Edward Luce has a new book out about the rising crisis in Western liberalism, so naturally Tyler’s first question to him dealt with James II and William of Orange.
In this bonus audio recorded at a Mercatus event last week, Tyler and Edward discuss the ideas in his book and more, including future paths of liberalism, whether the current populism is an Anglo-American phenomenon or not, Modi’s India, whether Kubrick, Hitchcock, and John Lennon are overrated or underrated, and what it’s like to write speeches for Larry Summers.
Listen to the full conversation
Read the full transcript
COWEN: I take Ed Luce’s new book ‑‑ today’s the publication date ‑‑ “The Retreat of Western Liberalism” to be fairly pessimistic about liberalism. I’d like partly, maybe a bit out of character these days, to defend a more optimistic perspective.
Having a taste for the esoteric, I’d like to start with a question. If we go back to the 1680s and James II takes the throne, then, William of Orange comes over from what we now call the Netherlands and pushes him out ‑‑ was that a liberal development or an illiberal development?
LUCE: At the time, it was very much a liberal development. Of course, we then get the bill of rights. We then get a further restriction of the power of the monarchy that comes with this new Dutch co‑monarchy, William and Mary.
In retrospect, given the fact that this is very much the Protestant fundamentalist, the Battle of the Boyne, the victory of the Orange forces, William of Orange. In retrospect, I think it’s being celebrated in a pretty illiberal manner.
Of course, that’s very germane right now in Britain, given that Theresa May is trying to form a government in which the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party are going to make up the difference between being a minority government and majority government.
It depends which bit of history you’re looking at it from is my answer.
COWEN: Are you sure it’s liberal though? Because James, he’s in office. He issues some Toleration Acts that will allow Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters to hold office. This is viewed as unacceptable.
Foreign forces, from what we now call the European Union, invade your country and depose him by force. This leads eventually to a number of wars fought by the British, arguably, an age of imperialism, higher levels of public credit, state building, yes, larger markets.
Even to this day, do we know how liberal a development that was?
LUCE: Foreign forces ‑‑ again, you can describe the Stuarts. Remember, this is pre the Act of Union which is 1707, which is almost 20 years after James is deposed. The Stuarts are Scottish, so they were then foreign. Hopefully, they will forever remain not foreign, but we don’t know that at the moment.
You’re right. You could argue that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 is the beginning of the real foundations of imperial Britain, which is not exactly a term, “imperialism,” you associate with liberalism. I, although, would focus on habeas corpus, on the right to try by jury, and all the various things that came with the Glorious Revolution.
And with the Dutch, a more‑evolved version of liberalism that existed in the Netherlands at that point, having rebelled against the Spanish empire, and having had their own industrial revolution and their own enlightenment way before the English one.
I would minimize the foreign king taking over England bit and stress the fact that this was a king that understood that the divine right of kings was over. It was dead, and the Stuarts didn’t really understand that.
COWEN: How many years do you think we need now to judge whether a particular development is a liberal development or an illiberal development?
LUCE: The much misquoted Chou En‑Lai thing about the French Revolution, “What do you think of it?” “It’s too early to tell, people.” I’ve always assumed he was talking about 1789, but he was actually asked this question in 1968.
He thought it was referring to the French protests on the Left Bank against de Gaulle, of 1968. He was right. It was too early to tell.
You need some time, but some things you don’t really need much time with. I don’t think that Brexit is going to stand the test of time. I can argue that, if you wish me to, that judgment pretty confidently, I don’t think the election of Trump is going to retrospectively be seen as a liberal moment in American history, in the non‑American definition of liberalism.
If you recall George W. Bush’s second term, when there was all kinds of projecting Bush’s place in history, and the analogy was made with Harry Truman.
Truman was really unpopular when he left office. So is Bush, and they’re both tough on national security. Bush is going to look like Truman. It was pretty easy, real time, to dispense with that argument.
COWEN: Let’s say we take the British election that was just held. So many people are calling it a mess, chaos, no‑good results but, say, I offered you a revisionist view, how would you respond?
I would say it’s the first real election where voting by class has essentially fallen away. You even have Kensington in London going Labour for the first time since 1974.
Voting is now much more by age. You’ve more female representatives than ever before. You’ve 15 Muslims elected, 7 of those being female. More LGBT individuals. Maybe the new liberalism is reflected by that kind of elevation.
Then on top of that, the election definitely thwarted Scottish independence. It probably helped a soft border for Ireland. We hope it’s helping a soft Brexit.
No Corbyn, no UKIP. Wasn’t it exactly the vote we needed and the most liberal outcome you could have imagined, at least relative to all the initial constraints? Or not?
LUCE: Oh, it was. I think this election was a way better outcome than a thumping majority for Theresa May to negotiate hard Brexit. I always felt that the best possible result was a hung parliament. It’s not quite hung enough, to use a rather indelicate phrasing.
COWEN: What is?
LUCE: That’s why a lot of people who wouldn’t dream of wanting somebody like Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, voted Labour, because they knew it would maximize the chances of a hung parliament. There are two things you identified that are very positive in the larger neoclassical sense of liberalism here.
