Liberalism and Its Discontents
The challenges from the left and the right.
Today, there is a broad consensus that democracy is under attack or in retreat in many parts of the world. It is being contested not just by authoritarian states like China and Russia, but by populists who have been elected in many democracies that seemed secure.
The “democracy” under attack today is a shorthand for liberal democracy, and what is really under greatest threat is the liberal component of this pair. The democracy part refers to the accountability of those who hold political power through mechanisms like free and fair multiparty elections under universal adult franchise. The liberal part, by contrast, refers primarily to a rule of law that constrains the power of government and requires that even the most powerful actors in the system operate under the same general rules as ordinary citizens. Liberal democracies, in other words, have a constitutional system of checks and balances that limits the power of elected leaders.
Democracy itself is being challenged by authoritarian states like Russia and China that manipulate or dispense with free and fair elections. But the more insidious threat arises from populists within existing liberal democracies who are using the legitimacy they gain through their electoral mandates to challenge or undermine liberal institutions. Leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, India’s Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump in the United States have tried to undermine judicial independence by packing courts with political supporters, have openly broken laws, or have sought to delegitimize the press by labeling mainstream media as “enemies of the people.” They have tried to dismantle professional bureaucracies and to turn them into partisan instruments. It is no accident that Orbán puts himself forward as a proponent of “illiberal democracy.”
The contemporary attack on liberalism goes much deeper than the ambitions of a handful of populist politicians, however. They would not be as successful as they have been were they not riding a wave of discontent with some of the underlying characteristics of liberal societies. To understand this, we need to look at the historical origins of liberalism, its evolution over the decades, and its limitations as a governing doctrine.
What Liberalism Was
Classical liberalism can best be understood as an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity. Or to put it in slightly different terms, it is a system for peacefully managing diversity in pluralistic societies. It arose in Europe in the late 17th and 18th centuries in response to the wars of religion that followed the Protestant Reformation, wars that lasted for 150 years and killed major portions of the populations of continental Europe.
While Europe’s religious wars were driven by economic and social factors, they derived their ferocity from the fact that the warring parties represented different Christian sects that wanted to impose their particular interpretation of religious doctrine on their populations. This was a period in which the adherents of forbidden sects were persecuted—heretics were regularly tortured, hanged, or burned at the stake—and their clergy hunted. The founders of modern liberalism like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke sought to lower the aspirations of politics, not to promote a good life as defined by religion, but rather to preserve life itself, since diverse populations could not agree on what the good life was. This was the distant origin of the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. 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 those things are without interference from you or from the state. The limits of tolerance are reached only when the principle of tolerance itself is challenged, or when citizens resort to violence to get their way.
Understood in this fashion, liberalism was simply a pragmatic tool for resolving conflicts in diverse societies, one that sought to lower the temperature of politics by taking questions of final ends off the table and moving them into the sphere of private life. This remains one of its most important selling points today: If diverse societies like India or the United States move away from liberal principles and try to base national identity on race, ethnicity, or religion, they are inviting a return to potentially violent conflict. The United States suffered such conflict during its Civil War, and Modi’s India is inviting communal violence by shifting its national identity to one based on Hinduism.
There is however a deeper understanding of liberalism that developed in continental Europe that has been incorporated into modern liberal doctrine. In this view, liberalism is not simply a mechanism for pragmatically avoiding violent conflict, but also a means of protecting fundamental human dignity.
The ground of human dignity has shifted over time. In aristocratic societies, it was an attribute only of warriors who risked their lives in battle. Christianity universalized the concept of dignity based on the possibility of human moral choice: Human beings had a higher moral status than the rest of created nature but lower than that of God because they could choose between right and wrong. Unlike beauty or intelligence or strength, this characteristic was universally shared and made human beings equal in the sight of God. By the time of the Enlightenment, the capacity for choice or individual autonomy was given a secular form by thinkers like Rousseau (“perfectibility”) and Kant (a “good will”), and became the ground for the modern understanding of the fundamental right to dignity written into many 20th-century constitutions. Liberalism recognizes the equal dignity of every human being by granting them rights that protect individual autonomy: rights to speech, to assembly, to belief, and ultimately to participate in self-government.
