There are two puzzles that drive my political curiosity with particular momentum at present:
1. Why are there so many partisans of liberty who do not recognise and rejoice in the fact that they live in the freest countries and freest age ever. Why do they tend to think of liberty as a total and final state (freedom = no state) or find it hard to relax in the face of the fact that freedom occurs and can only occur in an impregnably ambivalent world including events, attitudes, and movements away from liberty as well as powerful processes, efforts and trends conducive to her?
2. How is it possible that people's political convictions in the leading Western countries are often not awfully mindful of liberty and frequently positively anti-liberty, while freedom has been and continues to be the outstanding characteristic of our countries since the last 150 years?
As far as politics is reflected in the public discourse, I would think it fair to say, social democracy has been on the ascent and liberalism (European meaning) in retreat at least since the second half of the 19th century.
But has social democracy been an incessant eradicator of freedom? Have we been suffering a substantial cumulative net loss of liberty? Is it not perhaps the case that politics is often working around and thus effectively respecting the roots and the primary structures of a civilisation dependent on freedom?
While Germany's social democratic party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) looks crestfallen in the face of weak support in this year's elections (prolonging a trend of many years), what does not seem to be generally understood is that the social democrats are the victims of their own success.
Their ideological product is so popular, every party in Germany is now offering it with slightly different flavours and toppings, except the fringe that is even further to the left. The SPD is being cannibalised thanks to enhanced sartorial options for the people's favourite political creed. The distinctions between the leading German political parties which were still quite pronounced in the 1960s have largely collapsed into some pulp of social democratic ad hocery.
(See also German Elections 2013.)
I find it puzzling that we should witness such a secular trend, yet no absolute decline in liberty. While I am disturbed by the standardisation of political attitudes under a social democratic umbrella, I cannot tell whether this development must lead to a severe rupture of freedom - as it did at the end of the Weimar Republic -, or whether freedom will continue to flow unperturbed or even find a way to reassert herself with a vengeance - as she did after the Second World War, even though at the time political sentiment in Germany was very favourable of socialism.
Not only in Germany, the developed world over, including the USA, of course, social democracy is the victorious ideology of our age.
Since the 1960s, the Republicans - originators of Obamacare and other liberal (American meaning) policies - have clearly become more social democratic. Interestingly, so have the Democrats, while 30 years after Coolidge there still seemed to be a lot of freedom-conscious content in the Democratic way of thinking. Compare the two below articles:
Buried under a progressive monument built by such historians as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy cries out from the grave for a second look at his record. Yet to date most historians and textbook authors have contented themselves with carving details onto the Schlesinger edifice. The latest troop seem happy to march around the Kennedy tombstone, sounding triumphalist bugles. This matters because it sustains a fallacy: that Democratic policy today, so progressive, is identical to Kennedy policy and that today’s policy will yield the same splendid results that Kennedy policy did. …
… In an early speech, “Why I Am a Democrat,” Kennedy explained simply: “Because I was born one”–in other words, “an accident of birth.” Given that accident, JFK opted for the most conservative and Jeffersonian definition of Democrat he could find, that which “stood firmly opposed to a strong centralized government. … It championed states’ rights, and strict constitutional interpretation.” …
… The standard picture of the Kennedy economic policy is of a Keynesian Camelot, “Keynesian” here meaning always favoring big spending and larger government. A hard-currency hawk, JFK expressed views on spending reminiscent of Calvin Coolidge: “I don’t believe in big expenditure for its own sake.” He agreed to allocate hundreds of millions to the space race only to beat the Soviet Union: “Otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money, because I’m not that interested in space.”
A true Keynesian treats government spending and tax cuts as the same thing–more cash for consumers. Kennedy drew a distinction and favored tax cuts, saying, Laffer-esque, “The soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to cut the rates now.” When Kennedy’s star Keynesian, John Kenneth Galbraith, insisted on opposing tax cuts, Kennedy ignored him. As Galbraith reported, “The President told me to shut up.” The point isn’t whether Kennedy had progressive traits. It’s that Democrats have betrayed Kennedy by using his name to apply policies he abhorred. In his day Kennedy shot down those who abused his name, saying, “I’d be very happy to tell them I’m not a liberal at all.”
Via this source.
A crucial reason why the U.S. used to enjoy robust economic growth was that we had a strong rule of law tradition. People could mostly know what the law was and enforcement was the same for everyone – no favorites.
In that environment, people could invest and plan for the future without worry about having their wealth seized. They could also go about their lives without worrying that a government official might target them for a violation of some vague law or regulation they didn’t know existed.
Sadly, the rule of law has been decaying for many years, and very rapidly under Barack Obama’s presidency.
The decline of the rule of law was one of the topics covered at the Liberty Forum held by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation on November 13 and 14. A panel discussion with Professor Allan Meltzer of Carnegie-Mellon University, Leszek Balcerowicz, the first Minister of Finance in Poland following the fall of the Iron Curtain, and Serena Sileoni, of the Bruno Leoni Institute in Italy. All three speakers identified the decline of the rule of law as a serious contagion that threatens freedom and prosperity.
Professor Meltzer observed that the rule of law is being replaced by a constantly-growing mass of regulation. That mass leads to crony capitalism, as politicians find that the regulations give them authority to pick winners (shower taxpayer money on favored businesses) and punish losers (such as threatening firms that don’t bow down to union demands, as Boeing discovered when it sought to build planes in South Carolina).
It also invites corruption. Contemplating the massive Dodd-Frank Bill and its 398 new regulations, Meltzer said, “How anyone can run a bank without paying bribes is a mystery to me.”
Via this source.
For an assessment of what has changed since the 1960s, see Half a Century, and read the second comment by a certain Philip who arrives at a very optimistic summary and outlook for the future.