Liberalism’s problems are problems of success


If you live in a rich country, all things being equal, you are more likely to live alone, more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety and less likely to have children.

One movement that thinks it has the solution to these problems is national conservatism. Its message is that politicians should champion the constitutional, cultural and religious traditions of the country in question.

National conservatives are right about one thing: most of the problems that the rich world struggles with are problems of success. These range from comparatively minor inconveniences such as gridlock and overcrowded trains to existential threats such as climate change and artificial intelligence.

But the difficulty for national conservatism and other populist movements is that tackling these problems is hard, in part because they are so bound up with things we want to keep.

One example is the rising cost of healthcare in the rich world. Most high-income countries have record numbers of people living beyond 65, and their citizens are now much less likely to die from heart attacks or strokes. Inevitably, this means higher healthcare costs, but no one wants to go back to an age when cardiovascular medicine was less effective.

Then there are social problems whose causes are also problems of success: depression, anxiety and falling birth rates. And here the national conservatives are not wholly wrong. We have consistent evidence that religious attendance positively correlates with greater life satisfaction. But the evidence also shows that as education levels rise, so too does atheism.

Now I’m not saying there are no highly educated and economically successful religious believers. Nor should we lazily equate atheism with greater levels of liberalism and anti-populism. The UK’s major cities were, for the most part, reliable opponents of Brexit. But they are also more religious than rural areas or small towns.

Nevertheless, broadly speaking, we should assume that as people and places become better educated and more technologically advanced, they will become more secular and receive fewer of the social and mental health benefits of religiosity.

A similar story can be seen in falling birth rates. Most countries in the rich world have birth rates below replacement rate — that is 2.1 children per woman. Again, this is a problem of success: women have greater economic opportunities, divorce is easier, and people have both better access and encounter fewer legal barriers to contraception, both before and after conception. Yet it comes at a cost: falling birth rates mean shrinking populations and heighten the economic pressures of ageing societies.

For national conservatives, whether the problem is the blues or birth rates, the solution to the downsides of secularism is more religion; and the antidote to falling birth rates is bigger subsidies for “traditional” families and stigmatisation of people whose lifestyles fall outside the two-parent norm.

There are many objections one can make to this style of politics. But it also doesn’t work on its own terms. Hungary, one of the laboratories of national conservatism, still has a birth rate below replacement rate, despite giving families grants to buy new homes, as well as other tax benefits.

Nonetheless, liberals should remember the quantum of insight at the heart of national conservatism: poor mental health, loneliness, social isolation and declining populations are all real problems.

One frequently mooted liberal response to declining populations is simply to increase immigration, which works in the short term. But countries, like the UK, that do well at integrating migrants rapidly find that the children of immigrants experience and struggle with the same problem as those who’ve been in the country for generations. Ethnic minority Brits are, on average, more religious than white Britons: but the mixed race children of both are more liberal and more likely to be of “no religion” than any other group in the UK.

Not worrying about falling birth rates in the rich world in 2023 because you can fix the problem via immigration is a bit like being relaxed about climate change in 1970 because no one in the developing world is going to buy a second gas-guzzling car. It is true now, but it is not going to remain true for long.

Sooner or later, the rich world’s problems of success will become universal ones. Our difficulties in tackling climate change and other earlier problems of success should make liberals more focused on trying to identify solutions to new problems before they become global challenges.