Liberalism thus protects diversity by deliberately not specifying higher goals of human life. This disqualifies religiously defined communities as liberal. Liberalism also grants equal rights to all people considered full human beings, based on their capacity for individual choice. Liberalism thus tends toward a kind of universalism: Liberals care not just about their rights, but about the rights of others outside their particular communities. Thus the French Revolution carried the Rights of Man across Europe. From the beginning the major arguments among liberals were not over this principle, but rather over who qualified as rights-bearing individuals, with various groups—racial and ethnic minorities, women, foreigners, the propertyless, children, the insane, and criminals—excluded from this magic circle.
A final characteristic of historical liberalism was its association with the right to own property. Property rights and the enforcement of contracts through legal institutions became the foundation for economic growth in Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, and other states that were not necessarily democratic but protected property rights. For that reason liberalism is strongly associated with economic growth and modernization. Rights were protected by an independent judiciary that could call on the power of the state for enforcement. Properly understood, rule of law referred both to the application of day-to-day rules that governed interactions between individuals and to the design of political institutions that formally allocated political power through constitutions. The class that was most committed to liberalism historically was the class of property owners, not just agrarian landlords but the myriads of middle-class business owners and entrepreneurs that Karl Marx would label the bourgeoisie.
Liberalism is connected to democracy, but is not the same thing as it. It is possible to have regimes that are liberal but not democratic: Germany in the 19th century and Singapore and Hong Kong in the late 20th century come to mind. It is also possible to have democracies that are not liberal, like the ones Viktor Orbán and Narendra Modi are trying to create that privilege some groups over others. Liberalism is allied to democracy through its protection of individual autonomy, which ultimately implies a right to political choice and to the franchise. But it is not the same as democracy. From the French Revolution on, there were radical proponents of democratic equality who were willing to abandon liberal rule of law altogether and vest power in a dictatorial state that would equalize outcomes. Under the banner of Marxism-Leninism, this became one of the great fault lines of the 20th century. Even in avowedly liberal states, like many in late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe and North America, there were powerful trade union movements and social democratic parties that were more interested in economic redistribution than in the strict protection of property rights.
Liberalism also saw the rise of another competitor besides communism: nationalism. Nationalists rejected liberalism’s universalism and sought to confer rights only on their favored group, defined by culture, language, or ethnicity. As the 19th century progressed, Europe reorganized itself from a dynastic to a national basis, with the unification of Italy and Germany and with growing nationalist agitation within the multiethnic Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. In 1914 this exploded into the Great War, which killed millions of people and laid the kindling for a second global conflagration in 1939.
The defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1945 paved the way for a restoration of liberalism as the democratic world’s governing ideology. Europeans saw the folly of organizing politics around an exclusive and aggressive understanding of nation, and created the European Community and later the European Union to subordinate the old nation-states to a cooperative transnational structure. For its part, the United States played a powerful role in creating a new set of international institutions, including the United Nations (and affiliated Bretton Woods organizations like the World Bank and IMF), GATT and the World Trade Organization, and cooperative regional ventures like NATO and NAFTA.
The largest threat to this order came from the former Soviet Union and its allied communist parties in Eastern Europe and the developing world. But the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, as did the perceived legitimacy of Marxism-Leninism, and many former communist countries sought to incorporate themselves into existing international institutions like the EU and NATO. This post-Cold War world would collectively come to be known as the liberal international order.
But the period from 1950 to the 1970s was the heyday of liberal democracy in the developed world. Liberal rule of law abetted democracy by protecting ordinary people from abuse: The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, was critical in breaking down legal racial segregation through decisions like Brown v. Board of Education. And democracy protected the rule of law: When Richard Nixon engaged in illegal wiretapping and use of the CIA, it was a democratically elected Congress that helped drive him from power. Liberal rule of law laid the basis for the strong post-World War II economic growth that then enabled democratically elected legislatures to create redistributive welfare states. Inequality was tolerable in this period because most people could see their material conditions improving. In short, this period saw a largely happy coexistence of liberalism and democracy throughout the developed world.
