January 11, 2022

Understanding and supporting liberalism

An overview of Ian Dunt’s book and his “six lies of nationalism”

In my book In Fact, I describe Ireland as "one of the world’s leading, progressive, liberal democracies". But what does it really mean to be a liberal democracy? The answer is comprehensively outlined in Ian Dunt’s masterful book How To Be A Liberal which I have just finished reading.

Dunt’s book is more of a history than a 'how to' manual. As he says himself, "this book tells the story of liberalism, from its birth in the age of science to its new status as a resistance movement against nationalism".

Calling liberalism "the single most radical political programme in the history of humankind", Dunt identifies liberal values as "the freedom of the individual, reason, consent in government, individual rights, the separation of powers, protection of minorities, autonomy and moderation". These are values that the leading political parties of independent Ireland have sought to uphold, and our nurturing of them has contributed to our success as a democratic nation.

However, Dunt draws the distinction between laissez-faire liberalism and radical liberalism: "the philosophy of let-things-be and the philosophy of shake-things-up". He demonstrates how the laissez-faire wing took control from the late 1970s, most particularly in the United States and United Kingdom, but then failed.

The 'let-things-be' approach led to undue faith in markets, and the associated deregulation resulted directly in the Great Recession and years of austerity. It did not offer people the protection they needed. This failure, Dunt argues, contributed significantly to the rise of nationalism around the globe.

In his opening chapter, Dunt outlines the "six lies of nationalism" which I found to be particularly insightful. They are…

Firstly, that you do not exist as an individual. Nationalism claims society is composed of just two groups: the people and the elite. Neither of these groups exist in reality. There is no homogeneous ‘people’ and no distinct ‘elite’ into which all individuals are subsumed.

Secondly, that the world is simple. "The great ecosystems of the world – from trading networks, to law, finance and sovereignty – are wiped away. They are replaced by childish assessments of problems and infantile proposals for their solution." When these solutions inevitably fail, the blame is then placed on a conspiracy of the elite.

Thirdly, that you must not question. To inquire or to speak out is to reject the purity of the people and independent minds must, therefore, be denigrated and branded "enemies of the people".

Fourthly, that institutions are engaged in a conspiracy against the public. Institutions – such as the courts, the parliament, the press, and international organisations such as the EU – limit the power of government so they must be discredited and disabled.

Fifthly, that difference is bad. The concept of the people is as a singular, virtuous body so those from other countries or with different coloured skin or sexuality are viewed as a threat rather than proof of the richness of human experience. Nationalism asserts that you should be afraid of those who are not like you.

Finally, that there is no such thing as truth. Truth is a challenge to power and can contradict the nationalist narrative. Evidence and reason are, therefore, dismissed as plots against the people. Statistical authorities, academics and investigative journalists are categorised as political opponents.

These "lies" stand in clear opposition to liberal support for reason, for individual rights, for personal freedom, and for the separation of powers. Liberalism, therefore, is a political alternative to nationalism that needs to be loudly promoted. Dunt concludes that radical liberalism’s time has come: "the new liberalism must be radical, or it will be nothing".

While the book is short on specific actions that the reader can take, he ends with a clarion call for liberals to speak up for our values and to play our part in implementing these principles in our homes and workplaces, in our communities, and in our politics.

As I similarly emphasise in In Fact, we must nurture the factors that account for Ireland’s success if we are to continue to prosper in our second century as an independent nation. Liberal values are imbued in all of these.

In Fact: An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100 - Book Side

Available to buy at all good book stores