Dear Progressives

An Open Letter from the European Students for Liberty

This open letter is one of two winners from the 2015 ESFL essay contest. See the other contest winner: “Dear Conservatives.”

To My Friends on the Left

There is something incredibly inspiring about caring for others. I share your contempt for the inequities we find within and between countries. It hurts me each time I think about the unnecessary loss of life in the world due to poverty and economic stagnation. I am a classical liberal not because I don’t care for others but because I do. I share your concern for the plight of the poor, I appreciate your desire for change, and I respect your disdain for narrow nationalism and feudalism. It is out of this appreciation that I ask you to come back to your political roots.

At the heart of classical liberalism is the idea that who you are or where you are from doesn’t matter. At the heart of the philosophy is an innate respect for privacy and individual freedom. The liberalism of the 19th century opposed feudalism and aristocracy, rightly believing that the future lay not in ploughing land and plunder but in industry and enterprise. The working classes of Europe, whose lives were barely different from those of the Romans who lived many centuries before them, could finally enjoy the quality of life that the Industrial Revolution brought to them.

The Industrial Revolution conjures up images of dirt and smoke, but seldom does it occur to us what is behind that smoke and dust. Behind the deafening sound of machines and the polluted air of the cities was a production technique that allowed the lowest classes of Western societies to enjoy lives only the royalty could afford in previous centuries. Economic progress led to political liberalism. The idea of democracy we all cherish was born out of these noisy, ugly industrial houses.

There was debate about the poor conditions of workers and the rights of children and a discussion about their education, but never did the early liberals forget what gave them the liberty to think about all this. Without the efficiency provided by the Industrial Revolution, shorter workdays and higher pay for workers would have been impossible. Absent the laissez-faire of the 19th century, there would not have been the economic division of labor that allowed parents to send their children to schools — or for children of peasants to dream about becoming industrialists themselves.

There were no airplanes or high-speed rail in the 19th century, but the world was more connected than ever, as millions emigrated from the land of their birth. Progress went hand in hand with capitalism. To believe in capitalism was to believe in progress. It therefore pains me to see liberalism being hijacked by socialism. Real progressives would never support the expansion of the state to unseen levels; true liberals would not erect economic barriers to prevent international trade. They would certainly not seek to ban genetically modified crops or rally against automation of industries.

Liberalism involves optimism about the future of our society, and yet progressives today are increasingly worried about where capitalism will take us. At each stage in the last two centuries, there were theories about the inevitable doom of capitalism. And yet, time after time, capitalism lifted nations and peoples out of poverty and gave us the products of modernity that we all enjoy without ever destroying itself as theories predicted.

Economic reform that is branded as neoliberal, and as a conspiracy against the people, has lifted millions out of poverty in countries like India and China — a stark contrast to the mass starvation caused by failed socialist models. When I look at capitalism, I see hope in the eyes of children in the poorest countries as they anticipate having the same things we have in the West.

You are right to demand that we be sympathetic to the sufferings of other people and hold up altruism as a virtue. But what is more altruistic than capitalism, which cares not for the color of your skin or your hair but for you as a person? How can you, with such concern for the world’s poor, rally against the international trade that will make their lives better? Isn’t there something incredibly regressive about wanting to slow down capitalist progress? Every agricultural subsidy and tariff we erect makes it harder for farmers in the poorest countries to sell their crops to us.

I can understand why you support social policies to help the poor in your countries. You do so because you don’t want anybody to starve or be denied medical care. Why, then, does this compassion stop at the borders? The welfare state we have today has made it impossible to welcome people from outside and made it impossible to care about people other than our own. Instead of tearing down borders and uniting the human race, we are erecting walls.

The vanguards of socialism soon realized that socialism can only be reasonably achieved in one country, but liberals from the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution had their eyes on the world. Capitalism connected the globe within a few generations.

If you claim to be a citizen of the world, then don’t rally against capitalism: stand for it. Capitalism is unconceivable as an idea without the process of globalization we’ve seen, and socialism is inconceivable without the idea of the nation-state.

Do not be narrow-minded in your charity. Classical liberals are selfless; we care about the welfare of all the peoples of the world. By thinking about people as consumers and sellers; we are elevating them above their class, color, or nation and bringing them on par with every other human on earth.

Progressivism is right to demand equality, but wrong when it doesn’t practice what it preaches. The idea of equality and liberty is steeped in the classical-liberal tradition. But we realize that equality comes from freedom — from a free press, free speech, and free markets. I believe in the power of freedom because it makes us all equal and is the engine of human progress.

My dear friends, I don’t doubt your values, but I want to see your values bear fruit. We don’t differ in our values but in our methods. History has shown capitalism to be the superior mode of economic organization, not just in terms of output but as a harbinger of hope, democracy, and individual freedom.

I consider myself a citizen of the world and I care for the welfare of the entire human species. I know you do, too. It is never too late to embrace classical liberalism, the philosophy that has always cared about the world beyond borders and about the interests of people, irrespective of their gender, nationality, race, religion, or sexual orientation.


Aniruddha Ravisankar