Liberalism has been a broadly successful ideology, and one that is responsible for much of the peace and prosperity of the modern world. But it also has a number of shortcomings, some of which were triggered by external circumstances, and others of which are intrinsic to the doctrine. The first lies in the realm of economics, the second in the realm of culture.
The economic shortcomings have to do with the tendency of economic liberalism to evolve into what has come to be called “neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism is today a pejorative term used to describe a form of economic thought, often associated with the University of Chicago or the Austrian school, and economists like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Gary Becker. They sharply denigrated the role of the state in the economy, and emphasized free markets as spurs to growth and efficient allocators of resources. Many of the analyses and policies recommended by this school were in fact helpful and overdue: Economies were overregulated, state-owned companies inefficient, and governments responsible for the simultaneous high inflation and low growth experienced during the 1970s.
But valid insights about the efficiency of markets evolved into something of a religion, in which state intervention was opposed not based on empirical observation but as a matter of principle. Deregulation produced lower airline ticket prices and shipping costs for trucks, but also laid the ground for the great financial crisis of 2008 when it was applied to the financial sector. Privatization was pushed even in cases of natural monopolies like municipal water or telecom systems, leading to travesties like the privatization of Mexico’s TelMex, where a public monopoly was transformed into a private one. Perhaps most important, the fundamental insight of trade theory, that free trade leads to higher wealth for all parties concerned, neglected the further insight that this was true only in the aggregate, and that many individuals would be hurt by trade liberalization. The period from the 1980s onward saw the negotiation of both global and regional free trade agreements that shifted jobs and investment away from rich democracies to developing countries, increasing within-country inequalities. In the meantime, many countries starved their public sectors of resources and attention, leading to deficiencies in a host of public services from education to health to security.
The result was the world that emerged by the 2010s in which aggregate incomes were higher than ever but inequality within countries had also grown enormously. Many countries around the world saw the emergence of a small class of oligarchs, multibillionaires who could convert their economic resources into political power through lobbyists and purchases of media properties. Globalization enabled them to move their money to safe jurisdictions easily, starving states of tax revenue and making regulation very difficult. Globalization also entailed liberalization of rules concerning migration. Foreign-born populations began to increase in many Western countries, abetted by crises like the Syrian civil war that sent more than a million refugees into Europe. All of this paved the way for the populist reaction that became clearly evident in 2016 with Britain’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.
The second discontent with liberalism as it evolved over the decades was rooted in its very premises. Liberalism deliberately lowered the horizon of politics: A liberal state will not tell you how to live your life, or what a good life entails; how you pursue happiness is up to you. This produces a vacuum at the core of liberal societies, one that often gets filled by consumerism or pop culture or other random activities that do not necessarily lead to human flourishing. This has been the critique of a group of (mostly) Catholic intellectuals including Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule, and others, who feel that liberalism offers “thin gruel” for anyone with deeper moral commitments.
This leads us to a deeper stratum of discontent. Liberal theory, both in its economic and political guises, is built around individuals and their rights, and the political system protects their ability to make these choices autonomously. Indeed, in neoclassical economic theory, social cooperation arises only as a result of rational individuals deciding that it is in their self-interest to work with other individuals. Among conservative intellectuals, Patrick Deneen has gone the furthest by arguing that this whole approach is deeply flawed precisely because it is based on this individualistic premise, and sanctifies individual autonomy above all other goods. Thus for him, the entire American project based as it was on Lockean individualistic principles was misfounded. Human beings for him are not primarily autonomous individuals, but deeply social beings who are defined by their obligations and ties to a range of social structures, from families to kin groups to nations.
This social understanding of human nature was a truism taken for granted by most thinkers prior to the Western Enlightenment. It is also one that is one supported by a great deal of recent research in the life sciences that shows that human beings are hard-wired to be social creatures: Many of our most salient faculties are ones that lead us to cooperate with one another in groups of various sizes and types. This cooperation does not arise necessarily from rational calculation; it is supported by emotional faculties like pride, guilt, shame, and anger that reinforce social bonds. The success of human beings over the millennia that has allowed our species to completely dominate its natural habitat has to do with this aptitude for following norms that induce social cooperation.
