Liberalism: Concept that a government should not try to control prices, rents and/or wages but instead let open competition and forces of demand and supply create an equilibrium between them that benefits the vast majority of citizens. businessdictionary.com
This ideology was developed from the late 1700s as a solution to the problem of lack of innovation and creativity in the feudal society. According to these new ideas the state should generally ensure social peace and order, while individuals and businesses would take care of the rest. This turned out to be very beneficial for those who already had a lot of money, the skills or luck needed to climb the ladder. Liberalism was supposed to differ from the problems of a laissez-faire economics, which is an economic system completely free of government moderation, but it didn’t seem to do enough to end poverty. That’s what social liberalism, which is what we still have in Scandinavia, aimed to rectify.
This sounds great, but it hasn’t worked quite as well in reality. The liberal ideas are very strong today, and although all Norwegian parties could be defined as social liberal, I would argue that the left has lost its social focus. There was a wave of politically right ideas that swept across the USA and Europe in the 1980’s when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (and even the Labour stronghold of Norway voted the Conservative Party into office) ensured that those who had money got more freedom to do as they pleased. It’s still simplistic to state that the Conservatives are the reason we are seeing an increased inequality in the world today. Labour won the British election in 1997 with Tony Blair as the candidate (418 of the 659 seats in parliament), but their political manifesto New Labour, New Life For Britain didn’t help the poor at all. There were 11 million poor people in Britain in 2008. There was also an increase in working poor, and this happened before the recession. The situation is especially serious in Scotland where Labour has a long history of what can only be described as total domination.
President Obama had a period where the Democrats had majority in both houses of Congress. Americans even voted for democrats in states that had never had democrats in Congress before, but because they didn’t use this upper hand, they lost it. The situation is worse in Norway. It’s difficult to get majority in a country where we have a lot of parties (there are currently 8 parties in parliament), but there’s no doubt that Labour has had a lot of power in Norway. The left wing has governed my country for most of the time since 1945, and I think most, if not all majority government, have been with Labour alone or as a leader of a coalition. Jens Stoltenberg had majority for 8 years before he became the General Secretary of NATO. He was a lot like Obama; he had a golden opportunity to change things, and failed. On the other hand we depend on what’s going on in the rest of the world, so maybe I’m expecting too much.
I watched a documentary recently that gave me an interesting glimpse into the world my parents, and later I, grew up in. The Spirit of ’45 describes an amazing optimism in Britain after World War II. The feeling was that the different social classes had won the war together and now they were going to win the peace together. They didn’t want to go back to the peace after World War I where the poor people didn’t mean anything. The poor people felt that they had sacrificed their lives to fight tyranny, but after the war they were still treated as if they were worthless.
The film includes interviews with people that experienced the 1930’s and 40’s, and an 86 year old man from Liverpool described his surprise when he discovered the truth:
We were the greatest empire in the world and we were living in the worst slums of Europe.
He described an appaling childhood where there 4-5 children were sleeping in the same bed, together with literally hundreds of vermins.
The Conservatives thought life would go back to normal, which was an extreme inequality. The war had been nothing but an unpleasant break from the British way of life, but things changed. The documentary showed a clip from a speech Winston Churchill held on the street as a part of his election campaign in 1945. He was clearly surprised by the negative response from the audience, and this was almost like watching the last speech the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucesco held some decades later. The Conservatives didn’t listen to the people, and although the atmosphere had changed, Tory thought they would get a majority og 80 seats in parliament. The result was a Labour majority of 145 seats.
Unfortunately Labour were not able to control the forces that wanted a pure liberalism. The 1980’s were brutal. I remember vaguely the coal miners striking, and I think the privatisation and a policy on public housing that made things worse were partly behind the riots in London as well. My aunt and uncle lived in London (walking distance to Wimbledon where we played tennis) in 1981, and I remember them talking about it the first night of my visit that summer.
The post war years started well and the British people suddenly received rights they had never had before. Labour provided jobs and built communal apartments. The focus was on health, so they built these apartments better than many felt was necessary. Labour also argued that free healthcare was a necessary part of producing the best citizens, something they had promised with slogans like:
The best health services should be available free for all. Money must no longer be the passport to the best treatment.
We know what happened from the early 1980’s, and one might ask whether the society we have created is capable uf sustaining life. Adam Smith is perhaps the one that has had the most influence on the modern idea of a free market, but his ideas are problematic too.
Every species of animals naturally multiplies in proportion to the means of their subsistence, and no species can ever multiply beyond it. But in civilised society, it is only among the inferior ranks of people that the scantiness of subsistence can set limits to the further multiplication of the human species; and it can do so in no other way than by destroying a great part of the children which their fruitful marriages produce. Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, 1776
He is known for the concept of “the invisible hand.” He believed this hand was a sort of natural law that could explain why the free market worked, why there was a balance between competing influences (equilibrium). The community was, according to this view, better off if everyone were allowed to do what was in their own best interest. The desire to make more money is a strong driving force, and Adam Smith thought that everyone would benefit from a few people making a lot of money. He concluded that government interference was not necessary.
I am not sure excactly what Adam Smith is saying, but if I have understood him correctly I can see why the later eugenics movement developed. The working class’ only worth seems to have been providing cheap labour for the factory owners, and if there is a lower demand for jobs, this should affect the birth rate. We tend to think that Hitler’s and the Nazi’s ideas came out of nowehere, but these ideas had developed over centuries.
I’m not very pessimistic about the future, but I think there could be some hard years ahead. We periodically go through a recession, and sometimes a crack, and since we didn’t have the one we should have had in 2008, we may have to go through a difficult transition a little later. We are slowly losing our rights without noticing. We have been very comfortable in Norway because income from oil has disguised the fact that the economy isn’t growing. Maybe we don’t feel poor enough to care, because even though there are poor people in Norway, it’s not anything like in the 1930’s and 40’s. Poverty in Norway isn’t exactly like poverty in the USA or the Middle East, but we are allowing it to spread among ourselves. There is more inequality here than there should be in a social liberalist economy. There are more and more people that are not likely to meet some of the key milsestones of adulthood. Many won’t be able to either buy or rent alone. They will be forced to share a house-share with anyone who is willing to live with them, which is not likely to make it easy to get a partner or children. There are already many people with good jobs that are not able to save any money at all, so what are they going to do if it gets worse?
There are no indications at the moment suggesting that we can count on any help from the left. I have always felt that conspiracy theorists talking about population control and eugencis were pretty far out there, but our governments used these tactics in a very near past. Norway introduced a law in 1934 allowing hospitals to sterilize and castrate gypsies, and this actually went on until 1977. In Australia Aboriginal children were removed from their parents, known as “the stolen generation”. This also went on as late as the 1970’s. According to The Independent the Israeli government has admitted to giving birth control to Ethiopian women without their consent, and I recently heard about two Australian ethicists that have argued that if abortion is acceptable, after birth abortion should be too. That sounds bad, but I believe we are heading in that direction. That’s a logical development if you argue that a new born is not yet a person. I’m not sure eugenics ever went away.