Liberalism’s Pyrrhic Victory

"Rescue of Young King Pyrrhus" by Nicolas Poussin via University of Columbia // Public domain

Liberalism won, no doubt about it. The world is migrating towards more freedom, more equality, and as a result less poverty and war. Nazi Germany was defeated in World War II and the Soviet Union imploded unders its horrid lies. Why don’t we feel like victors then?

Democracy transformed from an abstract and radical idea into the most prominent form of government, the separation of church and state, and the system of checks and balances given. Everyone, whether openly or covertly, yearns to be a part of the global trade.

Democracies grant suffrage to adults regardless of gender, class or ethnicity. Poverty is declining, health standards have increased rapidly, and the international relations are aspiring for peace. This is all thanks to liberal values as we understand them historically.

However, liberalism, with all its great achievements, lost its raison d’etre.

Without communism and fascism posing an immediate threat, without dictators and tyrants supressing people, without major infractions on basic human rights (for the most part, at least), liberalism has lost its natural enemies.

With the fall of the iron curtain, liberalism seems to have lost its vision. The term has been bastardized into meaning those frothing curmudgeons working themselves up in UC Berkeley over evil reality seeping through their fluffy safety bubbles.

Liberalism split into left and right, progressive and libertarian. Liberalism is a word fought upon by the two sides, while it is being used as a slur by more industrious populists.

Even before the fall of communism, liberals often became overly complacent. The 1968 movements, at first fighting for human rights, were capitalized upon by Marxists spurred on by the Soviet Union.

It should have been liberals, the champions of an idea – which venerates the supreme worth of an individual, regardless of their birth – that spearheaded these movements. Instead, it was sidetracked by those communists who neither cared about humans, nor their rights, but who needed a humanizing propaganda in the West.

While liberals are splitting into opposing groups trying to find a vision, populists are gaining grounds. Various countries have become the fighting ground for the left and right, with the liberals marginalizing themselves.

Lukewarm promises simple won’t cut it. Trying to chip off voters from either side is not a strong enough strategy, sufficient for a stable voter base.

Enemies of the liberal world order haven’t vanished. They just seem more apt in conforming to the modern, liberal world than liberals are.

Just look at China. Or the youth in the US and Western Europe supporting socialism a system they no nothing about, as they didn’t have to suffer through its horror.

Liberals won, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Which is why they now need to find a vision for the future – one that makes the liberals of old (and not activists at UC Berkeley) proud. 

Otherwise, their victory was nothing more than a sidenote in the textbook for populists.

Mate Hajba
Free Market Foundation