By contrast, the kind of individualism celebrated in liberal economic and political theory is a contingent development that emerged in Western societies over the centuries. Its history is long and complicated, but it originated in the inheritance rules set down by the Catholic Church in early medieval times which undermined the extended kinship networks that had characterized Germanic tribal societies. Individualism was further validated by its functionality in promoting market capitalism: Markets worked more efficiently if individuals were not constrained by obligations to kin and other social networks. But this kind of individualism has always been at odds with the social proclivities of human beings. It also does not come naturally to people in certain other non-Western societies like India or the Arab world, where kin, caste, or ethnic ties are still facts of life.
The implication of these observations for contemporary liberal societies is straightforward. Members of such societies want opportunities to bond with one another in a host of ways: as citizens of a nation, members of an ethnic or racial group, residents of a region, or adherents to a particular set of religious beliefs. Membership in such groups gives their lives meaning and texture in a way that mere citizenship in a liberal democracy does not.
Many of the critics of liberalism on the right feel that it has undervalued the nation and traditional national identity: Thus Viktor Orbán has asserted that Hungarian national identity is based on Hungarian ethnicity and on maintenance of traditional Hungarian values and cultural practices. New nationalists like Yoram Hazony celebrate nationhood and national culture as the rallying cry for community, and they bemoan liberalism’s dissolving effect on religious commitment, yearning for a thicker sense of community and shared values, underpinned by virtues in service of that community.
There are parallel discontents on the left. Juridical equality before the law does not mean that people will be treated equally in practice. Racism, sexism, and anti-gay bias all persist in liberal societies, and those injustices have become identities around which people could mobilize. The Western world has seen the emergence of a series of social movements since the 1960s, beginning with the civil rights movement in the United States, and movements promoting the rights of women, indigenous peoples, the disabled, the LGBT community, and the like. The more progress that has been made toward eradicating social injustices, the more intolerable the remaining injustices seem, and thus the moral imperative to mobilizing to correct them. The complaint of the left is different in substance but similar in structure to that of the right: Liberal society does not do enough to root out deep-seated racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, so politics must go beyond liberalism. And, as on the right, progressives want the deeper bonding and personal satisfaction of associating—in this case, with people who have suffered from similar indignities.
This instinct for bonding and the thinness of shared moral life in liberal societies has shifted global politics on both the right and the left toward a politics of identity and away from the liberal world order of the late 20th century. Liberal values like tolerance and individual freedom are prized most intensely when they are denied: People who live in brutal dictatorships want the simple freedom to speak, associate, and worship as they choose. But over time life in a liberal society comes to be taken for granted and its sense of shared community seems thin. Thus in the United States, arguments between right and left increasingly revolve around identity, and particularly racial identity issues, rather than around economic ideology and questions about the appropriate role of the state in the economy.
There is another significant issue that liberalism fails to grapple adequately with, which concerns the boundaries of citizenship and rights. The premises of liberal doctrine tend toward universalism: Liberals worry about human rights, and not just the rights of Englishmen, or white Americans, or some other restricted class of people. But rights are protected and enforced by states which have limited territorial jurisdiction, and the question of who qualifies as a citizen with voting rights becomes a highly contested one. Some advocates of migrant rights assert a universal human right to migrate, but this is a political nonstarter in virtually every contemporary liberal democracy. At the present moment, the issue of the boundaries of political communities is settled by some combination of historical precedent and political contestation, rather than being based on any clear liberal principle.
Vladimir Putin told the Financial Times that liberalism has become an “obsolete” doctrine. While it may be under attack from many quarters today, it is in fact more necessary than ever.
It is more necessary because it is fundamentally a means of governing over diversity, and the world is more diverse than it ever has been. Democracy disconnected from liberalism will not protect diversity, because majorities will use their power to repress minorities. Liberalism was born in the mid-17th century as a means of resolving religious conflicts, and it was reborn again after 1945 to solve conflicts between nationalisms. Any illiberal effort to build a social order around thick ties defined by race, ethnicity, or religion will exclude important members of the community, and down the road will lead to conflict. Russia itself retains liberal characteristics: Russian citizenship and nationality is not defined by either Russian ethnicity or the Orthodox religion; the Russian Federation’s millions of Muslim inhabitants enjoy equal juridical rights. In situations of de facto diversity, attempts to impose a single way of life on an entire population is a formula for dictatorship.
