In recent decades, any challenges to the reigning hegemony of American leadership, NATO allies, and a network of neoliberal NGOs, financial institutions, and corporations has often been depicted as threats to “liberal democracy.” This charge has been aimed at a variety of dissidents, from state actors, such as Russia or China, to populist politicians, such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Matteo Salvini, to secessionist movements, such as Brexit, to respect for basic individual rights, such as free speech and the right to bear arms.
The degree to which the powers that be seriously view any of the above as a threat is open to conversation, given the degree to which hyperbole is a default setting of political discourse. The phrase “liberal democracy” itself had little literal meaning, given the general consolidation of power in the West away from federalist frameworks, coupled with a managerial framework that has sought to increasingly heighten the power of bureaucrats and alleged public policy “experts” at the expense of individual rights.
Nothing has highlighted how meaningless both the term “liberal democracy” and the performative concern about its well-being are than the policy response to covid this past year. To the surprise of no one that had been following their actions carefully, the enlightened technocrats from neoliberal institutions have proven to be the greatest cheerleaders of rising authoritarianism in the West.
While this was put on vivid display in 2020, which saw unprecedented lockdowns and the incredible expansion of domestic authoritarianism from allegedly “liberal” regimes, a pivot in the discussion over covid vaccine mandates in recent weeks highlights a new escalation in the collapse of the façade of “liberal democracy”—the rejection of pluralism.
This concern over pluralism—or political tolerance of variously defined minority groups—has long been one of the rhetorical focuses of defenders of the status quo. Concerns about refugee programs in Europe, for example, have been presented as xenophobic modern revivals of the past national sins that projects like the European Union were meant to solve. The fact that nationalistic tensions have been exacerbated by the direct policy decisions of an isolated bureaucratic class has been far less important than the populist threat challenging the wisdom of state-subsidized massive population changes in European towns.
As such, the established narrative of the elites has long been that the expanding powers of modern progressive states are necessary to protect minority groups that may be threatened by majorities motivated by vulgar nationalism, traditionalism, and other loyalties viewed as primitive and regressive by those in power.
Of course, it is precisely the growth of power of these modern states that has eroded away the institutions of political norms that offered what protection of minority political rights existed. In the US, we’ve seen the erosion of Senate procedure designed to make the upper chamber a moderating force in political decision-making; in the EU, we’ve seen increasing aggression on the part of the EU in subverting national political decisions; and in general, we’ve seen a growing appetite for censoring political debate and discussion on the largest communications platforms.
None of these changes have come in the form of explicit major changes to the underlying governing documents of these institutions, but rather through what Garet Garrett would have called a “revolution in the form.” The coercive nature of modern nation-states, always existent—but often overlooked by the majority of the population willing to absorb levels of security theater inconvenience at airports in order to stop the threat of terrorism domestically—has now become part of daily routines as states revert to mask mandates, school restrictions, and in some countries new rounds of military-enforced lockdowns.
The next level of covid escalation is questioning the justified existence of citizens that refuse to be vaccinated. It is with some irony that we are seeing the expert class increasingly sound like dissident political pundit Stefan Molyneux: “The time for arguments has passed.” Any concerns that once existed about the individual rights of those concerned about covid vaccines—including those who have a natural immunity to the virus from prior exposures—are quickly being dismissed by those in power.
With increasing zeal, corporations are seeking to mandate vaccines among their employees, while universities, bureaucracies, and other government institutions around the world are following their lead. Meanwhile, “liberal” pundits have been increasingly advocating for forced vaccination of the population if nicer approaches fail.
None of this should be surprising. Just as democracy has long been whatever people in power want it to be, so has liberalism become a cheap intellectual cover for the most heinous of policy aims. Less a consistent intellectual foundation, it is aesthetic, indicating support for a regime that wraps itself up in concerns about “human rights” while escalating devastating military warzones around the world.
Ultimately, it wasn’t “fascism” or “Russia” that normalized lockdowns, mandates, and massive whirlwind profits to politically connected cronies in the West—it was the alleged defenders of “liberal democracy.” The same coalition of intellectuals, corporate media, and political leaders responsible for the progressive revolutions of the twentieth century.
Any rhetorical value that once came from appealing to the façade of “liberal democracy” should now be dead. The technocratic class is just another group of imposers—and those who reject their narrative become the imposed upon.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.