How to sell the free market

Young, charismatic, liberal, with a sense of humour, and rising political support. No, this is not yet another article about Emmanuel Macron, France’s new president. It’s about Christian Lindner, the 39-year-old leader of Germany’s Free Democrats (FDP). Alongside Macron, Linder is fast emerging as the most interesting young politician in Europe. A liberal in the old-fashioned sense of the word, he has started to work out how to sell free-market ideas in the 21st-century. 

In the last year the party has started to claw its way back in the polls following a wipe out in 2013. It is now scoring in the 9%-10% range, and looks set to be the third-largest party in elections this autumn after the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democrats. Indeed, the party may well make a strong enough showing to allow Chancellor Angela Merkel to form a coalition with the CDU’s traditional partner, excluding the Social Democrats from power. 

That would be a personal triumph for Lindner. There may well be a broader message in his rising popularity, however. Pro-business, free-market ideas still have plenty of appeal. They just need to be sold in the right way. So what has the German politician got right? He has re-booted an old message in three ways.

First, he tells a compelling personal story. Lindner started a dotcom firm during the bubble at the start of the century, worked hard on it, then watched it fail when the market crashed. He turns that into a narrative about the challenges of business and overcoming failure. We need more politicians who can celebrate entrepreneurship and talk more convincingly about creating wealth as well as redistributing it. Linder manages to make setting up a business sound heroic, which of course it often is. He uses that to attack opponents who are anti-business.

Next, he’s focused on reworking a low-tax agenda. Free-market parties traditionally concentrate on slimming down the state as a way of maximising freedom and efficiency and promoting choice. But their opponents on the left find it easy to attack them as uncaring or cruel, while their own constant promises of more spending make them sound far more generous. Lindner has tried a different tack, framing the argument in terms of the maximum the state should be allowed to take of anyone’s income (he puts that at 50%). That makes for a more compelling pitch.

Finally, Lindner wants to digitise the state to make it smaller and more effective. He is arguing for government to be put online, for there to be one-stop shops to provide all its services, and for new technology to be used to deliver welfare and healthcare at far lower cost. After all, if Amazon and Facebook can do that so effectively, there is no reason why the state shouldn’t as well.

That makes for a more effective message than drab lectures about austerity and the dangers of debt. And it is one that has far more appeal to a rising generation of millennials, far too many of whom are falling for the overheated, simplistic rhetoric of the far left.

It remains to be seen how far this message can take Lindner. But it should take his party back into parliament, and possibly into a coalition government as well – it would be no great surprise to see the FDP leader as finance minister in the next coalition. But even his success so far has plenty to teach other centre-right parties, not least in this country. Choice, freedom and opportunity are all attractive ideas, after all. Pro-business parties in this country should learn from that – before they get overrun by the rising popularity of Jeremy Corbyn.

  • Priexo

    Reader from Germany here. Christian Lindner has been making promising noise as of late but it remains to be seen whether he and his party will stick to their promises if they indeed make it into the government later this year. The wipe out of the FDP in 2013 mainly occurred because the party had completely and utterly failed to deliver on promises that led to a record election result in 2009! It is therefore open to question whether they will be more credible this time.

  • Merv

    ” he has started to work out how to sell free-market ideas in the 21st-century. ”
    After decades of failure for most people, I doubt that he could give away “free-market ideas”, let alone sell them.