Liberalism and Its Discontents

Thoughts about Liberalism

I once knew a coworker who’d started as an English teacher but then veered into Special Education because she wanted to better understand how to support all of her students, and this new background proved advantageous for helping all.  The longer I teach, the more I can appreciate this desire.  For me the desire is a little bit different: the longer I teach, the more I realize that I need to know more – not just about the means of supporting students, but about the ultimate ends toward which I want to instruct students in the first place.  Specifically, I need to know more about the type of society – which is to say the vision of the good life – toward which we should aim our educational goals.

As I have written before, it has been the twin challenges of the Trump-era populism from the right and the social justice push toward “criticality” and distributive justice from the left that have brought this message home to me.  I am, I suppose, temperamentally small-c conservative, fundamentally a Burkean – one who asks “what is valuable about what we have already, and how can we conserve that while reforming it for the better?” before attempting change.  And so when the Trumpian right cynically asks, “Why do we need to bother with liberal norms and institutions?  They’re all run by corrupt people to begin with?” And the critical theory-left cynically asks, “All education is political – so why not lean in on teaching our version of political education?” – I can tell that neither of these extremes seems right to me.  But I didn’t have a good sense of what it is that I wanted.  Liberal democracy is fine – but what does that mean?

But I am starting to understand liberalism a little bit better.  It’s a tricky system to define, to be sure, because it is – purposefully – diffuse.  Nationalism, with a strong leader, is easy to understand – it’s just one system, with one person running it.  But liberalism is something wider and more multifaceted.  

One book that has helped me recently is Francis Fukuyama’s new one, Liberalism and Its Discontents.  This is an accessible primer for understanding that elusive system of liberalism.  

For Fukuyama, liberalism is defined by four factors.  

First, liberalism confers rights, mostly having to do with some notion of individual autonomy – the rights of an individual to speak as they wish, to think what they wish, to associate with whom they wish, to vote as they wish, and to hold property and conduct economic transactions as they wish.  It’s important to understand that the key metric for allocating these rights is the individual.  

There are two assumptions at work here: first is that human beings are first and foremost valuable as individuals – that each of us possesses a dignity and a natural right to our own autonomy, unbounded by the requirements of group membership.  Each of us has individual worth and right, even more fundamental about us than our involvement in a particular (or powerful) group – religious, tribal, or otherwise.  The second is that there is a universal/egalitarian element about human beings – that all of us as individuals nevertheless belong to a universal group of human beings who possess similar moral and personal worth, which assumes more importance than the secondary characteristics of historical or cultural associations.  This makes us fundamentally all deserving of equal rights.

Second – and this is one I rarely think about – liberalism embeds rights in formal law, an autonomous legal system that is mostly independent from the political system and which tends to be highly procedural in liberal societies.

Third, liberalism is largely focused on restricting the powers of the government against its individual citizens.  This is a significant focus of the rights conferred by a liberal government – the right not to be interfered with by the government – the right to free speech is the right not to be officially censored by the government, the right to private property is the right not to have one’s land taken by the government, and so on.

Fourth, Fukuyama draws a clear distinction between liberalism and democracy.  While the two terms have become synonymous, there are plenty of regimes, Fukuyama reminds us, that are democratic – at least in name – but not liberal.  He cites Vladimir Putin’s Russian government, which holds elections but is autocratic, not liberal.  One of the most interesting statements Fukuyama makes, however, is that democracy is often necessary to temper the economic inequalities that liberalism often facilitates.  Fukuyama cites James Madison, writing in Federalist 10, reminding us that with the right to private property and economic transactions, there will arise unequal outcomes, and Fukuyama explains that it is only political will, via democracy, that can influence liberal governments to enact policies of – for example – redistribution in order to take the hard edge off this inequality.  Fukuyama cites as examples many of the European nations in the period shortly after WWI; these states began to realize that they owed citizens and veterans more social safety net, and began enacting policies to develop the modern welfare state.  

