I tend to avoid the word liberal as much as possible in conversation. My reticence does not come from any ideological aversion (although that could be forgiven), but from an abundance of caution. What exactly do my peers mean by liberal? ‘Does it include respect for the rule of law, freedom of expression and other unenumerated rights?’ Yes, they nod. ‘What of free markets and a rules-based international order.’ Their enthusiasm is now palpable. Here, I cannot help but goad them. ‘Or does it merely guarantee that my rent increases without end and that I’ll never actually own anything?’ A dose of cynicism and the conversation stalls. ‘That’s not the point,’ they usually reply! ‘It’s dishonest to confuse neo-liberalism with classical liberalism, and besides, it’s certainly better than the alternatives.’ Ah yes, the perfunctory defense: it could be worse. ‘Is that the best we can do?’ I ask. ‘That it could be worse?’ On cue, the coffee machine growls, and the conversation ends. The comment is barbed, but not without making a point. What are the liberal values worth defending? And why does it matter now?
There is an old rock station back in Boston which had a special knack for playing those lesser-known B side tracks. I am reminded of one, a late 70s pop song by Warren Zevon with the quirky title: Lawyers, Guns and Money. It chronicles the exploits of an English expat who finds himself ensnared by a Russian Mafioso after a late night gambling. Half way through the second stanza he sings ‘send lawyers, guns, and money!’ Partially for its whimsy refrain and partially because I happen to like obscure 70s pop, the track strikes me as the perfect namesake for a piece on the rise of crony capitalism.