The Collapse of Liberal Orders

In the post-9/11 world, everyone worries that increasing government power in order to fight terrorism will lead inexorably to a loss of freedom and ultimately to a collapse of the liberal (in the classic sense) order of Western society. This concern is not a new one. Britons in the 1700s warned of “insensible loss of liberties” that would occur by the aggregate effects of the accumulation of seemingly trivial individual laws. A vast array of citizens watch with eagle eyes every new power of the state and seek to obstruct most of them. believing that the powers represent a greater threat than the enemy they seek to contain.

History, however, suggest they are looking in the wrong direction.

The history of the 20th Century paints a very clear picture of how liberal orders collapse into authoritarian ones. Contrary to popular belief, liberal orders do not gradually evolve into authoritarian ones by the accumulation of state power. Instead, liberal orders fail suddenly when they cease to provide basic physical and economic security. The functional power of the state decays until conditions reach a degree of disorder that triggers a sudden collapse into an authoritarian order. Ineffectiveness kills the liberal state, not excessive powers.

The major cases of Russia, Italy, Germany and Japan all follow this pattern. In each case, the liberal order lost the ability to provide the basic order and stability required for the economy to function, and simultaneously lost the ability to suppress the violent action of political extremists. A feedback loop arose in which the erosion of state effectiveness created disorder which empowered extremists who further sabotaged the state’s ability to function. The feedback loop rather rapidly increased the power of extremists and destroyed the liberal order.

Terrorism as we know it today did not exist prior to the 1960s. Virtually everyone considered the targeting of random civilians by shadowy unaccountable organizations utterly taboo. No one had any trouble recognizing such tactics as war crimes. Any group who adopted such tactics faced political suicide if not outright extermination. Even in the ’60s and ’70s most major terrorist actions sought to create maximum media exposure with a minimum of civilian casualties. As the liberal West seemed unable to respond effectively to terrorism, more and more groups adopted it as a tactic and their attacks grew more violent and less precisely targeted. Now we face the very real possibility of attacks using nuclear and biological weapons which could kill millions at a stroke.

If we cannot successfully curtail the escalation of terrorism we face the collapse of our liberal order. Today we face Islamist terrorists, but if others view terrorism as successful we will face attacks from other groups as well. Terrorist attacks will undermine social and economic functions and people will increasingly view the liberal order as a failed one. 9/11 illustrates this risk in miniature. During the ’90s the West proved unable to restrain Al-Qaeda and its attacks grew increasingly destructive. People worried more about increasing state power than they did about the external threat. Finally, 9/11 caused a counter-reaction and we saw a sudden expansion of state power. Had we treated terrorism more seriously and had we authorized relatively minor expansions of state power in the ’90s we would not have the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance today.

Political correctness threatens to cripple the effectiveness of the liberal order. For example, we refuse to use proven techniques such as profiling airline passengers and instead use invasive and ineffective searches for any object that might contain a bomb or weapon. We consider profiling, even accurate profiling, unjust. Neither will we use data mining, keyword searching or other modern tools, preferring instead to rely on invasive techniques such as planting informants. In the end we create the illusion of programs that are both powerful and ineffective. If a future attacks succeeds on a grand scale, many may conclude, just as they did after 9/11, that the state (or worse, a successor state) needs vastly more power.

We may be sliding down a slippery slope towards authoritarianism, but I fear we do so facing up-slope and unawares. We fix our eyes uphill on the minor threat while we slide insensibly down into the maw of the beast.

[Update (2006-08-20 13:14:25): Instapundit expresses similar thoughts.]

21 thoughts on “The Collapse of Liberal Orders”

  1. The Weimar Republic, of course, presents an excellent case in point. Both the Left and the Right used street violence in their attempts to control German politics, and it was of course the Right that was finally successful. In today’s America, it is the “progressive” movement that seems to have the greatest affinity for goon-squad tactics.

