What’s gone wrong with liberalism? Getting that diagnosis right seems in recent years to have taken on some urgency, and even bipartisan concern. For many on the American left, lukewarm political liberalism no longer satisfies, now that its ability to eliminate persistent inequalities and other alleged injustices is held in doubt – even as fascistic, would-be right-wing Caesars doubtless lurk behind every bush, preparing to finish off our liberal democracy once and for all. For most of the right, meanwhile, liberalism seems to be in a self-evident process of catastrophic collapse and rapid revolutionary replacement by a completely batshit-crazy authoritarian-left successor ideology, either because liberalism has proven too decadent and weak-willed to resist, or because this was always the inevitable outcome of its own degenerative internal logic.
In Liberalism and its Discontents, famed Stanford University political scientist Francis Fukuyama has set out to answer these doubters, penning a passionate defense of why preserving classical liberalism is still the only reasonable option available to us – beginning with an explanation for when and how it all went wrong. Along the way, he offers some ideas for how to make liberalism great again.
Since personally I am most passionate about not living in a totalitarian dystopia, would be perfectly happy at this point to reside in even the most mediocre of stable and sane societies, and think the stories I’ve been told about what living in a liberal democracy was like sound pretty nice, I read Fukuyama’s slim volume with great interest. I was – and I swear – genuinely hopeful for some firm reassurance (or at least some high-grade copium) that the whole recent genre arguing liberalism was doomed from the start to end in tears by aspects of its own nature (see e.g.: Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed) was overly pessimistic. Unfortunately, this was not the result of reading Liberalism and its Discontents. What I found instead was enough contradictions and confusion to leave me even more alarmed about the future of liberalism. But then, like everything in this economy, I guess good cope isn’t easy to come by anymore.
Fukuyama’s book starts off quite strong. He succeeds in this by providing a definition of what he means by “liberalism” on the very first page of the book. If enough political writers provided definitions of their terms on their first page, we would all be a lot better off – in fact we might not even be in our current mess. The liberalism he’s talking about, he says, is the system of political thought “that first emerged in the second half of the seventeenth century that argued for the limitation of the powers of governments through law and ultimately constitutions, creating institutions protecting the rights of individuals living under their jurisdiction.” He’s speaking then about a very narrow, pragmatic definition of liberalism focused on political institutions: “Liberalism in the sense I am using it refers to the rule of law, a system of formal rules that restrict the powers of the executive, even if that executive is democratically legitimated through an election.”
This could be a serviceable definition of liberalism, if admittedly a bit limited in scope. It would allow us to discuss the pros and cons of various forms of government that might fit within this framework regardless of ideological particulars, the guardrails that might prevent any government from turning tyrannical, and the institutions that would have to be maintained to uphold this minimum set of systemic safeguards. The only problem is that Fukuyama’s initial definition of liberalism refuses to stay pinned down, almost immediately getting up and starting to crawl around and off the page.
To help illustrate this problem, let’s start at the end – in fact, with the very last sentence of the book, which encapsulates its core prescription: “Recovering a sense of moderation, both individual and communal, is… the key to the revival – indeed, to the survival – of liberalism itself.”
You see, the majority of Fukuyama’s book is devoted to arguing that liberalism “has seen its core principles pushed to extremes by advocates on both its right and left wings, to the point where those principles themselves were undermined.” By each taking aspects of liberalism “too far” since a past golden era from 1950 to 1970 – when Fukuyama’s claims pure liberalism was last practiced in the United States – both have distorted and endangered liberalism as it exists today.
Starting in the 1970s, the political right took “the right to buy and sell freely, without interference from the state” that is enshrined in the “core promise of liberalism to protect individual choice” and pushed it to an extreme. This led to the production of “grotesque inequalities” by a distortion that Fukuyama calls “neoliberalism,” or the systematic minimization of the state and refusal to ever let it step in and help people in need or solve collective societal challenges (this is not at all how I would define neoliberalism, but let’s just leave that for another day). These economic inequalities helped fuel a backlash from the left.
Meanwhile the left took liberalism’s “valorization and protection of individual autonomy” in another direction and “steadily broadened” the concept of “autonomy with regard to lifestyle choices and values” from “choice within an established moral framework, to the ability to choose the framework itself.” Fukuyama places the burden of blame for this on John Rawls, whose philosophy (beginning with A Theory of Justice in 1971) led to the “elevation of choice over all other human goods” and the “absolutization of autonomy.” Thus, “Whereas [original] Lockean liberalism enjoined tolerance for different conceptions of the good, Rawlsian liberalism enjoins non-judgementalism regarding other people’s life choices. Indeed, it tends to celebrate difference and diversity per se as liberations from oppressive social constraints.” Finally, “autonomy came to mean autonomy not for an individual but for the group in which the individual was embedded.” And once “pushed down this road, liberalism began to erode its own premises of tolerance as it evolved into modern identity politics.”
