May 17, 2020 Reading Time: 8 minutes

Even before the COVID-19 virus swept round the world, there was a growing chorus of voices declaring that the world was shifting from one political era to another and that in particular we were moving into a post-liberal era. The term ‘post-liberal’ began to spread as both a description and a self-identified label. These kinds of claims have become even more widespread as the pandemic and government responses to it have dominated the headlines. 

There is a widespread, and understandable, feeling that an event of such magnitude marks some kind of dividing line or turning point. 

What is interesting is the number of people who think that turn is from a liberal era of politics to a post-liberal one, in which, presumably, liberal ideas and policies are part of what is left behind. This doesn’t necessarily follow from the perception that the pandemic is some kind of watershed – why not a move to some other kind of future? It derives therefore from a feeling about the dominant features of the recent past and a growing perception of what the experience of the pandemic reveals. 

In some sense the argument is correct but we need to understand how it is correct (because that sense is limited and specific). Liberals of all types should not despair and feel they are like Sir Edward Grey watching the lights of liberal civilisation go out all over Europe: if they understand better where we are then the new state of affairs could end up being an improvement over the way they have been for the last two to three decades.

What though does this glib phrase post-liberal actually mean? If we unwrap the term it has two implications or wider meanings. Firstly, the ‘post’ prefix implies that we have been in a liberal era, one in which liberal ideas and policies were dominant. This is a widespread view on the political left and also among a certain kind of conservative or right-wing thinker. 

These very different people all believe that public debate and policy has been dominated by specifically liberal (or more narrowly ‘neoliberal’) ideas such as free markets, globalism and open borders, cultural and intellectual individualism, and limited government. One such person has gone so far as to claim that Ludwig von Mises has been the most influential economist of the last forty years. 

Secondly, the term suggests that we have left this liberal dominated world behind us and are moving into a different one where non-liberal ideas will dominate public debate, without it necessarily being an anti-liberal world. The idea is that some of the legacy of the liberal period will survive. This kind of perspective is exactly the one that began to appear before that fateful Summer of 1914 and which became almost a commonplace in the years after the War. 

The first of these meanings will provoke grim amusement among many classical liberals and individualists. In fact, the idea that we have been living through decades when public argument and policy were dominated by ideas of free markets, limited government, and individualism will provoke hysterical laughter from many. If only this were true, they will say. 

However this is partly a matter of where one stands: a socialist or conservative will be more impressed by how far things have indeed moved in a liberal direction (or, more importantly, what they see as a liberal direction) whereas a liberal will be more struck by movement in the opposite direction or by how limited any movement that has taken place has been. In this context, as always, it helps to have historical perspective. 

What this tells us is that the critics of liberalism have a point: over the longer term of several decades there has been a movement in a liberal direction, in several senses of that word. In particular there has been a decline in the coherence and influence of clearly non- or anti-liberal ways of thinking and acting. This is not merely or even primarily a matter of politics. In the more recent past, the last thirty years to be precise, that movement has taken a form that many liberals of all types are uncomfortable with, which is another reason why they do not recognise the picture painted by their critics. 

In the longer term it makes sense to look back to the later 1940s. At that point liberalism of all kinds was at a low ebb and this remained the case for some time thereafter. Even though fascism (and indirectly, reactionary conservatism) had been defeated in World War II, anti-liberal ideas were still widespread and influential. In both the US and the UK there was a tense political and intellectual contest over whether to retain the extensive state controls that were put in place during the war and the outcome was in doubt for some time. 

More obviously there was still a global threat from explicitly anti-liberal ideas, backed up by armed force. The big case was international communism, in the shape of the USSR and its foreign supporters but there was also the revolutionary nationalism that had captured many anti-colonial movements during the interwar years. There was also traditional despotism in places like Latin America and the Middle East, which the liberal West tolerated or even supported for geopolitical reasons. Even in the democratic nations liberals, both classical and revisionist, were very much a minority. 

Democratic politics (which accepted and built on the achievements of nineteenth century liberalism) was dominated by traditions that had emerged during the crisis of classical liberalism at the end of the nineteenth century; democratic conservatism or Christian democracy on the right, social democracy on the left. At that point both of those traditions were non-liberal in their philosophy and much of their policy. Liberals had no choice but to make alliances of convenience with one or both of these traditions.

From the mid-1960s onwards these efforts, and the intellectual work of scholars, were partly successful. To simplify what was a complex process, classical or free market liberals persuaded democratic conservatives to move towards economic liberalism while both types of liberal succeeded in pushing social democrats towards social liberalism. (We often forget that before the 1960s or 1970s social democrats and labor movements were very socially conservative, as much if not more so than actual conservatives). 

Later on, after 1990, there was some success in persuading a few conservatives of the good side of social liberalism and some social democrats of the benefits of economic liberty. In this sense the people mentioned earlier are correct; there was a movement towards liberalism in the years after 1970 and liberal ideas and policies did spread. 