    Imagine what would happen in America if there were several terrorist attacks per year on the scale of 9/11 or the recently-foiled airliner plot. Public opinion would demand something very close to martial law, and it is unlikely any politician could resist these and remain in office. The resulting infringements on civil liberties would be orders of magnitude beyond the things the ACLU complains about today.

    I do not understand why it is so difficult for professional “civil libertarians” to grasp this likely sequence of cause and effect.

  2. Those who point to firmness and strength in response to Islamic terror as a danger miss the boat in two ways.

    First, as you point out, it is continuing disorder and chaos that invites authoritarian reactions, not a calmly determined response which takes clear measures to reduce a threat.

    Secondly, and even more importantly in my view, the doomsayers consistently underestimate the stubborness and dogged insistence of Americans in regards to their rights.

    As an obvious example, consider the fact that our society was never more regimented at any time in its history than it was at the end of WW2. Millions in uniform, most industry controlled for the war effort, rationing, emergency powers granted to the state, etc., etc.

    And yet, within a few years, the military was hugely decreased, many controls lifted, fleets mothballed, and, by the 1960’s, we were launched into the counter-cultural movement which, for good and bad, was based on the idea that everyone should live their life as they see fit.

    The state is definitely out of control as regards the massive entitlement programs it has undertaken, and the amount of money and bother it costs the average US private business and worker to conform to numerous regulations for dubious and elusive benefits.

    However, these onerous controls are the very ones most of the “the sky is falling” crowd not only don’t oppose, but ask for more of on a regular basis. Whatever their ultimate purpose truly is, the increased safety and freedom of the American public is not high on the agenda.

  3. Shannon, I think this applies to the period prior to the French Revolution, as well. The State was going broke and was unable to provide the basic functions necessary. Also, in the run-up to the Spanish Civil War, it was the government’s inability to crack down on politically motivated violence that led to the civil war.

  4. Shannon, another great post. Your 3rd paragraph reminds me how breifly and succinctly you manage to communicate powerful and sweeping ideas. Quite a skill.

    David Foster, hate to nitpick, but I don’t like seeing the Nazi’s (who were socialists) referred to as “the right.”

    Hayek pointed out in “The Road to Serfdom” that it wasn’t the right vs. the left in Germany, but the left vs. the left. The right had already been vanquished when the leftist factions turned on each other in their competition for power.

  5. GFK…it’s true that the Nazis favored strong controls over the economy; however, they differed substantially from the Marxists in the social factors they believed were important. Whereas Marxism was a bastard child of the Enlightenment, Naziism was a reaction to the Enlightenment. Naziism sought an archaic culture in which violence was a positive value; it valued economic development primarily because of its usefulness in warfare. In theoretical Marxism (as opposed to practical Marxism) violence was only a means to an end, not a value in itself, and economic development was a supreme goal.

  6. GFK wrote:
    “David Foster, hate to nitpick, but I don’t like seeing the Nazi’s (who were socialists) referred to as “the right.”

    The Nazis were socialists. They were also, in their own opinion, revolutionaries. The Nazis were also on the far Right of the German political spectrum, acknowledged as such by all the other political parties in the Reichstag.

    These qualities are not mutually exclusive in a European, and in particular, a German, historical context. State socialism has a Right-wing as well as Left-wing tradition in Europe.

    Great post BTW !

  7. There were a few terrorist groups prior to the 60s. The anarchists lit off bombs now and then in Britain and America in the teens and twenties. Anyone know of other examples?

    The KKK certainly used terrorist tactics, but their goals were quite different from modern terrorists.

  8. Forgive the slight divergence of(f) topic but, UofChi probably excepted, has anyone seen an undergrad course curriculum these days that carries a concentration on Burke (much less a smattering of R. Kirk)? Ortega y Gasset?

    Edmund and Jose need a blog carnival or something.

  9. “Anyone know of other examples?”

    The FALN attempted to assassinate President Truman and shot up the floor of the U.S. Congress in the late 1940’s.

    The late 19th century saw the Molly Maguires as well as anarchists. Also related would be Comittees of Vigilance, White Leagues and in the late Colonial era, backcountry ” Regulators”.

