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12.03.2024

Liberalism is an unreasonable demand

Liberalism demands a lot from people. Life in freedom is uncomfortable and exhausting, characterized by insecurity and inequality. Liberal society does not promise a land of milk and honey, but that is precisely why it is humane.

Gerhard Schwarz
NZZ
Having to compete with others is not always pleasant. (Johann Jaritz /CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Critics of liberalism will like the title of this column. They discredit almost every liberal idea as unreasonable. But that is not exactly what the title means. It is based on the conviction that although a free order imposes many inconveniences on people, these impositions are not unreasonable. They are realistic and therefore humane.

The liberal society is not and does not promise a land of milk and honey. That is why liberal solutions have a difficult time. Utopianism sells better than realism.

Consumption today, payment tomorrow

A first imposition is that liberalism understands not only the constraints of nature but also those of scarcity not as restrictions on freedom, but as the framework conditions of every free order. These include the fact that you cannot spend more than you earn in the long term, that the realization of one project requires the abandonment of other projects, that therefore many demands cannot be met and that “consumption or investment today, payment tomorrow” has a price in the form of interest.

A second imposition is that freedom always goes hand in hand with inequality of results. Freedom opens up opportunities. What becomes of them depends on commitment, skill, reliability, precision, innovation and chance. No matter how equal the starting point may be for everyone, in a free society there will be differences again the day after.

Against vested rights

Liberalism therefore does not demand equality of results, but fairness of rules. At the same time, it opposes the preservation of structures and vested interests. Everyone should secure what they have achieved through continued performance, not the state.

A third imposition, personal responsibility, means that people are solely responsible for their own lives and cannot demand benefits from the state to make life more pleasant. This is exhausting, but does not represent a rejection of a smart social policy.

This must demand maximum personal contribution and may only offer social assistance on a subsidiary basis. Personal responsibility is also expressed in the fact that people are not paternalistically relieved of the agony caused by the variety of services on offer. And asserting oneself in competition is also a kind of personal responsibility.

Basic trust in spontaneous processes

A fourth, final imposition lies in the unpredictability of liberal orders. They are characterized by an openness to results, the decentralized taking of risks, the interplay of trial and error, the allowance of ups and downs as well as serenity towards the fluctuations of the economy. This is based on a basic trust in the outcome of spontaneous processes. But people are looking for security. Liberalism does not offer this – not because it does not want to, but because historical experience teaches us that this is not possible.

The economy and society can only be controlled to a limited extent. This makes liberalism an unwieldy product, despite its successes for prosperity and progress. Life in freedom is no picnic – but there is no better alternative, at least in this world, despite all the impositions.

Translated with DeepL