Investing in Freedom
Francis Fukuyama: his prediction of "the end of history" has not come to pass
Twenty years ago, it was widely believed in the West — and no doubt in much of the rest of the world as well — that there was an almost inevitable movement towards liberal democracy. True, there were still some large and important countries where a different view of the future was to be found, but the general perception was that they were bucking a trend to which they would succumb before very long. It might take a few decades but eventually a combination of rising living standards, increasing demands for accountability and the evident success of liberal democracies in providing a relatively satisfactory way of ordering human affairs would prevail.
Today, perceptions are very different. Western confidence in both its institutions and the way it takes political decisions has been badly shaken. There are two major reasons why this has happened. One is that much of the rest of the world, a lot of it under much more autocratic systems of government than are to be found in the West, has done better economically than the West in recent years, especially since the crisis in 2008. Second, the West's poor economic performance has undermined confidence in the competence of our governing classes and their strategic vision. The consequent political fragmentation has made it much more difficult to find the consensus needed to deal with contentious problems.
The high point of Western confidence, coming shortly after the collapse of Communism in Russia and Central Europe, was the publication of Francis Fukuyama's book The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992. Economic history over the subsequent two decades has sadly undermined his vision. Between 1992 and 2011, living standards across the world grew by 56 per cent, in South Korea by 267 per cent and in China by 529 per cent. By contrast, the UK chalked up 36 per cent, while Germany, supposedly one of the powerhouses of the West, did no better than 27 per cent. The reality is that most people, given a choice between a faster rising standard of living and a greater degree of freedom in the traditional Western sense, see a clear trade-off between the two. For some people freedom means everything, but for most people it is nice to have, but not essential. A new car, a bigger home, holidays abroad and a better education with correspondingly improved prospects for their children are higher priorities.
Other failings have undermined admiration for the Western way of life. Chronically high levels of unemployment, particularly in the southern parts of the European Union, have sapped confidence in the capacity of the Western economic model to provide a reasonable way of life for a large section of the population. Rising inequality, although a problem everywhere, tends to run to excess particularly in the US, but with the UK not far behind.