Liberalism, in Fukuyama’s view, has an interesting relationship to economics, as well.  A state needs economic prosperity in order to have something to redistribute, or to fund the welfare state.  Yet at the same time, a romanticization of the specific economic freedoms of liberalism led to neoliberalism – one of the two challenges endemic to the liberal system that Fukuyama writes about (more on that later).  In Fukuyama’s view, in liberalism, democracy tempers market inequality, while economic prosperity allows for redistribution.


Fukuyama cites three main justifications for the liberal state.  The third is the one just mentioned – that it promotes economic development.  This has typically raised the standard of living for all citizens in liberal societies considerably compared to non-liberal societies.  Fukuyama points to the economic growth in China following the 1978 economic opening of the country.  

The second justification is moral: liberalism protects human dignity and particularly autonomy.  

The first and main justification, however, is practical.  Liberalism is the best system that exists to peacefully manage pluralistic societies. It evolved starting in the mid-17th century, in response to the continued wars of religion that plagued Europe ever since the Protestant Reformation.  The first major development was Thomas Hobbes’s insight that the state must, at its most basic level, the life of its citizens.  Tired of the creed wars, thinkers like Hobbes, and later Locke, Rousseau and others developed social contract theory – the idea that the state exists as a kind of contract among the governed in order to mutually benefit all citizens, in avoiding the state of nature, which for Hobbes led to nothing other than a war of “all against all,” short lives, and violent deaths: a life “nasty, brutish, and short,” in his famous phrase.  Later, John Locke built on this notion with his concept of the state requiring the “consent of the governed” – the state must protect its citizens from the government itself.  All of this was designed, according to Fukuyama, because men began to realize that no one could agree on a vision of the good life – there were too many warring religious sects.  So instead, Hobbes and Locke and others wondered, why not just settle for “lowering the temperature of political life,” as Fukuyama puts it – at least trying to conserve life, and basic rights via the state – and leave others to pursue their vision of the good life, while we do the same.  No more of the state taking an official side in what religion citizens must practice.  Politics exists to protect diverse views of the best ends for human affairs.  

As a result, liberalism is focused on protecting not only citizens from the government, but citizens from each other.  Tolerance is a critical virtue in liberal societies; free speech is tolerated – so are sharply divergent views.  Everything about the state is designed to lower the temperature on tribes and factions; formal checks and balances exist at many states of government in liberal states, and the whole apparatus – as outlined earlier – is focused on the sanctity of the individual, antecedent of any group membership.  Universalism is stressed – once again, a connecting force across rival groups, an optimistic belief that all citizens share a similar inner core of humanity.  


Fukuyama cites several main challenges to liberalism.  First, he begins with the two main competing systems: nationalism and communism.  

The appeal of nationalism, which he said came to a head particularly in the early part of the 20th Century and in large part led to the first World War, is easy to understand.  While liberalism stresses trans-national association, universalism, and a hyper individualism that does tend to pull individual citizens away from civic cohesion, nationalism is a powerful antidote, offering the appeal of solidarity, group identity, and many assorted feelings of pride and belonging that are so important to humans.  This is a real blindspot for liberalism, I am beginning to understand, and it’s hard not to read much of Donald Trump’s rise in 2016 as an expression of nationalistic pride in response to the economic and social discontent engendered by a universalist/individualist liberal system.

The second major competing system has been communism.  From the French Revolution onwards, equality of outcome has always driven social-democratic states, and, in more extreme forms, Leninism-Marxism in the 20th Century.  In this extreme form, the rule of law was erased completely before the power of the state.  

Finally, Fukuyama cites a core problem – endemic in liberalism – and describes how it has caused problems for liberalism.  This issue is liberalism’s focus on individual autonomy.  On the political right, this has been taken to extremes of worship of economic freedom, the marketplace, and demonization of the state itself – this was neoliberalism – which led to all matter of economic and political inequality.  On the political left, the concept of personal autonomy has led to the pursuit of a kind of identity politics that denies many of the basic tenets of liberalism – particularly the concept of universality – in favor of organizing society into more rigid categories of group identity.