One is voter participation. We can no longer make easy jokes about Millennials. They did come out and vote this time. They learned from the mistake of Brexit, of not voting, of being complacent.
And the SNP being really heavily cut back. A lot of losses there in Scotland for Scottish nationalism, which I also see as a very positive development.
But this is one of those elections that could change over time. Our perception of it could change, because, will this result in a soft Brexit? Isn’t soft Brexit an oxymoron?
The idea now that the same pro‑Remain, pro‑business, pro‑prosperity option is that Britain remains a part of the single European market but not of the EU ‑‑ and therefore pays a hundred‑billion‑Euro divorce cost ‑‑ has no say over future EU trade deals, over EU regulation, over movements of people, over any EU policies and yet pays for the privilege. It’s pretty hard to argue that that’s an improvement from the pre‑Brexit situation.
It’s a loss of sovereignty, not a gain of sovereignty. For certain it’s a serious loss of economic clout.
COWEN: Those may all be bad outcomes, but if you had to express your concern about British politics becoming illiberal or non‑liberal or anti‑liberal, where do you see that coming from right now? Or are we the only culprit ‑‑ we Americans?
LUCE: No, you’re not the only culprit. People asked where UKIP went in this election, because UKIP vanished, which you could say ‑‑ but I didn’t say ‑‑ this is the third very positive event to come out from last Thursday. The reason why I didn’t say it is because the Conservative Party has essentially become UKIP. It has taken up some really base, low, anti‑migrant politics which it tried, Theresa May tried and failed, to whip up enthusiasm with in the last few days of the campaign.
But they covered all the ground that UKIP occupied. Richard Hofstadter, the rightly celebrated American political scientist, said third parties are like bees. They sting and then they die.
UKIP has stung. Brexit happened, and the Conservative Party has now basically occupied UKIP’s ground. There’s just no way you can describe that as a positive development, whether we’re hung up on the word liberal or not.
COWEN: Let’s say we judge the liberalism of a country or society in terms of levels rather than rates of changes. The percentage of foreign‑born in the United Kingdom today, especially London, but not only, would be remarkably high by really any previous standards ‑‑ 1066, for that matter.
There’s a movement back but it seems that gain has been captured permanently. It’s not that foreigners will en masse be driven out. Some people from the EU may be sent back home, but even that seems to be in more doubt now.
Isn’t it just a slight retreat of liberalism after it won far greater gains than we might have rationally expected?
LUCE: It could be, and I hope it is. I’m certainly open to the prospect it might be. I argued to some degree ‑‑ well, successfully ‑‑ with my publishers, who wanted my book to be called “The Collapse of Western Liberalism.”
I said, “No, no, this should be ‘The Retreat.'” Retreat implies the possibility of regrouping. I don’t think there’s a collapse going on here. I do think there is a severe structural challenge to the way we conduct liberal democracy in the West, particularly in the English‑speaking West.
The outcome of the immigration, sort of, aspect of Brexit, I think is one of those things that’s going to be very hard to predict, because Theresa May, or whoever replaces her, British politics is Italianizing. There’s going to be another general election in a year.
COWEN: Maybe by the time this podcast is released. [laughs]
LUCE: Maybe by the time this podcast… the dead woman walking will actually be dead.
The idea that a conservative prime minister could remain leader of their party whilst keeping freedom of movement is pretty hard to imagine now. The party’s shifted very much to an anti‑immigrant position.
The idea that anybody can survive, get reelected, and generate growth by leaving the single market is also pretty hard to imagine. Britain’s between a rock and a hard place. There’s really no good outcomes here.
COWEN: Given that the landslides of Macron and Finland, the true Finns are splintering. The Five Star party in Italy had weak local results. No one thinks Germany’s going crazy. Why does this move away from liberalism seem to be so Anglo‑American? What do you attribute that to?
LUCE: I would dispute your premise to some degree. I think the Macron victory is a very positive moment. If you were going to ask me, “Overrated, underrated?” Macron would be in the overrated category right now.
The first time the National Front, the Front National candidate, Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean‑Marie Le Pen, got through to the second round within 2002. It was a crisis of France. It was a drama of the republic, “How could a fascist get through to being one of the last two?”
Jacques Chirac led what was essentially a funeral march, no campaigning between round one of the election and round two. Everybody put the famous clothes pegs on their nose, Socialists, Communists.
They voted for the Gaullist. They voted for Chirac. He got 82 percent of the vote. As I say, it was an existential moment in French democracy.
Marine Le Pen gets through to the second round, as expected, wins a third of the vote, 11 million votes, as opposed to 5 million, and it’s a kind of normal event, so I would dispute the fact that nothing’s changed.
I think in September, hopefully Merkel or Martin Schulz will be elected in the German elections, but the AFD is going to breach the five percent limit below which you can not achieve representation under the German system. This will be the first time in German history, since its basic law was promulgated in 1949, that the far right has achieved representation.
