Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Will Western Liberal Values Hold Up During Difficult Times?

Millions of Asians - including Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis - and others from different corners of the world have made the West their home. What are the likely social and psychological consequences for us "others" in these hard times?

One of the defining features of Western democracies is said to be its liberal values. What it essentially means for people like us is that our presence is for the most part not considered a big deal. If the economist Benjamin Friedman is right, however, liberal values thrive and indeed depend on continued economic growth and prosperity of citizens.

"Economic growth - meaning a rising standard of living for a clear majority of citizens - more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness and dedication to democracy." In contrast, when there is economic decline, the "moral character" of citizens takes a hit.

They become less tolerant, less open and less generous towards the have-nots. Friedman contends that "merely being rich is no bar to a society’s retreat into rigidity and intolerance once enough of its citizens lose the sense that they are getting ahead".

In other words, a society's values are fickle. The future prospect of citizens largely determines the values they hold at any point of time. Economic growth matters more for a society's ‘moral character' than the country's overall wealth.

Clearly, the truth is more complex than what the stylized version of Friedman's thesis suggests. Any values that we hold do not change quickly. We let go of our old values and acquire new ones only over time.

But what if some kinds of values - in this case liberal values - are prone to easy abandonment because they never developed deep roots in ways we thought they did?

With no end to bad economic news, how many Europeans and Americans will retain or abandon liberal values? If more of the latter, which members of society are likely to become victims of growing intolerance and injustice?

The so-called "undeserving poor" certainly. Additionally, the victims are also likely to be from among what Canadians label as "visible minorities".

From this perspective, for the millions of visible minorities who live in the West, the hard times of today may be the beginning of worse to come. They face the prospect of greater discrimination in the economic and social spheres or more.

Are we then headed for an era of growing illiberalism in the liberal democracies of the West so far as "others" - whether the poor or visible minorities - are concerned? Are the foundations of liberal democracies really so shallow?

Some of us may recall Fareed Zakaria's seminal article in Foreign Affairs (1997) in which he drew attention to growing illiberalism in new democracies - countries which held reasonably free and fair elections without subscribing to constitutional liberalism. For Zakaria, "liberal constitutionalism" - that "tradition, deep in Western history that seeks to protect an individual's autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source - state, church or society" - separates Western democracies from the rest.

The larger issue may well be whether the celebrated liberal values of Western societies - which together with constitutional and other legal provisions, provide the bedrock of liberal democracy - are really dependent on the continued prosperity of a majority of its citizens or whether they have replaced or compete with older traditions.

Perhaps Zakaria is right about the part where the "tradition" to protect individual autonomy and dignity - by which one should understand the referent to be all individuals irrespective of class or race - against coercion has developed deep roots among a large majority. If that is true, then liberal values may well hold their own in hard times.

What if, however, we overestimated the nature and extent to which liberal values have penetrated these societies without sufficient consideration to ethnic or other differences so that we became blind to its fragile bases?

If Friedman is right, then Western democracies face a challenge from within where "tradition" may not be of much help. Economic stagnation and decline will likely have immoral consequences because the same countries have other traditions too. The laundry list of these other traditions is long and well-known - racism, colonialism, slavery et cetera - and their existence shows up in the public spaces of "civilized" countries in the form of anti-immigrant rallies and demonstrations.

Under current conditions, the social fabric of many Western societies is strained to an extent not experienced at least since the times of the Great Depression. In Europe, as high rates of unemployment become endemic, a shrinking base of taxpayers is expected to support welfare handouts to not only the fair sons and daughters of the soil but dark-skinned others as well. Both in the US and Europe, there has been broad resentment against welfare for the undeserving poor (read African-Americans and Latinos) at least since the Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher years.

The news about "others" from Europe - whether in Germany, the Netherlands or the United Kingdom - is not pretty. It remains to be seen how many American states will follow Alabama's lead in pushing for harsh anti-immigrant laws, invoking uncertainty, fear and worse.

I don't know about other liberal folks but I do wonder about my "moral character" holding up in hard times.

Pushkar is a Montreal-based researcher affiliated with the Institute for the Study of International Development (ISID), McGill University.

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