Is Liberalism Dead?

Andreas Freytag

Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena

Andreas Freytag is a Professor of Economics at the Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena and Honorary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch.

Prof. Dr. Freytag obtained his diploma from the University of Kiel, his doctorate as well his Habilitation from the University of Cologne. Prior to his appointment in Jena, he worked at the Kiel Institute for World Economics, the University of Cologne, Cambridge University (as Visiting Scholar), and the Eesti Pank, Tallinn, Estonia. He has been consultant for the EU-Commission, the OECD, the IMF and various public and private clients.

Originally appearing in Wirtschafts Woche on October 4, 2013, this essay is reprinted here with the author’s approval. In addition to a Professorship in the Chair for Economic Policy at Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena and a column in Wirschafts Woche, Dr. Andreas Freytag contributes at AICGS both in print and at events.

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After the Free Democratic Party (FDP) failed to enter the Bundestag, many are concluding Liberalism has come to an end. Some supporters of the Green Party and, presumably, most followers of the Left Party are already rejoicing. The joy at these parties’ campaign events after the election stemmed almost exclusively from the FDP’s even stronger failure. Are they right? Is Liberalism dead?

It is true that freedom has become something abstract and insignificant for most people―something you do not need to fight for. Political discussions focus on other topics now, such as distributive justice, quota allocation, the minimum wage, and taxes on the rich.

The impression arose that people are no longer responsible for their own lives. Instead, others, such as politicians and bureaucrats concerned with social policy or the members of the European Commission, have taken over this task. The motto is: you live, while we take care for the details.

The ones devoting themselves to these politicians’ offers really are giving up their freedom, and this is where the danger arises. In aspiring to eliminate the apparent and actual inequalities of life, politicians continue to limit individual freedoms and believe that doing so is both good and minimizing risks for the people. Thereby, the elites are taking the people’s power of responsibility.

But not everyone is accepting more interventions in individual rights and freedoms. What some view as increased security―which is often not the case; even the job security of former East Germany proved to be deceiving―others view as terrible paternalism. They cannot experience their freedom, and thus, they are unable to take responsibility for their own lives because those who want to be free need to act responsibly. For some, this is a promise; for others, a threat. Many people forget: in order to act responsibly, one in turn has to be free.

Furthermore, freedom is not limitless, and it does not refer to the survival of the fittest. Even in liberalism there are restrictions to freedom, which are enforced when interacting with the rights of others. Liberalism also knows social policy to a certain extent. However, one thing liberals do not need is a Veggie Day!

A Great Opportunity for Liberalism

After these fundamental and in no way new thoughts, one questions remains: Is the survival of German liberalism dependent on the FDP entering the Bundestag? The answer is no, as in past election terms the FDP has only poorly protected freedom. It did little to enforce European laws that protected the people from free-spending governments or to reform the fragile European currency. The FDP was unable to oblige the finance minister to enforce a transparent and efficient tax system. Furthermore, it allowed public television to effortlessly take money from the people, without justifying the quality of their programs or necessity of their spending. Public television has not proven to be a freedom fighter at all.

The FDP did not protect civil liberty very well either and during the campaign completely forgot to highlight the policies it has proven to excel in, such as health care or its progressive development efforts. It seemed as though the party had been hollowed out, and, however disenchanting, one can conclude that a yellow tie does not make a liberal.

Thus, its absence from parliament is justified, but at the same time, it offers a great opportunity for liberalism in Germany. The party now has to reinvent itself in a process that will be long and painful. This process will highlight civil liberty, economic freedom, open markets, stable monetary policy, and self-responsibility―which could very well fail―;all with the foundation of social security. The FDP will regain its position as the strongest liberal party if this reinvention is successful.

This would also increase its success in upcoming elections, as current coalition talks show that advocates of freedom are very rare in the German Bundestag. A reinvented and strong liberal party should be able to pressure the government without being in parliament.

Liberalism is not dead; it just needs better political representation.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.