Then, of course, there’s Austria, where a postmodern Neo‑Nazi, Norbert Hofer, lost with 47 percent of the vote. We celebrated that as a breaking of the populist wave. How low should our bar be to celebrate the health of liberal democracy? That, to me, is too low, so I dispute that premise of your question.
But there was a second half to your question, which…?
COWEN: Why Anglo‑American?
LUCE: That is a really good question. I think part of it is that the middle classes have fared worse. There are fewer supports for the middle classes in Britain and the United States than there are elsewhere, so the level of frustration, I think, is higher.
It’s a remarkable fact that there are more prime‑aged males in work in France than there are in the United States ‑‑ in France, of all places, so there’s a male element to this, too. I think that the cynicism generated by the Iraq War, the US‑led but British‑supported Iraq War in 2003…
The fact that France and Germany very much stood apart from it, and I think correctly, and that that’s a decision that sort of matures like a good wine. It looks better and better over time.
I think that that created a poison in our politics that is missing in Germany and in France, but I would most of all focus on something that a former French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, said, which is, “We want a market economy, not a market society.”
I think that in the United States, and to a large extent, Britain, we have commodified public life, and we have commodified to a degree that you just don’t see in places like Germany, and I think we have things to learn from parts of continental Europe, including how they treat their middle classes.
We confuse ourselves in the US and Britain as to what skilled means. We think if you’ve got a college degree, you’re skilled. I know lots of skilled people who don’t have college degrees, and I know lots of people with college degrees, [laughs] including myself, who are unskilled.
I think that there is a better understanding, particularly in the Nordic, Denmark and Germany, of the need to accommodate a diversity of aspirations and aptitudes in the labor force, and they invest in things that we consider to be low‑skilled stepping stones to either something better or to failure.
We’ve got a lot more failures, I think, and they’re are a lot more frustrated.
COWEN: Aren’t we, in a sense, ahead of them along the curve? If you look at top French companies and try to find any that postdate 1975 in terms of origin, very difficult to do. Eventually, those sectors will fall away, or those companies will shrink.
COWEN: If you ask French people do they think their children will have a future as good as what they’ve had, you get some of the highest rates of no in the world. If you look at Germany, it’s in some ways economically more positive, but most of German industry is extremely vulnerable to Chinese manufacturing.
And just as Chinese manufacturing has done that to Italy, Germany probably also is vulnerable, has poorer native demographics, has barely had real‑wage growth since 2000, has now a higher rate of people at work. But is it the case that this is happening first to the Anglo countries simply because they’re more open, and the future comes here first?
It used to come to California first. Sometimes I joke it comes to Israel and Singapore first, because those are small, fairly open places where a small impact spreads quite rapidly. Is that a possible hypothesis?
LUCE: It may be a probable hypothesis, and hence my pessimism about the future of liberal democracy on the continent. I would accept that France is probably going to go through some restructuring that is going to cause a lot of political gnashing of teeth.
Macron’s program is a sort of soft Thatcherism, maybe Blairism. I don’t know what you call it, but Macron, the rubber’s going to hit the road quite soon. He’s got a majority. The En Marche has a majority in the French assembly, and a lot of these people have never served in politics before.
That was part of the appeal. It’s a wide, but thin, coalition that has been assembled by a very skillful young man ‑‑ and I now really do feel old, because he’s at least a decade younger than me ‑‑ by promising all things to all people.
Very clever politics. Not necessarily a good program for governing. France has a politics of anti‑politics, of people who don’t vote, and of people who protest by bringing politics to a halt. I think we’re going to see that tested.
I don’t necessarily disagree with the premise of that. I think France and Germany are going to be subjected to a lot of harsh wins, as they already are, but they’ll get harsher, as China grows and others grow. The proposition of whether their democracies are better equipped to cope with this will be put to the test.
I do think, though, that there are some things they know that we don’t. Denmark, for example, has an employer government program where everybody can train at anything they like for two weeks a year, and most Danish employees avail of that.
They train in stuff, and so that the labor market turnover in Denmark is way higher than it is in the rest of Europe, because people don’t feel wedded to one skill. They feel much more confident in a gig economy to move around, be more flexible, and change jobs.
I don’t want to generalize too grossly about which democracies are doing badly and which are doing well. What’s important is what unites us, and that is a pretty profound existential challenge to how we do business, if you like.
COWEN: What’s the most plausible scenarios through which Trump and/or Brexit work out for the better? I’m not saying you have to agree with it, but if you had to say, the most plausible scenarios.
LUCE: Trump working out for the better, I would say, is the system showing the it works, the Madisonian system showing that it works. I wouldn’t wish impeachment on anybody, but the system has to hold Trump to account. I believe there are good signs in the last few weeks and months of the system doing that ‑‑ the appointment of Mueller, the courts blocking the Muslim ban, again, repeatedly.
The media is going a pretty good job of ferreting out stuff, and Congress, well, we’ll see. We’ll see, but it’s sort of limbering up, perhaps, to do a good job. I think the American system, proving it works, it might a net plus over time.
