Dutch Liberalism: Could Netherlands Be Example of Freedom and Equality?

Fons Heijnsbroek: Ripe cornfield near Bourtanghe (1985) // Public domain

The Netherlands is rightly famous for its signature liberal attitude. As often mentioned, the country was one of the first which legalized active euthanasia and marijuana. On top of that, the use of soft drugs is not against the law.

Policies like this raise a question: Does Dutch everyday life reflect that level of liberalization? In the following article we aim to discover the roots of Dutch liberalism, the Dutch way of thinking, and explore how integrated liberal values are into everyday life.

If you visit the Netherlands as a tourist, you will see that Dutch society is characterized by a great tolerance towards each other and towards tourists themselves – an example for all other countries to follow. However, it is difficult to unravel the political, economic, and cultural reasons behind the way in which Dutch society has developed.

The political system of the Netherlands is a parliamentary monarchy. The monarch’s person alone speaks volumes about the progressiveness of Dutch culture, given that between 1890 and 2013 the Dutch head of state was always a woman. This is a significant difference compared to the other monarchical countries in the region.

The Dutch nation is a columned society which means that the communities and groups are divided from each other by strong fracture lines. These lines are mostly based on national and ethnic attributes, but sociocultural and religious heterogeneity is strongly presented in the life of the country.

Possibly, this is the main reason that consensus is one of the key factors in the governance of the country. Because of this, it is not surprising that in Dutch politics, ideological dominance is not the primary objective.

Mostly, the composition of executive power is determined by compromises and deals. In this way, it is possible that the government is formed from members of numerous, strongly contradictory parties ­­­ sometimes this doesn’t represent the electoral balance of power.

Interestingly, in a country which is considered by many to be the most liberal country of the world, the Christian democrat party was the governing party for the majority of modern Dutch history. The liberals became a dominant party only a few decades ago.

In summary, we can say that the base of this democracy is that everyone can be represented in the system. From this point of view, the majority can’t take priority against the minority. This attribute may reveal one of the reasons why the Dutch are so accepting and have a willingness to compromise.

Nevertheless, the previously mentioned consensus is double-edged: the members rely on reaching agreement, that’s why all interests can appear in the system, but it can be at the expense of efficiency.

Why Is the Netherlands Called “The Most Liberal Country”?

Presumably, the first thing that comes to people’s minds in this regard: the use of soft drugs, especially the cannabis and its derivatives. In reality, they are not legal, but the authorities decriminalize the use of them.

The discussion around the medical use of cannabis in the country dates back to the 1970’s. Because of that, under a certain limit people are allowed to possess and even sell it without consequences related to criminal law.

There is one activity, however, which is not allowed when you are under the influence of cannabis: riding a bicycle. Travelling by bicycle has a long tradition is the Netherlands, especially in Amsterdam. That’s one of many reason why the Netherlands is considered to be between the top countries in terms of environmental protection.

Almost everyone heard something about the red-light district of Amsterdam. In 2000 the regulations placed prostitution out of criminal sanctions. The Netherlands is fighting against different types of crimes and their aim is to eliminate it as much as possible. Their way of thinking indicated the following solution: to allow and legalize sex trade.

The Dutch government also played a pioneering role to lay down the legal basis of marriage, divorce, and the right to adopt children for same-sex couples.

Even though there are other countries where euthanasia legally exists, sometimes it doesn’t work properly, or people can’t really exercise their right to it. The Netherlands is an exception, because even children can have the option of euthanasia. The only condition to get active euthanasia is that the applicant initiates the procedure in an accountable condition. This is an example of the inviolability of the right of freedom and personal autonomy.

What Characterizes the Dutch Way of Thinking?

We’ve covered some areas of life where individual freedom is treasured above all else. This basically confirms that a system has been developed that wants to represent the heterogeneous units if the society equally. Is that really all it is about?

Quoting Rob Wijnberg, Dutch author we can see something different: „We have this self-image: progressive, liberal, multicultural, blah blah blah. But we are discovering that we are only that way on paper and in law, not in practice, not in daily life”.

This thought process was somewhat confirmed by Taco Dibbits, a Dutch art historian, when he spoke about inclusion of the Flemish refugees (17th century). According to him, tolerance was a characteristic of his country even then, but he emphasized: „the tolerance was pragmatic”, the reason for it is that Flemish refugees „brought in a lot of money”.

