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Niall Ferguson: Liberal democracy will not survive the 21st century

Niall Ferguson

The following was adapted from remarks recently delivered on a Munk Debates podcast: “Be it resolved, liberal democracy will not survive the 21st century.”

Although I regret it very much, I believe that liberal democracy as we know it won’t survive the 21st century.

If you look at Freedom House data, which covers nearly all the world’s countries, and you go back to 1997, about 45 per cent of countries were rated free, about 30 per cent were partly free, and about 25 per cent were not free. Those proportions haven’t really changed much in the past 20 years or so. And there are several countries that have clearly seen a decline in freedom in the past 10 years: Venezuela, Turkey, Hungary and Russia to name a few. One might argue that the United States is in severe danger of losing at least the liberal part of its democracy, because Donald Trump is one of those populist demagogues who’ve sprung up all over the democratic world in the past few years who certainly avow their commitment to people power, but are deeply illiberal in almost every way. They are illiberal on trade, they are illiberal on migration, they are illiberal even when it comes to the rule of law.

Liberal democracy is also struggling economically. It’s not only encumbered with mind-boggling amounts of debt; roughly speaking, the total public and private liabilities in the United States are approaching 1,000 per cent of Gross Domestic Product. Liberal democracy also generated the severe financial crisis of 2008-2009, and it is afflicted with profound problems of inequality.

The third point I’d make is that the internet has turned out to be deeply inimical to liberalism, not to democracy. It’s not that turnout declines, it’s just that the more that the network platforms dominate the media, the worse it seems to go for liberalism because network platforms incentivize extreme views and fake news, and hollow out the centre ground of politics.

The final point I’ll make is that I worry about the illiberalism of the young. As somebody who works in the university world, I’m constantly struck by how little commitment young people have to fundamental principles of liberalism, in particular free speech and the freedoms of association with the press. Survey data reveal that Generation Z, the generation currently in university, are overwhelmingly skeptical about free speech and think that universities should protect them from anything that might hurt their feelings.

I will conclude with a quotation from one of the great founders of American democracy, Alexander Hamilton. “A dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

It’s happening in our time, even in the English-speaking countries, even in the United States of America that Hamilton helped to found. And that is why I am fundamentally pessimistic about the future of liberal democracy.

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