Brexit, by far the best outcome is that the British do what our wise and by now more successful neighbors, the Irish, have done twice, which is twice lost a referendum on Europe, on Maastricht and on Lisbon, and twice said, “OK, now we’re going to ask you again, having thought about it.”
It was a bit like round one of the French election and round two. There’s a cooling off period.
The second round, the turnout shoots up, and the Irish, having thought about it, but we need a second referendum in Britain. You can not determine a country’s future like this with 52 percent of the vote.
COWEN: But then there is a sense of, “We’re going to keep on voting until we get this right,” and at least pro‑Brexit people will say, “Well, you’re opposing liberalism to democracy. There was a decisive result. Not by a landslide, but it was clear,” and after the result, it didn’t seem very regretted.
People still seem to take some form of Brexit for granted. It’s not really being challenged openly, except by a small number of elites. Is your vision of liberalism something that ultimately comes before a democracy?
LUCE: I think it historically comes before democracy.
COWEN: And still does.
LUCE: I don’t necessarily think it trumps. I think the two actually go together. Could I just briefly say, on the Brexit argument?
LUCE: Here is an example of illiberalism. When people say, “Look, could we have a second referendum?” As three judges said ‑‑ well, they didn’t quite say that.
As three judges suggested that Parliament should have a say in this. After all, Britain is based on the sovereignty of Parliament. That is, “If we’re going to take back our sovereignty, Parliament should have a say.”
Enemies of the people. The three judges faces were put on the front of not just tabloids, but what we call broad sheets in Britain ‑‑ supposedly more serious newspapers ‑‑ “Enemies of the People.” The kind of demagoguery that has gone on for anybody who’s raised that debate has chilled the whole ability to have a rational discussion about what the trade‑offs are here.
Granted, if there were a second referendum and the remainers lost it, that would be a high risk to call such a referendum, it might well be the case the British people get really annoyed at being asked twice, and the pro‑Brexit margin goes up.
I think people should be given a chance to think, to cool off and think about what’s at stake here, because all the evidence shows that there was a really poor debate leading up to last summer’s Brexit. The electorate, as famously googled EU, on a scale never seen before the following day, “What is the EU?”
COWEN: We have a pretty good idea of what liberalism looks like for agricultural societies, also for manufacturing societies, but say the big political issues of the future or maybe the present were something like the environment, the Internet, intellectual property law, privacy, immigration, terrorism, and dementia. Not so implausible.
With those as the major issues, do we even know what liberalism looks like, just to say people back in even the 1930s probably hardly ever debated gay marriage, if at all.
LUCE: If you were to ask me one of my favorite liberal thinkers, it would be Edmund Burke. Edmund Burke, who is normally thought of as a conservative thinker, but I see no contradiction ‑‑ I’m not using liberalism in the American sense of liberalism ‑‑ developed the idea during the time of the French Revolution of the superiority of representative democracy.
Remember, we had the Jacobeans saying that we needed instant electric democracy, and nothing in between the people and the decisions. You are describing decisions here, very complex ‑‑ ethically, legally, societally, and internationally ‑‑ very complex decisions that you cannot decide by plebiscite, and I don’t care whether you can do it online and make it easier. It makes no difference.
These are questions where you need to be able to delegate authority to your representatives who you can fire at the next opportunity to develop the skills as full‑time political representatives to make these judgments. If you don’t like those judgments, you throw them out.
I don’t think the answer is either, what you might be implying, because you could go one of two ways ‑‑ the plebiscitary Robespierre kind of democracy on the one hand, or Singapore, basically non‑democracy and a rule of experts on the other. I don’t see anything better than representative democracy.
COWEN: I proposed to Mark Koyama a few days ago, over lunch, that we simply give everything to the House of Lords for about five years.
COWEN: And then go back to the Constitution we have.
In the middle of these, we always have this segment, “Overrated versus Underrated.” You’re from England, of course. You’ve moved to the United States, so I’m going to ask you about a number of other Brits who’ve done the same, and you tell me if you think they’re overrated or underrated.
LUCE: Do you call him a Brit?
COWEN: Well, do I call you a Brit? I don’t know. [laughs]
LUCE: I see. Sorry. Others who’ve done this, and gone… I’d say I think he’s rated pretty well, highly. He deserves to be rated highly.
But you’re really going to “Space Odyssey 2001.”
COWEN: John Lennon, moved to New York.
COWEN: Why? [laughs]
LUCE: It’s a lot of people who don’t know much about Lennon sort of worship him as the best Beatle. He’s the best Beatle because he died youngest.
LUCE: I think Lennon was a bit of a jerk, frankly, although he was a great lyricist. But I don’t really…Have you listened to “I am the Walrus” recently?
LUCE: Does it make any sense to you?
COWEN: It’s sprawling, as they say. Alfred Hitchcock?
LUCE: Because I think his movies were a lot more formulaic, his later movies. It was a formula that worked, but his genius sort of faded much earlier than…I am struggling here, because he was a brilliant movie maker. Sorry.
