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What does liberal mean today?
The book “What does liberal mean today?”, Just published by NZZ Libro. tries to rediscover liberal viewpoints on some of the major political and social issues and to fill them with life: social responsibility (Jean-Pierre Bonny and Jean-Daniel Gerber), immigration (Tibère Adler, author of these lines, and Claude Ruey), privacy and the digital world (Konrad Hummler and Markus Spillmann), health (Thierry Carrel and Ignazio Cassis), family (Suzette Sandoz and Philippe Nantermod), religion and religious communities (Martine Brunschwig Graf and Andrea Caroni), law and democracy (Michel Hottelier and Olivier Meuwly) and the environment (Filippo Leutenegger and Thomas Maier).
The politically sensitive label "liberal"
The beginning of every conversation is the question: How do you define liberalism? For all interlocutors, two major approaches to definition emerge: on the one hand, the connection between values of freedom and responsibility and, on the other hand, the defense of the rights of the individual (in particular personal fundamental rights) both against the state and against a possible tyranny of a (albeit democratic) majority. At the center of liberal thinking is always the possibility (not the guarantee) of self-development for the individual.
What is striking about this book - and also elsewhere - is the defensive attitude, an almost apologetic tone among those who call themselves liberal or hold liberal views. Eric Gujer, editor-in-chief of the NZZ, begins his foreword with the sentence “Liberalism is a political position that is no longer a matter of course today. The editors become even clearer at the beginning of their introduction: "Liberalism is under pressure, the zeitgeist blows this political idea coldly in the face." But why so much reluctance, why this hesitation, especially in Switzerland, one of the most liberal countries in the world?
Sure, the label "liberal" is hardly suitable for winning elections: the recent collapse of the German FDP speaks volumes. Purely "liberal" parties in Switzerland were only successful in the urban and bourgeois cantons of Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Basel before they were absorbed into the new FDP. The Liberals. Sure, there is no single and homogeneous definition of “liberalism”. But the same could be said of socialism, conservatism, populism, nationalism and progressivism. And of course, the rhetorical trick of prefixing the attribute “liberal” with a “neo” or “ultra” promotes the prejudice that this conceptual orientation is limited to a short-term, economic way of thinking. However, this “neo” or “ultra” is just as well suited to caricaturing socialists, conservatives, populists, nationalists or progressives.
In reality, especially in Switzerland, it is liberal values that shape the majority of the population and most of the political decisions. The idea of defending personal freedoms and at the same time taking responsibility for one's own decisions remains predominant in the majority of national votes. This also applies to the labor market, for which all attempts at stricter regulation are largely rejected.
As is so often the case in our country, the facts speak a clearer and clearer language than words. Even if the liberal label does not exactly spark enthusiasm in election campaigns, grassroots politics are (still) strongly permeated with liberal ideas. Switzerland is liberal and acts that way, but doesn't really dare to admit it. But better this way than the other way around.
This strong presence of the liberal idea in the factual and its relative weakness on the political stage coincides very well with the situation in other countries. The German Chancellor Schröder, a Social Democrat (SPD) by trade, had the courage to initiate liberal economic reforms with “Agenda 2010” in order to keep Germany competitive. Although the country benefited from his policies, they cost him re-election and his office as Federal Chancellor. In Great Britain Tony Blair was re-elected several times with the label "Labor", although he too pursued largely liberal-inspired politics. Political France has traditionally abhorred liberal ideas. Therefore, no French government, whether left or right (even under President Sarkozy), and no serious political party has ever committed itself to them. It is now - paradoxically - left to Messrs Valls and Macron to propagate indispensable liberal reforms in France in 2015 while at the same time maintaining the appearance of being left. They have to choose whether to serve their country or to please the militant members of their party.
Liberal politics lead to success
So the label “liberal” is not always the best way to win elections. But a liberal policy leads to the success of the country in which it is practiced - and thus benefits its citizens. In fact, the most liberal countries in the world are also the wealthiest. These two phenomena reinforce each other in a kind of positive feedback: It is of little importance whether it is prosperity that creates conditions for freedom or, conversely, the basic attitude of freedom that leads to more prosperity.
Despite an excessive amount of regulations and the tendency to water down civil liberties and personal responsibility with social-democratic indifference, Switzerland remains one of the most liberal countries in the world, as a number of international rankings in particular show. One example is the Human Freedom Index 2015, which is published jointly by three respected think tanks (Fraser Institute, Canada; Cato Institute, United States; Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Germany) and only takes into account the degree of economic freedom among personal freedoms. Switzerland is in second place behind Hong Kong, which scores worse than Switzerland in terms of civil rights, but is less regulated economically. Our neighbors do not do well at all (Austria No. 12, Germany No. 13, France No. 33, Italy No. 34). The annual report of the Canadian Fraser Institute ("Economic Freedom of the World 2014") places greater emphasis on the conditions under which economic freedoms can be exercised. Here Switzerland is “only” in fourth place (after Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand), but far ahead of Germany (No. 29), Austria (No. 31), France (No. 58) and Italy (No. 79). In addition, since 2013, Avenir Suisse has regularly measured the (on average high) level of economic and civil freedom in the individual Swiss cantons in the Avenir Suisse Freedom Index.
Switzerland's good position is primarily based on the liberal values that are still cultivated and practiced in this country. Here, as elsewhere, liberalism is much more important than verbal confessions. Perhaps it is the fate of liberal values to be most effective whenever they are implemented under a different name. Liberalism is the white-labeling recipe for well-functioning countries.
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