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What's Wrong with Liberalism: Theory

What's Wrong with Liberalism: Theory

The shift from classical liberalism into "woke" liberalism isn't inevitable–and can be reversed. Francis Fukuyama's latest.

Francis Fukuyama

I published Liberalism and Its Discontents in 2022 in an effort to defend what I defined as classical liberalism from its critics on both the right and the left. I’m afraid that classical liberalism isn’t faring any better since then. At the moment it is under an existential threat from Donald Trump and the MAGA-fied Republican Party that he has created, but also from a radicalized progressive left whose popularity among younger Americans became evident after the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. 

I want to review some of the critiques of my book and the general evolution of thinking about liberalism as a doctrine that’s taken place since its publication. To summarize the book’s bottom line, I argued that liberalism was under attack not because of a grave defect in the ideas on which it is based, but rather because component parts of a liberal order had been stretched to extremes that became self-undermining. Economic liberalism, which is critical to any modern society, turned into neoliberalism that carried free market principles to extremes and produced high levels of inequality and instability. On the Left, inequality was reinterpreted not as inequality between broad social classes like bourgeois and proletariat, but rather as the marginalization of narrower identity groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation by a dominant power structure—what one might label “woke liberalism.” Identity politics are perfectly compatible with classical liberalism if identity is seen as a mobilizational tool to demand inclusion in a broader liberal order. But it quickly evolved into an illiberal form where narrow identities were seen as essential categories, and society was understood to be a pluralism of ascriptive groups rather than a pluralism of individuals.

In light of these developments, the bottom line of my book was to call for moderation on both counts: neoliberalism should be walked back to an older form of democratic capitalism that accepted the need for social protections and a strong, competent state, while woke liberalism needed to reject essentialist identity politics in favor of a recovery of a belief in human universalism.

Strangely enough, my very cogent arguments did not stop liberalism’s critics dead in their tracks. On the Left, critics like Samuel Moyn argued that classical liberalism led inevitably to neoliberalism, and that the dominance of global capital could not be reversed. Progressive politics doubled down on DEI initiatives, LGBTQ advocacy, transgenderism, and most recently pro-Palestinian advocacy. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The Left’s focus on identity politics has in turn intensified a right-wing form of identity politics, with Christian nationalists believing, as Tim Alberta has explained, that they were the victims of a deep state conspiracy to close their churches and take away their guns. Culture war populism, abetted by foreign allies like Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin, identified liberalism per se with LGBTQ rights, transgenderism, and a host of hot-button cultural issues. Conservative intellectuals like Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule argued in a fashion parallel to critics of neoliberalism that classical liberalism led inevitably to woke liberalism. According to them, the fundamental liberal principle of tolerance has led to a wasteland of moral relativism, the solution to which was not a moderation of liberal practices, but a wholesale rejection of liberalism itself. In Deneen’s case, this meant a revival of a pre-Enlightenment “teleological” view of society, and in Vermeule’s, the imposition of a form a Catholic integralism. These “solutions,” quite frankly, are absurd, either normatively or in terms of presenting a workable political project. 

So we have parallel arguments coming from both the Left and the Right arguing that what I characterized as extremist distortions of liberal doctrine were in fact intrinsic to liberalism itself. Of the two, the view that classical economic liberalism leads inevitably to neoliberalism is the easiest to refute. What was accomplished by policy can be undone by policy: it is already the case that the Biden administration has massively reinserted the state into the economy through several major bills like the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction act. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has said explicitly that the old Washington Consensus was dead, to be replaced by an economy heavily shaped by an activist state. If we put aside for the moment the question of whether this is a good thing or not, it is clear that neoliberalism is not an inevitable consequence of classical liberalism.

The evolution of classical liberalism into woke liberalism is harder to reverse. Liberalism was founded on a presumption that all human beings were equal because they shared a capacity for moral choice. That autonomy however was originally understood to be the freedom to act within a pre-existing moral framework, like those established by different religious traditions. The American Founding Fathers’ understanding of the First Amendment was that it protected an individual’s religious freedom; it was not meant to protect individuals from religion per se

By the late 19th century, however, the meaning of autonomy expanded relentlessly and came to encompass the right to invent one’s own moral framework. This form of “expressive individualism” saw all existing religious traditions as intolerable constraints on individual autonomy. It is perfectly possible to be a classical liberal who believes that the state should be neutral with regard to differing religious traditions, and yet not be a moral relativist who asserts that all traditions are equally good or bad. There is however a definite stand of liberal thought stretching from Immanual Kant to John Rawls that is more assertively agnostic with regard to the relative worth of substantive moral beliefs. 

Today we have pushed the boundaries of human autonomy even further. Classical liberals accepted the notion that we have human natures that are heavily shaped by our biological inheritances. The American Founding Fathers, following on Hobbes and Locke, explicitly grounded their hierarchy of natural rights on a substantive understanding of human nature. The right to life in the Declaration of Independence’s phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” originated in Thomas Hobbes’ view that the fear of violent death was the strongest of human passions, and that human beings could rightly give up some of their natural liberty in exchange for the security of their lives. 

Today, we have a much more fluid view of human nature, and no longer seek to ground rights in a stable understanding of those natures. For example, there is a commonly accepted view within the public health and medical communities that there is no relationship between biological sex and gender identity, and that the latter is a completely voluntary construct. Whether one believes this assertion or not, it constitutes an extraordinary expansion of the realm of individual autonomy beyond what most classical liberals had ever believed. 

Moving back to a less expansive understanding of human autonomy is therefore a much harder task than simply shifting economic policies; it is a much heavier lift to tell modern people that they actually have less freedom than they thought they did. Nonetheless, there are historical precedents for moderating cultural milieus when the latter begin to have real negative consequences for society. I want to take up a concrete example of this as it relates to contemporary discussions of free speech on American campuses. 

I'll continue this discussion in the next post, where I will apply liberal principles to the question of freedom of speech on campuses, a domain where liberalism has been challenged.

Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

DemocracyEconomicsUnited StatesFrankly Fukuyama