The only other way to organize a diverse society is through formal power-sharing arrangements among different identity groups that give only a nod toward shared nationality. This is the way that Lebanon, Iraq, Bosnia, and other countries in the Middle East and the Balkans are governed. This type of consociationalism leads to very poor governance and long-term instability, and works poorly in societies where identity groups are not geographically based. This is not a path down which any contemporary liberal democracy should want to tread.
That being said, the kinds of economic and social policies that liberal societies should pursue is today a wide-open question. The evolution of liberalism into neoliberalism after the 1980s greatly reduced the policy space available to centrist political leaders, and permitted the growth of huge inequalities that have been fueling populisms of the right and the left. Classical liberalism is perfectly compatible with a strong state that seeks social protections for populations left behind by globalization, even as it protects basic property rights and a market economy. Liberalism is necessarily connected to democracy, and liberal economic policies need to be tempered by considerations of democratic equality and the need for political stability.
I suspect that most religious conservatives critical of liberalism today in the United States and other developed countries do not fool themselves into thinking that they can turn the clock back to a period when their social views were mainstream. Their complaint is a different one: that contemporary liberals are ready to tolerate any set of views, from radical Islam to Satanism, other than those of religious conservatives, and that they find their own freedom constrained.
This complaint is a serious one: Many progressives on the left have shown themselves willing to abandon liberal values in pursuit of social justice objectives. There has been a sustained intellectual attack on liberal principles over the past three decades coming out of academic pursuits like gender studies, critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and queer theory, that deny the universalistic premises underlying modern liberalism. The challenge is not simply one of intolerance of other views or “cancel culture” in the academy or the arts. Rather, the challenge is to basic principles that all human beings were born equal in a fundamental sense, or that a liberal society should strive to be color-blind. These different theories tend to argue that the lived experiences of specific and ever-narrower identity groups are incommensurate, and that what divides them is more powerful than what unites them as citizens. For some in the tradition of Michel Foucault, foundational approaches to cognition coming out of liberal modernity like the scientific method or evidence-based research are simply constructs meant to bolster the hidden power of racial and economic elites.
The issue here is thus not whether progressive illiberalism exists, but rather how great a long-term danger it represents. In countries from India and Hungary to the United States, nationalist conservatives have actually taken power and have sought to use the power of the state to dismantle liberal institutions and impose their own views on society as a whole. That danger is a clear and present one.
Progressive anti-liberals, by contrast, have not succeeded in seizing the commanding heights of political power in any developed country. Religious conservatives are still free to worship in any way they see fit, and indeed are organized in the United States as a powerful political bloc that can sway elections. Progressives exercise power in different and more nuanced ways, primarily through their dominance of cultural institutions like the mainstream media, the arts, and large parts of academia. The power of the state has been enlisted behind their agenda on such matters as striking down via the courts conservative restrictions on abortion and gay marriage and in the shaping of public school curricula. An open question for the future is whether cultural dominance today will ultimately lead to political dominance in the future, and thus a more thoroughgoing rollback of liberal rights by progressives.
Liberalism’s present-day crisis is not new; since its invention in the 17th century, liberalism has been repeatedly challenged by thick communitarians on the right and progressive egalitarians on the left. Liberalism properly understood is perfectly compatible with communitarian impulses and has been the basis for the flourishing of deep and diverse forms of civil society. It is also compatible with the social justice aims of progressives: One of its greatest achievements was the creation of modern redistributive welfare states in the late 20th century. Liberalism’s problem is that it works slowly through deliberation and compromise, and never achieves its communal or social justice goals as completely as their advocates would like. But it is hard to see how the discarding of liberal values is going to lead to anything in the long term other than increasing social conflict and ultimately a return to violence as a means of resolving differences.
Francis Fukuyama, chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose, directs the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.
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