How illiberal is Austria's population?

The following essay was written in 2011.

Liberal parties are in a difficult position throughout Europe. With the exception of a few countries, such as the Netherlands or Poland, the Liberals are only an insignificant political force. Often liberal parties are not even represented in parliament. In Germany, the FDP achieved a record result of around 15 percent in the last Bundestag elections - apparently the mood was good at the time, because in the current polls it again crawls at a meager three to five percent. As a liberal-minded person, I ask myself the question: What is the reason why the parties whose ideologies are closest to my own ideas are so unpopular? Is it supply or demand?

Supply in this sense is to be understood as follows: The party offers a particular programme, but this seems to convince only a few potential voters. It may be that there is more interest in liberal politics than the survey results for liberal parties suggest, but it is the parties themselves who are to blame for their weak performance because they set the wrong priorities. The Austrian Liberal Forum party is a good example of this: If in the first elections after the founding of the party it was still possible to take away a relatively large number of votes from the Conservatives, and the party got at least between five and ten percent of the votes (enough to enter parliament), the party ruined itself by doing nothing effective against being increasingly perceived by the public as a party of homosexuals and drug users with little or no economic competence.

On the other hand, the demand for genuine liberal policies could also be lower than liberals would like to see. In other words, the free development of the personality and more room for manoeuvre to achieve the personal goals of every citizen are probably not in the interest of most citizens at all. Could it be that the majority of the population of Austria is simply illiberal?

It is not even necessary to open the reader's letter section of the Kronen Zeitung in order to find evidence to support this hypothesis - it is also sufficient to look at the current "profile".

At last something has been done in the minds of some of our country's powerful politicians that is to be welcomed from a liberal point of view: the stubborn adherence to compulsory military service has been abandoned, the Minister of Defence has worked out a concrete plan to abolish what is fortunately the only legal form of forced labour in our republic. The "profil" also welcomed this decision. But in the letters to the editor of the issue of 24 January 2011 we find predominantly contrary opinions. For example, a graduate engineer from St. Johann wrote: "What about a compulsory civil service for all Austrians aged 18 to 20 years old?" Or a doctor via e-mail: "Therefore, a six-month compulsory social service for women and men should be introduced. Mandatory, because hardly enough volunteers will register." Similar to an economist who is not quoted with a clear statement against abolition of compulsory military service, but indirectly defends compulsory military service by emphasizing its importance for the "formation" of a young man.

These letter writers are all academics and therefore no longer at the age at which they personally concern themselves with the question of abolishing compulsory military service. Nevertheless, they are opposed to taking away half to three-quarters of a year from young men during which they have to carry out strenuous work without a performance-related salary, which usually has little to do with the later professional activity.

Now it is of course questionable whether the small number of published letters to the editor are representative of the distribution of opinions within the Austrian population. But even surveys that claim to be scientific repeatedly prove the apparently widespread longing for authoritarian structures, such as the most recent survey, which found that a not exactly small percentage agreed with the statement that there must be a "strong man" at the top of the state.

Why a not inconsiderable part of the population is an authoritarian attitude may be typologically justified. According to studies by Keirsey et al., only about ten percent of people in Western industrialized countries are "rationalists" (who tend to take nothing for granted, but at least logically question, if not question, everything themselves), that is, of the personality type that is probably most inclined to genuinely liberal thought. About forty percent, on the other hand, are "traditionalists", one could also call them "people of duty". These people recognize authorities and institutions such as church, state or party (which may well be a "left" party) and adopt their traditional values. Diligence and discipline are of course positive qualities, but people who distinguish themselves in these qualities, the "pillars of society", tend to expect the same character traits from others. This is how illiberal tendencies arise. At the same time, even those with a sense of duty would benefit from a liberal economic order, for example, which demonstrably leads to greater prosperity than conservative guilds or socialist planned economies.

In my opinion, if a liberal party wants to succeed, it must present itself to the outside world in such a way that it can also be chosen by traditionalists, without neglecting its core members. But it could also try to win over people who have seldom or not at all taken part in elections. On the whole, however, I consider the probability that in predominantly conservative or socialist Austria a liberal party will become the strongest force in the next hundred years to be rather low. For this to happen, the thinking of large parts of the population has to change. But even the strong migration does not seem to have any effect on this, at least not in the desired direction.

Claus Volko, MD MSc

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