This post is a reflection on Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Liberalism and Its Discontents.
The book provides the best and clearest discussion I’ve seen about the power and appeal of liberalism and the nature of the negative reactions it has been generating, especially in recent years. Attacked from both left and right, threatened by populist eruptions and authoritarian leaders.
For starters, what exactly is liberalism? Here’s a nice crisp definition.
There are several broad characteristics that define liberalism, that distinguish it from other doctrines and political systems. In the words of John Gray,
Common to all variants of the liberal tradition is a definite conception, distinctively modern in character, of man and society … It is individualist, in that it asserts the moral primacy of the person against the claims of any social collectivity; egalitarian, inasmuch as it confers on all men the same moral status and denies the relevance to legal or political order of differences in moral worth among human beings; universalist, affirming the moral unity of the human species and according a secondary importance to specific historic associations and cultural forms; and meliorist in its affirmation of the corrigibility and improvability of all social institutions and political arrangements. It is this conception of man and society which gives liberalism a definite identity which transcends its vast internal variety and complexity.
Here’s how Fukuyama outlines the primary rationales that emerged over the years for adopting liberalism:
There have been three essential justifications for liberal societies put forward over the centuries. The first is a pragmatic rationale: liberalism is a way of regulating violence and allowing diverse populations to live peacefully with one another. The second is moral: liberalism protects basic human dignity, and in particular human autonomy—the ability of each individual to make choices. The final justification is economic: liberalism promotes economic growth and all the good things that come from growth, by protecting property rights and the freedom to transact.
The core idea of a liberal society arose in the 17th century in reaction to the devastation wrought be the religious wars following the Reformation. It was a situation where no compromise was possible because incompatible values were at stake. The formula for reducing interstate conflict at the time was cuius regio, eius religio: individual rulers could impose their own faith on everyone within their borders. This reduced wars but at the cost of institutionalizing intolerance. Liberalism’s attraction was that it served to reduce the stakes of political conflict.
Liberalism sought to lower the aspirations of politics, not as a means of seeking the good life as defined by religion, but rather as a way of ensuring life itself, that is, peace and security.
The most fundamental principle enshrined in liberalism is one of tolerance: you do not have to agree with your fellow citizens about the most important things, but only that each individual should get to decide what they are without interference from you or from the state. Liberalism lowers the temperature of politics by taking questions of final ends off the table: you can believe what you want, but you must do so in private life and not seek to impose your views on your fellow citizens.
I particularly like the last point. In the current political divisions in American life, the value of “lowering the temperature of politics” is quite apparent. It says, Let’s agree to disagree about our core beliefs and abandon the effort to impose our beliefs on others through the power of the state.
Fukuyama reminds us that liberal economics — capitalism — brought enormous benefits to whole populations. It helped shake the world out of the grind of slow growth and low living standards. One historian has calculated that it took Europe more than 1,000 years to regain the standard of living that people enjoyed at the end of the Roman empire in the 5th century. But then, with the boost from liberal economics, the takeoff was extraordinarily rapid.
The connection between classical liberalism and economic growth is not a trivial one. Between 1800 and the present, output per person in the liberal world grew nearly 3,000 percent. These gains were felt up and down the economic ladder, with ordinary workers enjoying levels of health, longevity, and consumption unavailable to the most privileged elites in earlier ages.
One of the things I most like about the book is the way it deals with the upside and potential downside of individualism. Both the right and the left have pushed individualism to extremes that threaten the public good and the social fabric.
The core promise of liberalism to protect individual choice remains intensely desired by modern people, not just people in the West where liberalism and individualism were born, but now across the planet in every society that is in the process of modernizing. But because human beings are also inherently social creatures, this expanding individualism has always been received with ambivalence. While individuals have forever resented the strictures placed on them by “society,” they have at the same time craved the bonds of community and social solidarity, and felt lonely and alienated in their individualism.
Individual autonomy was carried to an extreme by liberals on the right who thought primarily about economic freedom. But it was also carried to extremes by liberals on the left, who valued a different type of autonomy centered around individual self-actualization. While neoliberalism threatened liberal democracy by creating excessive inequality and financial instability, liberalism on the left evolved into modern identity politics, versions of which then began to undermine the premises of liberalism itself. The concept of autonomy was absolutized in ways that threatened social cohesion, and in its service progressive activists began to enlist social pressure and the power of the state to silence voices critical of their agenda.
As time went on, however, the critique began to shift from liberalism’s failure to live up to its own ideals, to a critique of liberal ideas in themselves and the doctrine’s underlying premises. This critique targeted its emphasis on individualism, its claims of moral universality, and its relationship to capitalism.
He also explores the difficulties that liberalism has with nationalism. Think the immigration issue in current politics.
Another discontent generated by liberal societies is their frequent inability to present a positive vision of national identity to their citizens. Liberal theory has great difficulties drawing clear boundaries around its own community, and explaining what is owed to people inside and outside that boundary. This is because the theory is built on top of a claim of universalism.
So he seeks to develop a theory of the liberal nation state.
If one were to construct such a theory, it would have to go something like this. All societies need to make use of force, both to preserve internal order and to protect themselves from external enemies. A liberal society does this by creating a powerful state, but then constraining that power under a rule of law. The state’s power is based on a social contract between autonomous individuals who agree to give up some of their rights to do as they please in return for the state’s protection. It is legitimated both by the common acceptance of law and, if it is liberal democracy, through popular elections.
Liberal rights are meaningless if they cannot be enforced by a state, which, by Max Weber’s famous definition, is a legitimate monopoly of force over a defined territory. The territorial jurisdiction of a state necessarily corresponds to the area occupied by the group of individuals who signed on to the social contract. People living outside that jurisdiction must have their rights respected, but not necessarily enforced by that state.
In his conclusion, Fukuyama provides what I find a compelling set of principles that should guide liberal societies as they seek to manage effectively the forms of diversity that are both their greatest achievement and greatest threat.
In the first place, classical liberals need to acknowledge the need for government, and get past the neoliberal era in which the state was demonized as an inevitable enemy of economic growth and individual freedom. On the contrary, for a modern liberal democracy to work properly, there has to be a high level of trust in government—not blind trust, but a trust borne out of recognition that government serves critical public purposes.
A further liberal principle is to take federalism (or in European terms, subsidiarity) seriously, and to devolve power to the lowest appropriate levels of government. Many ambitious federal policies in areas like health care and environment were rolled out in the expectation that there would be uniform implementation of them at a state level. Taking federalism seriously means devolution to lower levels of government on a wider range of issues and allowing those levels to reflect the choices of citizens.
A third general liberal principle that needs to be followed is the need to protect freedom of speech, with an appropriate understanding of the limits of speech. Freedom of speech is threatened by governments, which continue to be the appropriate locus of concern. But it can also be threatened by private power, in the form of media organizations and internet platforms that artificially amplify certain voices over others. The appropriate response to this is not direct state regulation of the speech of these private actors, but rather the prevention of large accumulations of private power in the first place, through antitrust and competition laws.
A fourth liberal principle concerns the continuing primacy of individual rights over the rights of cultural groups. This does not contradict the observations made earlier in this book about the degree to which individualism is an historically contingent phenomenon that is often at odds with natural human inclinations and faculties for social behavior. There are nonetheless several reasons why our institutions need to focus on the rights of individuals rather than those of groups.
A final liberal principle has to do with recognition that human autonomy is not unlimited. Liberal societies assume an equality of human dignity, a dignity that is rooted in an individual’s ability to make choices. For that reason, they are dedicated to protecting that autonomy as a matter of basic rights.
Read the book. It will reward you for the effort.