In fact, Fukuyama’s critique of both the right and left is quite a bit more rich and sophisticated than that – I’ll save an analysis of those chapters for a subsequent blog post.  

In the meantime, a few observations.

First, I thought Fukuyama defines liberalism really clearly.  It’s a hard concept to define; democracy, by contrast, is easy to understand, but liberalism is quite a bit more than democracy, and I thought Fukuyama’s basic structure made it really clear.  It’s a system, after all, that was not “designed” per se, but which evolved – and at the end of the day I agree with Fukuyama that the pragmatic reason behind it – that it’s the best system we have for managing diversity – makes it the most compelling system that exists.

Yet I also thought Fukuyama is clear-eyed about the inherent limitations of liberalism.  Conservatives are right, in a way, to object that liberalism offers no answers about the good life; instead it offers only freedom to pursue one’s vision of the good life unmolested by the state.  But that can lead to a kind of spiritual emptiness in society – this is what Ross Douthat meant the other week in the NYT when he wrote about us needing “liberalism-plus-something else” (like mainline Protestantism).  On the other hand, progressives are right, too, in a way, to object that liberalism’s relentless focus on the individual and the universal misses important distinctions in society among members of different groups; group identity does matter, of course.  And the rule of law surely does constrain dramatic social change in favor of greater equality.  The whole system is designed to hold back radical change.

Lastly, I think Fukuyama is good at reminding us that it is easy to take the liberal system for granted during an extended time when its dominance in the world has been unquestioned.  Fukuyama, after all, became famous for his “End of History” essay (and book) postulating that liberal democracy was the logical, Hegelian endpoint of all political history and evolution, with the fall of the Soviet Union.  And yet because of its endemic problems, and because it has had few real challenges for many years, it has become easy to forget how unique and prosperous a system it is.  All it takes, Fukuyama reminds us, is a man like Vladimir Putin – who has explicitly said that the era of liberalism is over – to remind us of the real threats, and of the real value of this inheritance.

In the end, reading books like this, I find them fascinating, but I am transported back to all of the political philosophy that I read (most of it in the liberal tradition) during college.  It brings back the reminder that I am not, at the end of the day, a political philosopher.  I am an educator, and I am interested only in political philosophy to the extent that it affects educational philosophy.  Anytime things wander too far away from education, I do lose interest.  There is nothing particularly fascinating to me about the act of governing, about politics per se.  I have no interest in ever running for office or entering the arena in any capacity.  But I am interested in this stuff because it’s important, and as I have written before, I found myself driven to confront these questions – what is the best political system – as an educator.  It seems critically important for me to have some vision of the kind of society that we have, the kind of society that we should have, and the kind of society I would want future citizens – my students – to have, in order for me to be a more effective teacher of those future citizens.  

It is grounded in the notion of the social contract, first.  This is to say, in the state of nature.  The idea is that humans choose society as a protection against a harsh state of nature, and any society that wishes to endure must provide a reason for humans to remain in this configuration.  

Each individual man’s fundamental rights – natural rights – must be protected, on the level of each man as an individual.  This includes his right to pursue the good as he sees it.

But since there are so many competing visions of the good, it is impossible to have them altogether in one society, without widespread fighting.  The only hope is for all men to agree on the bad – that civilization is preferable to the state of nature, as long as it is a civilization that honors certain basic natural rights.

So the system of liberalism must learn to manage pluralism by tempering man’s naturally strong desires about the good life – such as the force of various religions.  It does this by establishing a system of rules, of checks and balances, that preserve the individual man’s natural rights while allowing him his own beliefs about the good, so long as he does not intrude on the rights of others.

This is a very different teaching that of Marx, who believes that groups, not individuals, are the key metric of society.  Instead of seeing the state of nature as all man warring against each other, Marx sees the natural state as the conflict on one basic group against another: the oppressor group versus the oppressed.