LUCE: I’m really struggling, but I thought I should say somebody’s overrated.
COWEN: It seems they’re all overrated.
COWEN: Sir Anthony Hopkins.
LUCE: The thing is you’re throwing names at me who are all really highly rated.
COWEN: [27:10] Sure.
LUCE: I can’t say he’s underrated. I cannot. Again, he’s a very good actor, but can I pass on that one?
COWEN: W. H. Auden.
LUCE: W. H. Auden is…
COWEN: He moved here in 1939, right?
LUCE: I think he’s underrated, because he’s been forgotten. I think he was one of the most brilliant poets.
I think we should judge him on his poetry and forgive the fact that he wanted to get the hell out of Dodge in 1939, because he wasn’t. His contemporaries questioned why he was crossing the Atlantic at that particular moment.
But his poetry is brilliant and eternal. I’d say he’s been forgotten.
COWEN: You’ve written one of my favorite books on India, “In Spite of the Gods,” which I recommend to you all. If we think about the fate of liberalism in India, right now there’s an enormous effort going on to biometrically record people, have markers of their identity, and possibly tie this in to some notion of a Universal Guaranteed Income, or at least greater reliance on cash transfers.
There will be much more aid to people, but also much more control of people under the Modi regime, which has pushed for both aid and control in different ways and hasn’t liberalized as much as many people had expected. Is India right now moving in a liberal direction?
LUCE: It would be hard to argue that it is. Narendra Modi has been doing a lot of things under the radar, in terms of chipping away at the Indian secular, Nehruvian secular constitution of India.
Making it harder for minorities ‑‑ Muslims, Christians, and others ‑‑ to express themselves freely, in terms of allowing far‑right groups associated with the Sangh Parivar, which is the broad name given to the Hinduite far movement, of which the BJP is a branch. The RSS is really the parent.
Allowing groups, the most vicious youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, and VHP, another very hard‑right part of the Hinduite far movement, a lot more leeway legally to harass minorities and changing of the curriculum. To rewrite it, to make India Hindu and Hindu India, and completely downplay the extraordinarily important Muslim contribution to what is a syncretic culture, a riot of faith and interactions, and a glory of pluralism.
COWEN: Is that overplaying political headlines too much?
COWEN: Because the situation of women in India is headed toward long‑term improvement, wealth is rising every year. India’s proven actually, remarkably stable. It’s still quite democratic, ‑‑ albeit in a funny way ‑‑ with a very disconnected sense of accountability.
If it simply keeps in motion, won’t you get over the medium‑ to long‑term, say, at least a third of India, looking a bit like Malaysia, Gujarat having infrastructure, being developed, people having richer, freer, more diverse lives.
Not all of India, but the [inaudible] , they’re still better off. Rural India moving more to cities, which is the single biggest liberalizing development you could imagine in a life.
And thus, political headlines aside, India as a whole will be much more liberal 10 or 15 years from now, or no? Am I looking at the wrong indicators?
LUCE: Modi, I think of him as a Jekyll and Hyde figure. The Jekyll figure, the good part, is that he’s a fanatic. He believes what he believes, and he’s therefore not in politics for business.
He’s not in it for corruption or personal enrichment, and he doesn’t tolerate people around him who are. That’s an extraordinarily refreshing and important change from the Congress government that he booted out three years ago.
The Jekyll is not actually a sort of classic laissez‑faire liberal. It’s a China model of development. He’s a project executor.
He believes in infrastructure that’s built and on time, and that works, and God knows, India needs that. If Jekyll‑Modi succeeds, it will be a positive liberal event, because more people will be lifted out of poverty, fewer people will be illiterate, and women, as you say, will be prime beneficiaries of this.
But remember, he’s also Dr. Hyde. This guy is a fascist, and if things go wrong, and Jekyll can’t deliver, and he faces reelection two years from now and the possibility of losing the majority…
He’s a master, bar none, of whipping up Hindu sentiment and to override caste divisions. That’s always the key is, “How can you unite Hindus beyond what divides them?” Because in India, you don’t cast your vote. You vote your caste.
COWEN: China had a Communist revolution, a cultural revolution going back earlier, the Taiping Rebellion. At least on the surface, partition aside, India appears much more stable than China over the long term. At least that’s the cliché.
Is it true, and if so, why is India so apparently stable?
LUCE: I think India’s diversity is a great stabilizing strength. The fact that it’s got, I think, 18 official languages, although they do add to that, the fact that it has got every religion under the sun, the fact that, as E. P. Thompson famously said, “There’s not a thought that’s been thought in East or West that is not active in some Indian mind.”
India’s sheer pluralism is very stabilizing if you take a sort of 30,000‑foot view. If you’re in the midst of it, you think it’s anarchy, but the more of altitude you get on this, the more stabilizing it is.
It is a country that lets off steam regularly, and that’s why I’m concerned that Modi doesn’t celebrate that side of India. I think it’s an important, immensely valuable quality to India, that gives it a huge advantage over China.
COWEN: Before we get to questions, we have about three minutes left. Three questions about you. You have about a minute apiece for each.
