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Reflections: Liberty & Security

Liberty and Security form an odd couple, the expansion of one being apparently to the detriment of the other. Since the rise of modern liberalism balancing the two concepts and pertinent political actions has been the paramount challenge. However, the founding thinkers of liberal theory have aimed at arguing liberty and security as dialectical notions: They indeed considered the integrity of the body and mind of the individual and the respect for his or her property as the starting point. Thus, John Locke defined the individual’s “property of the self” as the very basis of liberty. He saw the emerging modern state first and foremost as guarantor of such “property” and the autonomy deriving thereof. Whereas the line between constitutionally anchored freedoms and the encroachment of the state on them in the name of security remained precarious, in the course of the last 250 years liberalism became the normative beacon of Western culture, politics and economics. It was, though, neither a linear nor ubiquitous phenomenon. Liberalism saw ups and downs and even its complete obliteration in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. The bouncing back of liberalism post 1945 in Western and post 1989 in the Eastern Europe led many to believe that liberal democracy and market economy had become the only game in town. And that on the wings of globalisation it would pervade the whole world. Bolstered by many examples of opening hitherto closed societies such optimism was echoed by Fukuyama’s statement of the “end of history”.

How come that in the 21st century we are witnesses of new closures everywhere, also in the West? How come that in Europe as the cradle and battlefield of liberal thinking we are confronted with examples of backsliding of seemingly unshakable freedom rights as well as of phenomena of nationalist or even racist closing in? Who or what is the midwife of current new waves of political illiberalism, economic protectionism and the obsession with security at the detriment of liberty? When and why did we give up on striking a fair balance between liberty and security? Is the West really experiencing the retreat of liberalism as presaged by Edward Luce and others? Have Westerner been much too complacent in their belief to live in the best of all worlds and ignoring that in other regions it was not the “end of history” but rather classical old history driven by harsh inequality, instability, civil strife and war that would not be simply overcome by beneficial globalisation? And have Westerners been blind to the reverberations of globalisation onto their own societies in which traditional security thinking is challenged by outside competition, migration or even violent rupture? Has the liberal West forgotten its own credo of liberalism and neglected to secure its cultural and social bases?

Liberty and Security is the general topic of the European Alpbach Forum 2019. While the preceding paragraphs serve as a rough diagnosis of current developments, causes and driving forces, the Forum also aims at delivering new perspectives and orientations. The Forum pays tribute to Karl Popper as one of its founding fathers in the aftermath of the great catastrophe of the 20th century, i.e. totalitarianism, the Shoah and WW II, and to his constant plea for the open society. Thus, the Forum will give equal attention to pertinent topics from a philosophical, political and socio-economic perspective.

The philosophy of liberty and security

Remarkably, modern liberal thinking has its roots in times of deep insecurity. Hobbes and Locke lived in 17th century England that was torn by revolution, civil war, and authoritarian regime. But the “century of fear”  gave birth to a new political philosophy: of civil rights and of controlled government, finally of the “the king in parliament”. From there on we see a host of (political) philosophers aiming at the justification of liberty and security for humans conceived as citizens who are no longer simply subjects of a given polity and its rulers but agents of their lives. While in Europe the quest for liberty has its roots in Greek and Roman antiquity, modernity eventually conceives liberty as universal value. Without indulging in all varieties of liberal philosophy from Locke to Montesquieu and Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville to Kant and Hegel to the ordo- and neo-liberalist thinkers of the 20th century up to John Rawls, we deem it urgent to give thinkers of liberalism an arena in which to present their work, their normative grounding of liberty and security in the age of globalism and with regard to the problems this phenomenon generates. Can we under the conditions of 21st century global capitalism still build on Locke’s idea of the individual holding the “property of the self”? Despite the flourishing of modern psychology and therapy, individuals today seem to struggle with the loss of their self, with being overwhelmed by complexity, with the loss of influence, with feelings of insecurity or even superfluousness in a context of open borders. It was Hannah Arendt in her work on totalitarianism to stress that “superfluousness” is the most dangerous sentiment for modern individuals. While many are already in constant fear of redundancy on traditional labour markets, the impact of AI which is meant to replace some functions altogether will be even more disruptive.

If these arguments were true, is there any way out? What are today’s normative and practice oriented justifications to uphold the idea of the free individual without which liberalism becomes an empty shell? What is the liberal response to migration, thus to different cultures, religions and worldviews, in a context in which fear seems to prevail?

How do we gauge the impact of digitization enabling also new forms of control and manipulation or of AI on the individual and thus on liberalism? How do we avail ourselves of the chances of technological innovations and how do we assess ethical limits to them? Do these new conditions still allow for upholding the principle of recognition of all individuals as equals in term of fundamental freedom rights without which Human and Fundamental Rights Charters become obsolete? Last but not least: who are the guarantors of these rights once new political and economic elites revoked the democratic-republican “contract” that had become the charter of liberalism after 1945?

The politics of liberty and security

Democracy is the political pledge of liberty and security. It is the form of rule that draws its legitimacy from the consent of the ruled defined as equals enjoying freedom rights, but also fulfilling republican duties. Citizens have equal rights to vote and are equal before the law. Politics is contained in a system of checks and balances between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. This has become the conditio sine qua non for a state to call itself liberal. Liberty as much as security is regulated by laws, whereas the rule of law has become the epitome of liberal systems. However, laws remain subject to change through democratic process. Democracy is the most humane form of rule because it is capable to cope with diverse interests, to find compromise between interests and to change according to new conditions. For democracy to thrive, the respect for unalienable fundamental and minority rights, acceptance of democratic procedure and majority rule by all citizens is essential. However, to ensure such acceptance the right to control the rulers and hold them accountable, the possibility for the opposition to voice other preferences and positions and eventually to form an alternative government, hence the openness of the process allowing for different outcomes, are paramount. Last but not least, democracy rests on relative equality of citizens also with regard to socio-economic conditions. Deep inequality is a threat to liberal democracy. Aristotle was the first to remind us of this, whereas modern liberals like T.H.Marshall put the issue front and centre in their work. Free speech is a useless right, so Marshall argued in the 1950s, if citizens are not put in the condition to form an opinion and to raise their voice. Hence, social security, health provisions and education are vital to citizenship. Education was the centrepiece of liberalism in the work of John Stuart Mill and social market economy in that of ordo-liberals.