  10. tom bri

    There were a few terrorist groups prior to the 60s.

    Pre-60’s and post-60’s terrorist differed in that the pre-60 seldom, if ever, targeted random members of a broad population.

    Anarchist attempted to assassinate specific government officials or to attack specific economic infrastructure. They sought to minimize collateral causalities in the general population. The KKK or unionist killing scrabs is probably the closest America has even seen random terror but even those groups tended to target individuals. The KKK didn’t attack african-americans randomly. They usually had some warped rational for targeting a specific person.

    Contemporary terrorism is so dangerous and so hard to protect against specifically because they target populations of millions seeking to kill random members of that population. That has never really happened before. It started with PLO attacks on homes, businesses and schools in the mid-60 and with the Shining path in Peru. These style of attacks raised the groups profiles but since the Soviet Union was behind the vast majority of terrorism in 60’s and 70’s they kept such groups on a leash and prevented the rapid escalation to mass-casuality attacks. Mass-casualty (or perhaps maximum casualty) attacks really began with the Iranian revolution. As an nation at odds with both power blocks they had no incentive to keep casualties down. They started killing as many as possible in Lebanon and it just spread from there. When the Soviet Union collapsed no restraint remained and the Islamist terrorist discovered that the more people they killed the greater their income, profile and influence became.

  11. Nazism was rooted in race and the mythic past, whereas Marxism was class-based and looked towards the future. Indeed, Wretchard over at The Belmont Club once said, very insightfully, “The greatest apostasy in Marxist literature has always been to
    find value in the present.” For this and other reasons, Marxism had the enthusiastic support of upper-class Western intellectuals–and still does, with many willfully ignorant diehards.

  12. Liberal government governs best where it governs least. By the complexity of the legislative and regulatory code, modern liberal (socialist) governance both loses liberty directly through regulation but also loses effectiveness.

    If we were to shed a great deal of this regulatory state we would likely gain enough supervisory capability so that the state that was left remained sufficiently effective to stave off collapse and authoritarian fascism.

  13. I understand what you are saying about political correctness getting in the way, but I do indeed think profiling is wrong and will just create a bigger gap between different people groups. Sometimes we do try too hard to not offend someone, but in some cases it is necessary.

  14. Also, it’s a foregone conclusion that terrorist organizations will eventually find ways to defeat profiling. Indeed, given al Qaeda’s recent turn toward recruiting native-born Americans and Britons, profiling may already be on its way to obsolescence.

  15. Joshua,

    Also, it’s a foregone conclusion that terrorist organizations will eventually find ways to defeat profiling.

    They can try but it presents practical difficulties. The pool of potential suicide terrorist who could defeat a profile that included ethnicity is much smaller than the pool of potential terrorist who do fit the profile. Profiling reduces the freedom of action of terrorist and is therefor an effective tool.

    We routinely use profiles that include such taboo components as gender, race, economic class, education etc to catch serial killers and other criminals. Only in the case of terrorism does profiling suddenly become an irrationally bigoted technique.

    I think such attitude result largely from ignorance and intentional distortions about how profiling works. People routinely argue that profiling is nothing but singling people out based on race or ethnicity. Its not and has never been.

  16. Re: terrorist attacks. Russian anarchists AKA Bakuninists were known for such. Our cartoon image of an anarchist (long black coat, cannon-ball shaped bomb) is derived from them. Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by an anarchist suicide attack in 1881.

  17. palladin,

    Both countries had functioning elected components to their governments. Both the Tsar and the Japanese emperor ruled under significant restraints of custom. Japan in particular saw a political flowering during the Taisho period 1912-1926 and into the early 30’s.

    Neither place would a poster child for liberal orders but compared to the authoritarian orders that replaced them they certainly were. Both Russia and Japan saw decade long liberalization trends aborted by failures to maintain order and the subsequent collapse into brutal authoritarianism.

    I think they both fit the pattern that ineffectiveness and not over-effectiveness kills liberal orders.

Comments are closed.