I listened this morning to a brilliant talk by Danny Quah on what changes in the world during the past twenty years or so portend for the intellectual leadership of the world, or to be more specific, how the political and economic life should optimally be organized given the global changes in economic power that we are witnessing. In the beginning of his speech Danny defines the two tenets of the Western (or as he puts it, American) framing of an optimal society: economic freedom and democracy. This is the well-known paradigm of liberal capitalist democracy that, according to Fukuyama and later Acemoglu and Robinson, represents the end point of human evolution. Danny links it, rightly in my view, in addition to “American exceptionalism”, that is to the belief that America, by its own example, shows to the world how it should be organized, and that ultimately, the way the world will end up by being organized will be as a form of a “Greater America”.
But then Danny says, something has gone wrong with this approach….Important to be thinking about.
Reframing the world
Branko Milanovic | Visiting Presidential Professor at City University of New York Graduate Center and senior scholar at the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS), and formerly lead economist in the World Bank's research department and senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The so-called liberal view is paradoxical in that liberalism is based on multi-polarity on one hand and on the other, opposing any view that self-styled "liberals" regard as threatening their conception of liberalism.
In the first place, there are many conceptions of liberalism based on different mixes of social, political and economic liberalism. This results in many possible organizational configurations. America is just one of these and its success historically has depended more on America's place in history and historical accident than the determinative result of an organizational idea. The same conditions do not exists elsewhere, so it is unlikely that the American organizational model can be exported successfully to any great degree.
Secondly, American "liberalism" based on "American exceptionalism" is itself a narrow form of liberalism. Based on what criteria can it claim to be"best"? American "exceptionalism" is largely imagined based on selectivity that is influenced by cognitive biases like nativism.
American liberalism is unlikely to be accepted as a paradigm in a so-called liberal world that is open to multipolarity, for the simple reason that most of the world's people are not Americans and have their own viewpoints that have been shaped over millennia by history and culture. Lockean liberalism was largely born in 18th century England and exported to colonies, where it became the organizing idea behind the founding the United States of America. But British and American liberalism are different and have developed in different ways. Liberalism was adopted in Continental Europe subsequent to WWI and WWII, and again then result was hardly homogenous.
America needs to get over itself and recognize that history is an organic process because it is an artifact of biological evolution as a complex adaptive system. Evolution is experimental and emergence is ongoing.
Liberalism is a very recent phenomenon on the historical scene and it is far from established how viable it is as an evolutionary trait. There are pros and cons. Moreover, there are twists and turns based on the paradoxical nature of a liberalism as an organizing idea and the tradeoffs involved.