Lawrence J. Haas reviews “The Retreat of Western Liberalism” by Edward Luce in The WSJ

How does this growing inequality affect the liberal project? “Liberal democracy’s strongest glue is economic growth,” Mr. Luce argues. “When groups fight over the fruits of growth, the rules of the political game are relatively easy to uphold. When those fruits disappear, or are monopolised by a fortunate few, things turn nasty.” Across the West, Mr. Luce explains, the non-rich losers in this zero-sum game have started to turn against the status quo. For the United States, Mr. Luce cites as evidence the fact that “every single one of America’s 493 wealthiest counties, almost all of them urban, voted for Hillary Clinton. The remaining 2623 counties, most of them suburban or small-town, went for Donald Trump.”

U.S. foreign policy and international economic arrangements have contributed, too. Overseas, the Great Recession delivered a body blow to democracy as a global brand. So did George W. Bush’s messy war in Iraq and Barack Obama’s reluctance to support democratic movements abroad. Meanwhile, the out-of-touch Davos crowd urges more support for the very policies—e.g., more trade and more decision-making by international bodies—against which the West’s frustrated masses are revolting.

The sad truth is that we don’t know how to solve the underlying problem. We don’t know how to ensure that the fruits of economic growth are more broadly shared or how to prevent automation from killing more jobs than it creates. Policy makers have been grappling with anemic wage growth and the angry politics it can breed for more than four decades. Hardly a revelation, Mr. Luce’s book is instead a compendium of telling anecdotes that enrich our understanding of a long-term trend.


The relation between economic growth and inequality will be challenging in the age of AI, machine learning, and automation; but pushing for greater equality without economic growth would seem catastrophic.