On the current collapse of the liberal order

“Real artists ship!” – a famous line from Steve Jobs.

Steve extolled that great people not only have great ideas, but they execute on them and deliver them to customers. If there is one reason that the liberal order seems to be collapsing around the world, I would propose that it is due to a failure to deliver improved living conditions to the majority of the citizens. Problem solved!

In the excellent Munk debate between David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, and Stephen Bannon, former advisor to Donald Trump, they lay out a clear vision of what is at stake. While Frum claims that liberalism is the only way forward, Bannon states that future lies with populism. He goes onto say that the only real question is whether the populism will be left wing or right wing. Bannon explains how the middle and lower middle class have been left behind and have not been able to realize the ‘American Dream’. With stagnant wages, rising housing prices and greatly increased precarity of jobs, this is not some radical populist plot – it is reality.

People have expectations. Expectations are usually set by your family and societal context – if you are born in the West, you are typically told that if you work hard, you can get ahead. When you do work hard and realize that you can never catch up with rising costs and a class that has a head start, you understandably grow frustrated. The liberal elite, which I assure you exists, has great difficulty realizing that this is the reality for many people. Why exactly they cannot realize this is a bit confusing to me. For one, I would argue that the liberal elite is in many ways biased against the understanding of unfairness in society because they have succeeded personally. Some may even have come from lower middle class backgrounds, but most are likely to have come from upper middle class backgrounds. They say – “If I could do it, why can’t someone else?”. Yet, many With moderately wealthy parents had tonnes of hidden benefits – parents could pay for their school and support them during their studies as well as provide a safety net in case of failure. Many people from this class were able to excel and obtain a good education, good positions in society and even start profitably companies. In many situations they underestimate the value of the support they received. In many ways, this family or cultural support is similar to environmental externalities, it is something you are vaguely aware of, but you do not think it is That important or that it applies to you. This accounting failure is as relevant as our greenhouse gas emissions. We do not see the environmental or social damage of our actions because they are externalities that are not actually calculated in the costs of services. Similarly, we do not count the social (or biological) advantages we were given.

As the wealth gap widens and the ‘deplorables’ (term coined by Hillary Clinton about Trump supporters) fall further and further behind, they turn to alternative means of changing the system. I know people who were both Bernie Sanders supporters and Donald Trump supporters. From a political point of view, this is completely contradictory – one advocates for strong socialism and one is for a free for all with no regulations. Yet, the commonality between the two is clear – they both propose something that is quite different from the offerings of Reagan, Bushes, Clinton and Obama. They are proposing a major restructuring of the state.

This cleavage in society cannot continue indefinitely. Either the liberal elites will come to their senses and implement real change or a populist force will take over. Historically, right wing populists have been more successful thanks to their lack of respect for individual rights, rule of law or other niceties. Right wingers can and will grab power, whatever the cost. The left wing populists (except radicals), tend to play a bit more by the rules and are thus hobbled in their quest for power. That is not to say that the rise of right wing populists is inevitable, it is not. However, the only way to get society out of this populist death spiral is to start delivering higher quality services and more opportunity at a much faster rate.

We can criticize China and its government for many things – spying, human rights violations, pollution,… etc. But, there is one thing that Chinese government very much believes in – improving the quality of life of its citizens. If China had a slogan, it might be “Build, build, build!”. By injecting massive amounts of money into physical and digital infrastructure, China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and offered hope to all. Their prioritization of material progress over nearly all else has allowed the government to stay in power and maintain the support of the people. The shear scale of China’s infrastructure cannot be communicated in words, you need to go and see. Metros, high speed rail, skyscrapers, highways, the list is so long. In the west, our governments have been mired in analysis and have failed to deploy the ressources of the state to actually improve people’s daily lives. The people view government as a wasteful apparatus that supports liberal elites and inefficient bureaucracies who are more interested in their own interests than those of the citizens. This, my friends, is the source of our problem.

If we can actually make government efficient, deliver new infrastructure to people at a rate that they find reasonable and demonstrate that the average quality of life will improve – the liberal order can be saved. There is no other solution. We cannot debate our way out of this situation or placate people with false promises and occasional tax cuts. We need to build infrastructure both quickly and for the long term. The list of key deliverables is not long – faster and better medical service, well paid jobs, faster and better transportation and higher quality education for all – do that and the rest will follow.

Published on December 20, 2018