You were a speech writer for economist Larry Summers. Other than the obvious, what particular skill does a good speech writer need?
LUCE: The thing about speech writers is there’s no such thing as a generic speech writer. There’s, “You are speech writer to A or B.” If Larry’s A, you need to know Larry very well.
I don’t think being a speech writer to Steve Mnuchin would be any help to being a speech writer to Larry Summers. You’ve got to know the individual you’re writing speeches for.
Larry, whatever his robust personality might be, you learn more from writing speeches for him in three months than you do in one year as a student. It’s an extraordinarily intensive learning process.
COWEN: The second about you. You’re a famous columnist for “The Financial Times.” You had a particular path to the top. That path would probably be hard to replicate today.
If you’re giving someone advice today who wants to be the next Ed Luce, what advice do you give them, other than the obvious?
LUCE: I would say do other things than journalism. Don’t start out being a journalist. I would say the same for politics, too, not that I have any credibility on that subject.
I’d say, “Do other stuff. Acquire real skills and experience in completely unrelated fields.”
COWEN: Last question about you. What still surprises you the most about the United States?
LUCE: The ability to reinvent itself, even though there is a complacent class, and I accept your thesis. It is the ability to keep changing, and there is that protean quality to America which might have slowed, but it’s still way more in evidence here than in places that never had it.
COWEN: More in evidence here than in the United Kingdom?
COWEN: That seems like a more different country to me over the last 30 years than the United States. We seem like a somewhat linear development of the Reagan years, whereas in terms of immigrants and connection to Europe ‑‑ and that may be changing ‑‑ the UK seems radically different, compared to my first visit in 1979.
LUCE: The food is certainly better…
COWEN: That, too. That reflects something.
LUCE: I think the food is better here, too, and I wouldn’t dare argue with you about food.
I don’t know. I think that’s a pretty subjective line. The UK has changed a lot. That’s right.
Can I argue? Can I prove to you America has changed more?
I don’t know. I think in 2002, if somebody had told you that gay marriage would be legal, that marijuana, recreationally, would be legal in x number of states, and that you’d have a black president asking something I didn’t agree with, for transgender bathroom rights in an election year, that you would have probably scoffed at any such change being possible.
I’m not saying all that change was positive, but I certainly think marriage equality is, and the speed with which that happened is remarkable.
COWEN: Ed Luce, thank you very much.
LUCE: Thank you.
COWEN: We’ll take questions at the two mics. Please line up. These are not speeches. If you start giving a speech, I will cut you off.
First I’ll start with a question from the iPad, “Ed, who is the one columnist you would like to fight?”
COWEN: I don’t know.
LUCE: It’s career ending to give an honest answer to that…
LUCE: …and you’d hate me for giving a dishonest one, so I’m not going to answer.
COWEN: OK. First question, here.
Audience Member: The regimes in Poland and Hungary ‑‑ do you see them as an outlier that will be contained, or something that’s the forerunner of more to come?
LUCE: That’s a very good question. I think if we’d had this situation with Hungary 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago, America’s involvement in Europe, under the radar, behind the scenes, in chivying Europe to take steps it needs to take would have been far earlier and far more effective.
Today we are suffering, I think, from an absence of leadership of the liberal international order, and countries like Hungary and Poland are able to move extraordinarily, after having, really, craved to join the EU, to be European, to be Western, extraordinarily moving towards Putinism or some form of Putinism.
I think America’s absence is really important, so I’m not particularly optimistic on that score, because I think America’s going to continue to be absent on these questions. I think we underestimate the degree to which America has been an exceptional power, and that this 70 years since 1945 has been what Bob Kagan calls an unnatural period in human history.
It’s been a success, broadly, of an era of no mass wars and moving towards democracy, because there’s been a hegemon consciously pushing in that direction. That’s a role America is no longer playing. I hope it plays it again, but until it does, I fear you’re going to see Poland and Hungary moving further in the direction they’ve been moving.
COWEN: Next question.
Audience Member: We’ve talked about the illiberalism on the right, I think, Brexit, President Trump, and all those sorts of things, UKIP, but what about the illiberalism on the left?
I think that the final nail in the coffin of Blairism came last Thursday when Jeremy Corbyn ‑‑ who is an unrepentant Marxist ‑‑ picked up 30 seats in that election, and MÈlenchon in France, and Bernie Sanders here in the United States. The far left is really on a roll, something of a roll, in the Western world.
Could you speak to the far left’s illiberalism?
LUCE: Yep, and I think it’s a very good question, and I think it’s an often overlooked one. I think the left, if you’re a Democrat, looking at a candidate for 2020, there is essentially a debate going on in the party between the sort of Macron wing, and a Corbynista wing. These are the two, sort of left responses we’re seeing in Europe.
Left illiberalism, and anti‑Americanism, to which European illiberalism is very closely aligned, is a very serious, very real. MÈlenchon might have lost, but he got almost a fifth of the vote, as you mentioned.
