That is a good question. They are not the same thing — capitalism is an economic system; liberalism is about the elevation of the rights of the individual over the power of the state.
During the Cold War, the main confrontation was between liberal capitalism and communism. But we saw then, and continue to see today, various forms of capitalism in states that are not liberal — both in right-wing authoritarian regimes that permit a generally open economy and in regimes such as China’s, where a state capitalism predominates. So it is possible to have a kind of capitalism without liberalism.
But is it possible to have liberalism without capitalism? In other words, is it possible to ensure the protection of individual rights without the protection of the individual’s right to property or to the product of his own labor? Certainly, the philosopher John Locke did not believe that it was. For him, the individual’s right to property, and the state’s obligation to respect and protect that right, formed the cornerstone of liberty.
Now, in the United States, and in liberal democracies around the world, we have agreed to infringe on the absolute right to property by imposing taxes and other measures in order to aid the general welfare, and particularly to provide assistance to those who, for one reason or another, have not been able to earn a livable wage. But we have made that decision by democratic means, and the individual right to property remains the core premise.
There are social democracies — such as Sweden — that are capitalist systems with a high degree of social welfare. But there have been no socialist democracies — which is to say, democracies where there is no private property.
Where do any individual being’s rights come from?
Another good question — one that has been hotly debated throughout history and is still debated today. There is no certain answer. Locke tried to argue that individual rights were the logical and rational outcome of the original human “state of nature.” But thinkers such as Edmund Burke denied that there was such a thing as a “natural right” and argued that such rights as anyone possessed were the product of tradition, custom and culture. The authors of the Declaration of Independence sided with Locke. In my essay I quote Alexander Hamilton insisting that the “sacred rights of mankind” were not to be found among “parchments or musty records” but were “written, as with a sunbeam … by the hand of the divinity itself” and thus could never be “erased or obscured by mortal power.” The Declaration itself declared it a “self-evident truth” that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” The problem we face on this question, as on all such questions, is that at the end of the day there can be no proof, only conviction.
Do you have suggestions on books to read to help with pondering the issues you raise?
I always believe history is the best guide to understanding our world, because we are the products of that history and we never escape it as much as we would like to believe. To understand what “traditional” society looked like, I recommend reading about the 16th and 17th centuries and the great religious struggles of the Reformation. An excellent book on that topic is by Oxford professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, titled “Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700.” For the modern era, I also highly recommend “The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic” by historian Benjamin Carter Hett. To read about the rising power of authoritarianism, and also about how new technologies have become tools of dictatorship, I recommend the collection of essays in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of Democracy grouped under the title “The Road to Digital Unfreedom.”
How do you see climate change — and the disorder and resource constraints that may result from it — affecting the contest between liberalism and authoritarianism?
Climate change is going to exacerbate geopolitical competition and conflict of all kinds. To take just one (very significant) example: What happens when, because of the lack of water and arable land, we see massive migration away from areas that are no longer habitable to more temperate regions? We have already observed the effects of immigration on the politics of the United States and Europe. Imagine how much more serious the problem will be when tens of millions of people are forced from uninhabitable parts of Africa, Latin America and other arid climates. The stress on democratic institutions will be severe.
As a general rule, the more extreme the circumstances, the more people turn to authoritarian leaders for protection — and the harder it becomes for democracies to survive.
Could the growing global influence of women offer resistance to the authoritarian urge you describe?
That is a good question to which I don’t know the answer. History does furnish examples of powerful female autocrats — Russia’s Catherine the Great, for instance. But it is interesting to note that one of the characteristics common to most authoritarian societies today is a reaction against the proliferation of women’s rights. And it is a feature of modern liberal societies that women have been achieving greater measures of political and economic equality.
Human beings need comfort, validation and a sense of purpose that liberalism does not give them, while anti-liberal right-wing groups do give their adherents a sense of purpose and meaning and often (mis)use religion to do so. Do you think there is a way to harness the power of religion to both support the liberal structure and gain supporters of liberalism? If so, how?
There is always going to be a tension between liberalism and religion, if only because the emphasis on the rights of the individual works against the authority of the church. There was a reason the Founders opposed an established church and insisted on separating church and state. At the same time, however, many of them hoped the church would provide some of the moral foundations of society that they knew liberalism would not provide.
I think that, throughout much of American history, religion and liberalism have coexisted fairly well. There have been moments of conflict — the Scopes Trial highlighted the clash that roiled the country in the 1920s — but religion has continued to flourish, albeit in a particularly American way, even to this day. There are certainly powerful elements in all the major religions that exalt the equality of all human beings before God and therefore need not contradict liberalism.
Which way do you think India will go? Liberal, or the other direction?
I have to give Fareed Zakaria credit for long ago identifying the potentially illiberal tendencies of Hindu nationalism in India. Recent events should heighten concern. The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cracked down on human rights activists and intellectuals, on charges that they are part of a “Maoist” insurgency, and attempted to pass laws giving the government much greater control over the Internet and social media. These and other actions are disturbing signs that Indian democracy may be deteriorating.
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