This idea draws the attention to the fact that the Dutch earned their living as traders from the beginning and were an integral part of the rich west, and they can still be considered one of the wealthiest members of the European Union. From this, it is already clear that finance plays a primary role in the Dutch culture, and sometimes, they are branded as stingy by other member states due to this attribute.

It’s clear that they rely on the market and individual responsibility, so we must define it as a liberal state. In the Dutch mentality the avoidance of risks can be observed, which make negotiations and compromises more valuable. Considering all the mentioned characteristics, we can say that this business and market approach has become a part of their way of life, and it can also be said that it has infiltrated other aspects of life, such as politics.

Keeping the previous thoughts is mind: Is it possible that tolerance and commitment to individual freedom is not the main factor behind most liberal actions? A good example would be the decriminalization of soft drugs. If we examine the tax revenues of the Dutch state, we can see that based on 2016 data „Coffee Shops generate about €400 million in taxes”.

Although a significant amount of money has to be devoted to the prevention and treatment of addictions and even under the new regulation it „could increase the tax generation for up to €260 million”. From this perspective, it is possible that the financial interests (also) played a key role in liberalization in this particular case.

What about Equality in Everyday Life?

Another important liberal value is equality. We can find out more about the reality of Dutch equality by looking at the 2019 Make Europe Sustainable for All project’s Inequalities in the Netherlands statement. The report raises the issue of gender inequality. In the Netherlands there is a noticeable trend that men, on average, have higher hourly wages than women, which is due to several different factors.

However, it is clear that in the Netherlands, women are underpaid compared to men not only in the private, but also in the civil service sector. The wage difference is about five percent. Considering the executive positions as well, we can see that the set goal is to build a thirty percent female leadership strata.

Until now, they have not been able to reach this limit. It should also be noted that the third Rutte-government (2017-2021) had an extremely low percentage of female members in the government (remaining below thirty percent).

In terms of income and welfare issues, the Netherlands is among the most equal countries, however the average per capita income of an average household is $28.783, which is lower than the OECD average ($30.536). If we examine the inequalities of income among the Dutch people, we may notice that the top twenty percent earns four times more than the bottom twenty percent – which is quite low if we place that in international context.

In the Netherlands the unemployment rate is far from high, as seventy-five percent of the people between the ages of fifteen and sixty-five have a paid job. However, this does not mean that it can provide a livelihood, as the proportion of „working poor” is gradually rising. At the time of the survey, this phenomenon accounted 8.8 percent, meaning more than a million people lived below the poverty line.

At the same time, it must also be noted that in the Netherlands there are large differences in property issues, despite the progressive policy of the current government. Although the government is making serious efforts to help optimize the distribution of wealth among the citizens, they are unable to keep the pace up with the increasing intergenerational wealth accumulation.

This means that more than half of the net worth is in the hands of the top ten percent. This is presumably due to historical antecedents, like profits from the colonies such as the Dutch East India Company. In this situation, the solution is probably not the resolving of income inequalities. Other taxes (such as real estate, inheritance tax) may be the way out.

Researchers have also pointed out that equality of opportunity is decreasing. This may be due to the fact that a kind of polarization, radicalization and increase in populism is occurring in parts of Dutch society. Inequalities are realized in several different dimensions, it is enough to take the „classic” urban-rural opposition as one’s starting point, or even the opposition of the wealthier and the poorer strata.

Inequality in education is the most noticeable nowadays, which is probably influenced by ethnic background, social and economic status. However, in the long term these could lead to further weakening of social cohesion in the Netherlands, which may be a cause for concern.

All in all, we can say, that although the Netherlands sets an example for other states to follow in many aspects regarding the culture of freedom and equality, but we must not believe that there are no inequalities in this country, and that freedom would come before reason in decision-making. The Netherlands must deal with the changing world, the global processes, and growing ethnic challenges too. Finding the right policy to solve these problems is often tricky.

Nevertheless, as we have seen the duality of the Dutch mentality and liberalism, it is important to emphasize that among the most developed countries in the world, in the Netherlands, one of the most successful liberal policy models has been implemented.

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Barbara Sarkozi
Republikon Institute