I think that the further away we get from 2008 ‑‑ which is very much associated with the new left, the Third Way left, of Blair, Gordon Brown, and others ‑‑ the further away we get from that, the more we’e going to see populists left wing movements marshaling everywhere.
I would consider, this isn’t just a right‑wing populist moment, although that’s been the principal manifestation of populism, and I agree with your identification of that.
COWEN: Next question.
Audience Member: This past weekend, there was a plebiscite in Puerto Rico on statehood, and 25 percent of the electorate showed up. Today, yet again, we have another election here in Virginia. We have one every six months, where probably 20 percent of the electorate will show.
Is this apathy, complacency, fatigue, or is there some illiberal mechanism that’s holding the electorate back?
LUCE: I think there is a cynicism about politics, which incidentally, manifested itself in France last Sunday, round two, the Macron En Marche landslide, was 40 percent turnout, which is a historic low for France. We’ll see this coming Sunday whether that goes up.
I think there is a deep cynicism about politics, and about experts and establishment politics. Remember, in France, there’s also an anti‑establishment thing going on. I think there’s a deep cynicism about it, which is really quite understandable, if you look at what the experts have bought us.
They bought us the Iraq War. The experts very much mis‑sold how that would fare. They bought us 2008. The experts were the last to see it coming.
I think Millennials, who until last Thursday in Britain, had been turning out at lower rates in most democracies than other age groups, have grown up with this cynicism, and they feel it’s normal.
Tyler would say that’s healthy, because they’re not actually angry. They’re just apathetic. If you’ve got a choice between anger and apathy, let’s go for apathy, but I think it’s highly corrosive of liberal democracy.
COWEN: There’s a related question on the iPad. I’m rewording a bit. Is it the case that elites have so used the judiciary and administrative law, in the case of the UK, through the European Union, that actually Brexit and Trump are simply democratic backlashes wanting to take back for democracy powers that had taken away from the democratic will of the people, and it had to get to the point of Brexit and Trump for that actually to be reversed?
LUCE: Yeah, that would be your “history will look back on this as a liberal moment” scenario, that this is a very violent sort of counterreaction to the growing internationalization of law, to the increasingly widened field of stuff that’s off‑limits to democratic decision making, which of course, includes trade, regulation, international. If you’re in Europe, it includes all these things.
If this is simply a correction where we reject Davos, we reject the sort of “elites run the world,” and decide all the big economic stuff, and we just stick with identity politics, then this could be a liberal moment.
I think it’s a very good question. I suspect, though, you don’t just have these little conniptions that then fade away.
There are consequences to these connections, and I fear that Trumpism, even if he lost in 2020, is going to leave a deeply disruptive mark ‑‑ in the pejorative sense of disruptive ‑‑ mark on American democracy and on the reputation of American democracy and American leadership around the world.
As I’ve said before on Brexit, we’re about to sign up as the same option to a world where foreigners decide our regulations, our trade deals, our products standards, and all, except we don’t a say over it. If that’s rational, go figure.
COWEN: Next question.
Audience Member: How does a multiparty system in Europe affect the retreat or advance of liberalism versus the two‑party system we have here in the US?
LUCE: Until last Thursday, the assumption was the British two‑party system is disintegrating into a European model, where we’re just going to have permanent coalition governments.
But last Thursday was the peak two‑party moment in almost 40 years. The Conservative Party got its highest share of the vote since 1983, when Thatcher had her second big landslide, and the Labour Party had its highest share of the vote since 1983. Sorry, it had its highest share of the vote since 1997, when Blair came in.
This is a two‑party peak. The smaller parties have temporarily been pushed away. The United States, you don’t have two parties. You have many parties under two umbrellas, and you’re a continent, so it’s very hard to analogize the US with Europe.
One thing I would say, is your system is not designed to be parliamentary. Your system works better when each party is a coalition between different interests, and the fact that each is becoming more and more monochromatic, more and more disciplined and parliamentary, is disastrous for this system. This system doesn’t work like that.
COWEN: IPad question. “Russia is commonly considered the primary antagonist of liberalism. What are the chances liberalism itself takes hold in Russia in the next 20 years?”
LUCE: Perhaps pretty good. If you look anywhere around the world, cities tend to vote for the internationalist option, and Putin was so complacent ‑‑ rightly so ‑‑ about his last presidential campaign in 2012. He allowed more than half of Moscow to vote against him, and of course, Istanbul, Erdogan, strongly rejected Erdogan’s recent referendum on strengthening his powers.
Alexei Navalny, the leader, currently, of opposition to Putin, is doing something that Corbyn managed to achieve last Thursday. He’s getting young people out, being quite bold, and protesting on quite some scale across Russia. You ought to draw hope from that kind of courage from millennials. We’re used to thinking of millennials as slightly different.
I wouldn’t rule out Russia turning from abeying a Western democracy to being something quite hopeful. I think that’s definitely a positive thing that’s potentially going on there.
COWEN: Next question.
Audience Member: Neil Ferguson concluded his book “The West and the Rest” with the idea that is the pusillanimity of Western democracies is to blame for the decline of Western ideas. What do you think about that?
