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On liberal authoritarianism

On liberal authoritarianism

Bowing to the authority of experts saps the lifeblood of democracy.

If liberal principles seem threatened, it is only because they have been so successful. Look more carefully at American, British or European Union politics, and it is hard to find any viable alternatives to liberalism even in its supposed moment of peril. Donald Trump spews forth an endless stream of illiberal invective, but even as the US president, at one point holding majorities in both Houses of Congress, he has been unwilling or unable to roll back the liberal agenda in any meaningful way. Liberalism is, after all, based on the idea that individual liberty is the highest political virtue – and who doesn’t love liberty? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ These were the words that created the United States of America, and ultimately the global liberal order.

But over time the kinds of liberties demanded by liberals have evolved and expanded. They have shifted from a historical focus on ‘negative’ freedoms toward a contemporary focus on ‘positive’ rights. The philosophical construction of the concept of liberty is contentious and convoluted, but there is an obvious and intuitive difference between the simple freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution (freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and the press) and the expansive rights promised by Article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (rights to food, clothing, housing, medical care, social services, unemployment insurance and social security). 

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