This sounds accurate enough that I won’t dispute any of it, yet. Instead, I will point out that we are clearly not talking anymore about liberalism as only a framework of law and political institutions. Fukuyama is arguing that parts of liberalism have been taken to extremes and need to be moderated. But what part of liberalism has been taken “too far” here exactly? The constitutional balance of powers? Adherence to procedural rules? Does Fukuyama believe the rule of law and limitations on executive power have become extreme? No, of course not. We’ve already moved on to admitting the existence of what might be called a societal liberalism: a liberation of individual choice from constraints by not only the state but by social norms.
But even within the context of this expanded definition of liberalism, there is something particularly odd about the argument Fukuyama is trying to make here. He claims, in the book and elsewhere, that liberalism is the best available system, one that if put into practice measurably produces the best possible society we are realistically capable of producing. And he claims explicitly that the manifestation of neoliberalism and woke identity politics are “not a logical extension of liberalism itself.” Yet his overriding call to action is for a self-moderation of liberalism – arguing that if taken to its maximum extent in any direction liberalism becomes distorted into something that produces negative outcomes, and is no longer liberal. But how can a philosophy that is taken to its own furthest extent no longer be itself?
Maybe Fukuyama could argue that moderation is itself the epitome of true liberalism as a political philosophy. I happen to think moderation is one of the greatest of the classical virtues, so would be open to being biased in this direction. However, there is already a system of political thought that emphasizes the risks of extremes and prioritizes moderation, as a principle, over any specific rationalist theory of how to govern – it’s typically called conservatism (and we haven’t even made it to that point of this review yet!). Fukuyama might of course then claim that the aim of genuine conservatism is to conserve classical liberalism. But if the purpose of conservatism’s moderation is to preserve classical liberalism, and liberalism is properly defined by moderation, then this is tautological. Besides, if the essence of liberalism is moderation, then how can liberalism be taken too far? If it is not moderation, then what is the essence of liberalism? And might not this essence itself in fact be what is problematic when taken too far?
Ready for another addition to the definition of liberalism, Fukuyama writes that:
Classical liberalism can… be understood as an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity, or, to put it in slightly different terms, of peacefully managing diversity in pluralistic societies. 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 the 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.
Or, as he puts it in another passage: “For many years now, modern societies have been living with moral relativism, which asserts the essential subjectivity of all values systems. Modern liberalism was in fact founded on the premise that people will not agree on the final ends of life or understandings of the good.” But it was, Fukuyama argues, only when the post-modern New Left took this liberal neutrality to extremes as part of its distortion of liberalism into identity politics that it left behind essential liberal values.
In attempting to illustrate this, Fukuyama is especially fond of citing Martin Luther King’s hope that his children would live in a nation where people would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” as a quintessentially liberal dream, one that was only later corrupted by the racialism of identity politics. But there is another deep oddity in this example: if liberalism, by Fukuyama’s own definition, is a system that sets aside any agreement on the moral good, and if a liberal society therefore cannot specify a hierarchy of morals or ends to which a good human being should individually aspire to conform, then on what basis can an individual’s character be judged at all? And if, then, a man cannot be judged by the content of his character – either his moral goodness or his virtue in the classical sense – is it perhaps unsurprising that other, more obvious and objective characteristics would be found by which to judge him, including the color of his skin? Should we not then consider whether it is in fact liberalism’s own insistence on non-judgement of choice that has led to identity being substituted as the primary locus of judgement in place of character?
More broadly, Fukuyama’s book is replete with calls for the reestablishment of “norms” as the solution to containing liberalism’s excesses and returning it to bounds within which the system can function properly. But if the entire point of liberalism is non-judgment of beliefs about the proper ends and ways of life, then liberalism cannot set norms. An individual, or a state, is literally incapable of taking any action without an end – an intended aim – in mind (otherwise why act at all?) And such an aim (as opposed to any other aim) can only be determined by a hierarchy – a prioritization – of values. If liberalism has no agreed hierarchy of values, then there is no clear way for it to draw a line in the sand and say “this alone and no further” is the meaning and content of true liberalism. In fact there seems to be no clear means by which higher-order norms can be maintained on even whether the prevailing framework of foundational societal rules deserves to be honored and respected at all.
As published in The Upheaval