LUCE: He was talking about the over‑consumption and deficit spending, I think partly, right? I don’t really agree with that. I don’t agree with that at all. I think when people talk about the massive American debt, when we look at, what, 75 percent of GDP, look at the publicly‑held debt, I don’t think by historic standards that’s remotely alarming.
I think, in fact, we should have had more stimulus and had more counter‑cyclical fiscal policy in the last decade than we have had. I think the German answer ‑‑ and here’s where I would criticize the German sado‑managerist approach has actually been very damaging to Europe, particularly to the Club Med group of European countries, so I’m not sure I agree with Neil Ferguson.
He changes his argument about once a year, so I’ll either catch up with him, or he’ll catch up with me.
COWEN: Why do African Americans poll as being so optimistic about the future of this country?”
LUCE: Because they are getting better off from a much lower base, and Hispanics do, too. They, I think, quite rationally, see their children as being better off than they are.
They’re coming from a much lower base. They tend to be younger, average age, too, which affects that outlook. I think it’s as simple as that.
COWEN: How much of the decline of liberalism in the West do you attribute to the possible disappearance of an existential threat? No Nazism, no communism, no Cold War. How much is that’s what’s going on?”
LUCE: A lot of it. A lot of it. I think the last great foreign policy president the United States had was Bush, Senior. I think he was a brilliant president who [inaudible] down the Cold War with extraordinary finesse and skill.
He did not go an dance on the Berlin Wall. He did not go and beat his breast and claim credit for it.
Can you imagine a president doing that today?
Audience Member: Yeah.
LUCE: I think that the Cold War kept America honest, as it were, and enabled this bipartisan support for America’s, as I say, unnatural global role of being the Hercules that sustains the liberal international order. I think the Cold War played a hugely important role. It’s going to be very hard to reinvent it, nor should we wish to.
COWEN: Is Pope Francis a liberal?”
LUCE: [laughs] In a way, yes, he is. He is trying to push it to the extent that he can for softer ecclesiastical law on divorce, on contraception, on rhythm methods, and all that kind of stuff.
But although I’m not an Orangeman, I’m not a Catholic, and I’m tiptoeing through a minefield already, so I don’t want to get too…I don’t want to be too detailed in my commentary on Catholic law. I’m going to get something wrong.
COWEN: Next question.
Audience Member: The dysfunction of the US Congress, first of all, do you agree that it’s becoming less and less functional? Secondly, how do you relate that to your point, which you pointed to, the commodification of politics in society and not just the economy?
If so, how do we go, then, from where we are to what you propose as a system of government in which we trust in the delegation of authority to people whom we trust to do the right thing, who’ve presented a vision of the right thing that we so now come to share?
COWEN: Just on timing ‑‑ there are two more questions, and we have, like, three minutes, so you’ll have to give a super abbreviated answer to that.
LUCE: My super abbreviated answer is read Mancur Olson, which I’m sure you have, and we can talk more about that later.
COWEN: Hilton, penultimate question?
Audience Member: Yes, I’d like to push you to talk a little bit more about the retreat to something. What do they moving towards? In this regard, I’m thinking of Tony Jett’s argument that they’re moving towards some kind of certainty and away from the liberal institutions that they perceive as having failed to satisfy their needs.
LUCE: Democracy, in the last 15‑20 years has actually been receding world‑wide, including in Europe. Poland and Hungary are, as one questioner identified, wobbling. There are 25 fewer democracies today than there were in 2000.
I think the retreat of Western liberalism isn’t just that we are having our problems at home and having to relearn some of the lessons of what liberal democracy actually means. But I think our models because are not performing well for the broad‑based electorates, that vote in our governments every few years.
The model of Western liberalism ‑‑ just very quick things. I know you want a quick answer. 2008 was described as a global recession. It wasn’t. It was an Atlantic recession.
China kept growing. India kept growing. The relative attractiveness of the Chinese model therefore grew. I think the retreat of Western liberalism as a model that delivers the goods to its people ‑‑ that’s the ultimate measure ‑‑ is a kind of economic determinist one that I would apply.
COWEN: Last question from me. If there’s more human talent in the world today than ever before and if liberalism is a good thing, why should we be pessimistic?
LUCE: We shouldn’t, and if you look at the world from a global perspective, there’s never been a period where more people have been lifted out of poverty faster than today.
We should remember it’s because of Pax Americana. It’s because of the public goods supplied over the past 70, 80 years that China is in a position, and India, to lift people out of poverty on this scale, to cut child mortality, illiteracy, under‑five, whatever it is. Maternal deaths.
Globally, this is an immensely positive moment and more brainpower is being plugged into the system exponentially over time.
COWEN: In the West we also have more talent, right?
LUCE: In the West we have more talent but we have way more wasted talent than we used to have. There’s a lot more idle humans than there used to be and don’t look at the unemployment rate ‑‑ you know this. Look at the labor force participation rate.
COWEN: Ed Luce, thank you very much.
LUCE: Thank you very much.