However, this does need to be heavily qualified. While the right became economically liberal and the left socially liberal, neither side bought into the entire liberal package or its underlying principles. Although liberal ideas and some of their policy applications had become more influential, liberalism as such had not. What emerged instead was a curious kind of hybrid.

In 1989-90 the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed. China, while remaining a despotic state ruled by a ruthless oligarchy, was already no longer communist in a meaningful sense. At this point it seemed that liberal ideas of various varieties were triumphant. They had taken over the main democratic ideologies and now the other great anti-liberal force of the twentieth century had perished. It is the thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall that the critics are truly thinking of when they declare that we have lived through an era of liberalism (neo or otherwise) that we are now leaving behind us. 

It seemed as though there was no other ideology left standing, as Francis Fukuyama famously declared. And yet, as already intimated, this supposed triumph was negative rather than positive. It was not that liberal ideas were now consciously and openly held and dominant. Rather it was that explicitly and openly anti-liberal ones had been discredited. 

What happened therefore was the adoption of liberal policies in some areas but as a matter of technique or supposedly impartial expertise rather than as the consequence and expression of an actual philosophy. So far as the dominant politics of the last thirty years can be said to have a philosophy behind it, it is best described as technocratic managerialism, a belief in the ability of applied knowledge to devise the best way of organising economic and social life and, increasingly, private life as well. 

This found expression in two kinds of public policy that the critics now deprecate. The first was a political economy that while apparently pro-market saw market relations as something that was created and sustained by a technocratic state and expert economists, instead of being something that emerged from what people did when they were left alone. In concrete terms this increasingly meant an economy that was organised and run to favour specific interests; in class terms those of a managerial class defined by professional certification, in institutional ones a network of large firms above all ones involved in finance. 

A central part of this was an increasingly deranged monetary policy that, like an insidious drug, began to have cumulatively damaging effects on the economic fabric. The second was a social policy that promoted a kind of social and cultural individualism but one removed from concrete social relations and responsibilities. This went along with an expansion of state welfare and income transfers, for reasons that combined egalitarianism with individualism.

The central fact was that there were no more consistent and self-aware liberals, of either variety, than there had been in the early 1960s, even if their ideas had a wider hearing. Moreover, the core beliefs had lost something of their coherent identity and had become as much a matter of technique as principle. This kind of technocratic politics could not survive indefinitely, because it begged a whole series of foundational questions (in the correct sense of that expression). 

Slowly, non-liberal or explicitly anti-liberal ideas and philosophies came back together and found new expression. On the right this has taken several forms; a revival of traditional reactionary conservatism (particularly in Europe but also in the Anglosphere), the appearance of an overtly anti-liberal form of religious thought; and the appearance in electoral politics of a politics that combines nationalism and economic dirigisme with hostility to cosmopolitanism and social liberalism. 

On the left there are two tendencies that are increasingly in bitter conflict with each other as well as with both actual liberal ideas and the current style of politics. The first is a revival of classical socialism and even Marxism, as found in publications such as Jacobin magazine. The second is what is commonly described as the Social Justice Warrior left, a kind of politics that derives ultimately from post-modernism and combines a radically subjectivist idea of identity with a tribalistic notion of social life and a highly intolerant view of public discourse. 

All of these are self-consciously opposed to the status quo, which they see as an expression of liberalism, and to liberal ideas in a more profound sense. They are also increasingly politically successful, even before the economic shock of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it has triggered.

This looks like a bad situation and in some ways it is: but, it may well trigger a beneficial response. The situation and experience of liberals in the post-War world led to an attenuation of their ideas and identity, even as their influence increased in some ways. The present position means that liberals in general and classical liberals in particular have to rediscover their foundational principles (which should not be conflated with a particular kind of policy perspective) and to become more aware of their own distinctive philosophical and ideological identity. 

When confronted by explicitly anti-liberal politics the only way forward is to give a comprehensively liberal response. This will mean three things: a rearticulation of core or essential liberal ideas and values, such as that of personal autonomy and a strictly limited sphere of politics (which is more than small government); a concern with and exploration of the whole range of liberal thought on a wide range of questions, rather than a narrow fixation on one area or discipline; and a coming together of the divided parts of the liberal tradition, that agree on the fundamentals but disagree on one area (such as economics). 

Political identities and traditions are often formed in response to a challenge by their opposite. After 1945 that opposite for liberals came from one location, which led to a series of tactical alliances. Faced now with anti-liberal assaults from several directions we much hope that a coherent liberal identity re-emerges in response. If that happens then we have clearer and more definitely liberal thought and action in the supposedly post-liberal era than we actually had before.

Stephen Davies


Dr Steve Davies, a Senior Fellow at AIER,  is the Head of Education at the IEA. Previously he was program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University in Virginia. He joined IHS from the UK where he was Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.

A historian, he graduated from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1976 and gained his PhD from the same institution in 1984. He has authored several books, including Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991).

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