Yet, since several decades this framework shows growing fractures. While equal social security has never been a priority in the US, it turned into a bone of contention also in European liberal societies. Today it is stylized as major hindrance to economic growth in a capitalist system, where every state competes with others on a global scale. In the European Union, whose integration process hinges on the four freedoms of goods, capital, services and persons, such freedoms are increasingly perceived as threat rather than opportunity. Or they are seen as an opportunity only to some and a threat to many. The financial and ensuing post 2008 fiscal crisis as well as the migrant movements into the EU have exacerbated these sentiments. While in a number of states and regions growing parts of society experience real loss of income and precarious jobs, open borders and free movement are accused as main culprits. Moreover, the losers of this development are shedding their trust in the system of representative democracy and claim to be heard directly or vote for populist parties pledging to represent their interest without compromise. Brexit is perhaps the most striking example of this return to the “will of the people”. But populism has become a general feature of liberal democracies some of which are turning into illiberal ones, as populist leaders reduce democracy to (more or less fair) elections and win majorities on the promise of more (social) security, while they gradually dismantle the system of checks and balances to impose their solutions without constitutional or other restrictions.

Even if we note little capacity or no will of European leaders to handle these issues at the European level we raise the following questions: If democracy is to remain the foundation of European integration, even the precondition for membership, what can the EU do to ensure respect for its principles? And if democracy rests on specific social foundations, what could be incentives for Europeans to engage in a debate about social Europe and European solidarity?

The economics of liberal market and social security

Economic liberalism and neoliberalism in particular theorized entrepreneurship as a central force of society. Constructive or disruptive, entrepreneurial decisions based on technological innovation are seen as the main drivers of growth and prosperity, but also, for better or for worse, of societal and environmental change. As Foucault has it, with the industrial revolution the market becomes the “place of truth”. After the deep disruptions created by the first wave of globalisation and international competition up to 1913, the Great Depression, the rise of Communism, Fascism, National Socialism, and two World Wars, a new consensus balancing liberal market economy and social security emerged in Western Europe. It framed the political economic thinking throughout post war reconstruction up to the 1970s. Those years were called the “trente glorieuses” as they conveyed hope, that the political, social and economic conflicts of the past were finally overcome. In the shadow of the alternative system of Communism to which parts of the Western Left openly or latently payed tribute up to the 1980s, compromises were forged between conservatives and socialists. The demise of Communism as well as new globalism eroded the ground for such compromise building and thwarted the institutional arrangements between capital and labour. While most Western elites were bad predictors of the breakdown of the Soviet Empire, Reagan, Thatcher and their think tanks started in the 1970s to re-frame the agenda in a neo-liberal discourse and to fight the institutional set-up that had given trade unions an equal standing. Continental Europe followed suit if at a much lower pace that however was accelerated by EU enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe and the return to globalization with the rise of Asian Tigers and China. A new mantra began to surface: To be globally competitive old securities have to go at least for next generations, but also for those retiring. A paradigm of the “trente glorieuses”, Sweden is today described as a state with fast growing inequality. In regard to taxing and spending states are competing with each other also within the EU. Some governments see political illiberalism as a means to achieve competitiveness.

At the same time this development engenders a number of paradoxes: first, a new economic protectionism is on the rise, ironically driven by the current US leadership. While it does so in the name of reviving old industries and hence securing jobs and income of those who were left behind, it also uses protectionism as a geopolitical weapon; second, multilateral trade institutions such as the WTO are circumvented to the advantage of Preferential Trade Agreements (however difficult their ratification may be); third, in the EU, despite seven decades of successful integration of markets, governments shun the reality of internal economic and financial interdependence and seek renationalisation of control over national political economy, while they appear incapable of joining forces to state European interests on a global level, let alone in their transatlantic relations.  While it might be too early to assess the ultimate impact of this development, we should raise the following questions: Is global market economy coming to an end and morphing into new mercantilism? Who will be the winners and who the losers of this process? Can closure actually deliver social security also in the medium- and long run? Moreover, what will closure entail not only for the so-called West but also for other regions of the world? For Europe relations with Russia and other neighbors, but also Asia, the Middle East and in particular Africa are of vital interest. So how are these relations to be shaped to be fruitful for both sides? How is the socio-economic stability of African states to be achieved which is seen as a solution to the migratory push? Within the EU: If open markets and the gradual implementation of the four freedoms were the tool to construct a peaceful Union, what troubles will we be courting by curtailing the single market?  However, if open markets come at the price of enhancing social insecurity, what are the hurdles to construct an open social space where citizens regain security, recognition of their dignity and thus the “property of their self”?  Instead of decrying that “ever closer union” is a pledge of the past, could it not be enhanced by the furthering of democracy and solidarity, thus of an open society capable of common problem definition and resolution?

Sonja Puntscher Riekmann, Professor of Political Theory and European Politics at the University of Salzburg as well as academic director of the Salzburg Centre of European Union Studies; Vice President of the European Forum Alpbach