of freedom is that we enjoy unprecedented liberty in an age dominated by political attitudes and practices opposed by liberals. Put differently, freedom, the quintessential concern of liberalism, seems to have won the battle for reality, at the same time that it has lost the battle for the minds of the people.
Taking the year 1850 as the baseline, a comparison of the aims of classical liberalism and those of (originally socialist and Marxist) social democracy would seem to reveal a clear victory of the liberal vision of society.
The radical objectives of socialists and Marxists failed to materialise. In terms of societal reality, rather than speaking of a social democratisation of liberalism, keeping our baseline in mind, one might more properly speak of a liberalisation of social democracy. After all, the base of social democratic policies is civil society, and civil society is squarely rooted in the elementary conditions of liberty envisioned by classical liberalism.
The above chart lends support to the claim that we have witnessed growing economic freedom over the period in question. But what about other vital aspects of freedom. Is there evidence to counter my contention?
As for freedoms that have grown, what comes to my mind at once are:
- the greater freedom that attends greater wealth,
- the greater freedom of half of humanity (women) and many, often sizeable minorities (the coloured, the homoerotic etc),
- universal suffrage,
- the extension of personal freedom vis-à-vis the claims of the church(es), conventions (e.g. commanding the choice and lifelong affiliation with spouse) and organised social compulsions (e.g. communal expectations - for a protestant not to marry a catholic etc),
- the greater scope (from a certain age onward) to shape one's life independent of parental or other peer pressures,
- the greater freedom for hundreds of millions of people thanks to the collapse of communism,
- most recently the emancipation of the public from oligopolistic media via the Internet.