Jaipur Literature Festival 2021: On Day 3, Adam Gopnik and John Micklethwait analyse the 'death' of Liberalism

In a well-articulated and quick paced exchange of ideas, Gopnik and Micklethwait assessed Liberalism's many challenges in the present, and how it had dealt with them in the past.

FP Staff February 21, 2021 17:06:45 IST
Jaipur Literature Festival 2021: On Day 3, Adam Gopnik and John Micklethwait analyse the 'death' of Liberalism

(L) John Micklethwait; (R) Adam Gopnik

The programming over its first three days has been a mix of the interesting and the dull, but the latter half of Sunday, 21 February, saw a fairly solid tranche of sessions at the virtual edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2021.

Among them was one titled 'The Death of Liberalism', moderated by Observer Research Foundation's Mihir Sharma, featuring noted essayist Adam Gopnik, and Bloomberg's editor-in-chief John Micklethwait.

In a well-articulated and quick paced exchange of ideas, Gopnik and Micklethwait assessed Liberalism's many challenges in the present, and how it had dealt with them in the past.

One thing they asserted right at the outset: Liberalism has always been dying.

"[Contrary to perceptions] Liberalism has never had a moment where it had a bulwark of self-confidence," Gopnik noted, listing all the brick walls it has come up against: Communism, coherence of Islamic terrorism, its own decadence and lassitude especially during the Cold War. Liberalism' permanent condition is that it is on its deathbed, Gopnik joked, although, hearteningly, "it always manages to find its way [back]".

Micklethwait added that finding a "happy liberal was like finding a happy farmer", before building on Gopnik's statement to observe that not only was Liberalism always dying, it was also always changing shape.

Gopnik and Micklethwait then proceeded to look at Liberalism through the prism of states' response to the coronavirus crisis. [Alluding to China] Sharma quizzed them on whether the perception was that authoritarian states made for more effective states.

Micklethwait contrasted the COVID-19 response in the cities of Seoul, New York and London, that are roughly the same size, but have had marked variations in COVID deaths (Seoul in the hundreds, London around 10,000 and New York over 30,000). He cited Seoul as an instance of the fact that "it is possible for democracies to get their acts together)". Gopnik, meanwhile, said that he had been studying how social capital and social trust impacted a state's efficiency in fighting the pandemic. Initially, looking at his home country of Canada versus the United States, Gopnik thought there was a clear relation: the higher the social trust, the higher the state's efficiency in dealing with the pandemic. (This has been borne out in Australia and New Zealand's handling of the pandemic.) However, these factors converged during the challenging second wave of the crisis that we're witnessing now.

Returning more closely to the title of the session, Gopnik spoke of how one of the things that 'endangers' Liberalism, is how much we take for granted certain rights that liberal society provides — such as the right to free speech, and access to debate — and focus instead on what it doesn't provide. "We have a certain level of amnesia towards how fragile these liberal institutions are," he concluded, and termed it a kind of "ailment of affluence".

It is partly "complacency over not realising how great things have been," Micklethwait added, but also how different elements of Liberalism may "run very quickly into nationalist impulses". How much of Liberalism's problems are inherent, and how much is it a problem of not following through, he asked.

And circling back to Micklethwait's earlier statement about how much Liberalism was always changing, he, Sharma and Gopnik also discussed the conflicts within Liberalism itself: between, for instance, the Free Market Liberalism of Republicans and the Social Liberalism of Democrats; how Liberalism was [earlier] supposed to be against the state, but has now become pro-Big State. They addressed the degradation of public education and the need for universal healthcare, with Micklethwait concluding: "Liberals have to look at some hard issues".

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