Liberalism and its Discontinuities
Francis Fukuyama, Yoram Hazony, and Liberalism in Crisis
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?
It seems to me like the answer to those last two questions probably has something to do with how the “core promise of liberalism to protect individual choice” that Fukuyama mentioned managed to lead liberal society into making the quantum leap (not to be underestimated in its passing reference) from tolerance of difference and diversity to the celebration of difference and diversity, and how in doing so “autonomy was absolutized in ways that threatened social cohesion.” But this raises some uncomfortable questions about how well liberalism might actually be capable of moderating itself.
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.
The obvious corollary to this is that if liberalism once functioned smoothly, it could do so only because it was for a time able to coast on the normative fumes of a pre-existing common vision of the good and a hierarchy of values that it inherited from a prior civilizational order – even if it has pretended otherwise. Fukuyama himself, at points, openly acknowledges that this was the deep Judeo-Christian religious substructure of the West, combined with strong bonds of national identity.
Fukuyama is ultimately forced to admit that, “The substantive conservative critique of liberalism – that liberal societies provide no strong common moral horizon around which community can be built – is true enough. This is indeed a feature and not a bug of liberalism.” Nevertheless, he remains confident that a liberal alternative can and should be artificially synthesized as a sufficient replacement.
The path in this direction that Fukuyama discusses in most detail is nationalism. In his view, we now “see the disastrous consequences of societies with weak national identity all over the world today.” A lack of any strong sense of national cohesion helps drive anti-liberal backlash, polarization, and even fragmentation. Attempting to completely erase national identity in the pursuit of globalism might have been a mistake. Liberalism need community to survive, he has concluded, so liberalism needs the nation. But, while this might be the case, it is still very important to avoid Bad Nationalism, which is any “exclusionary” nationalism: a national identity that immigrants can’t seamlessly join, including anything to do with ethnic identity, historical ties to place, or religion. Bad Nationalism includes national identities like those of Hungary or Poland. Luckily, Fukuyama claims, “National identity is a social construct, and it can be shaped to support rather than undermine liberal values” – i.e. Good Nationalism. And, fortunately, some “contemporary nationalists like Yoram Hazony have sought to distance themselves from twentieth-century ethno-nationalism, arguing instead that nations constitute coherent cultural units that allow their members to share thick traditions of food, holidays, language, and the like.”
Unfortunately Fukuyama does not appear to have actually read Hazony’s 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism, or he’d have been forewarned that “thick” national identities are not actually produced out of sharing bank holidays and a love of fish and chips, but from the evolution of deep historical attachments, mutual loyalties, consciously transmitted cultural and religious traditions, and almost always a stable, single majority group “whose cultural dominance is plain and unquestioned” enough to ensure minority cultures either willingly remain minority cultures or willingly integrate into the majority over time. In other words nations can’t be socially constructed (out of a new, fabricated social contract) at all, but are the organic amalgamations of a lengthy shared history of living together. This means a mild, patched-together “liberal nationalism” is unlikely to ever go very far in generating a significant level of cohesion or community.
Fukuyama also believes it is a requirement, as part of the “need to restore liberalism’s normative framework,” to shore up that framework’s “approach to rationality and cognition.” Much as he is concerned by liberalism’s lack of community, Fukuyama is also frustrated by the loss of “shared facts” in society, and blames this on what he thinks is the abandonment by both left and right of the Enlightenment scientific rationalism that liberalism has been “strongly associated” with since its “earliest beginnings.” This fundamental “cognitive mode” was the reason pioneered by Rene Descartes who (Fukuyama alleges) created a “structured system” of “empirical observation and an experimental method” by which external, objective reality could finally be “apprehended” by mankind. It was this reason that allowed liberalism to drive “the project of mastering nature through science and technology, and using the latter to bend the given world to suit human purposes,” which is what helped make liberalism so great. Unfortunately now, Fukuyama claims, both left and right have abandoned this mode for post-modernism, superstition, and conspiracy theories. His ideas for achieving a new appreciation for the rule of reason, which we’ll get to later, are a bit limited, however.
Broadly, neither of these avenues seems likely to work to reinforce liberalism the way Fukuyama hopes. His mild version of nationalism is unlikely to be nationalistic enough to create a binding agent for liberal societies unless it violates liberal values, while Cartesian reason (as we’ll get to later) may in fact be as much a cause of liberalism’s dissolution as a remedy. Most fundamentally, Fukuyama has not addressed liberalism’s core drive toward limitlessness. In particular, he has not accounted for how liberalism might find the capability to resist any claim to newly discovered rights, of any kind.
Enter Hazony’s new book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, which happens to describe quite well the tortured “dance” classical liberalism finds itself trapped in with its own successor ideology (which Hazony deliberately simplifies here to “Marxism,” a label that for a number of reasons I don’t think is ideal, not least being that, while it’s certainly Marxism-inflected, Hazony himself dates its ideas to at least the French Revolution, pre-Marx). That dance goes like this:
1. Liberals declare that henceforth all will be free and equal, emphasizing that reason (not tradition) will determine the content of each individual’s rights.
2. Marxists, exercising reason, point to many genuine instances of unfreedom and inequality in society, decrying them as oppression and demanding new rights.
3. Liberals, embarrassed by the presence of unfreedom and inequality after having declared that all would be free and equal, adopt some of the Marxists’ demands for new rights.
4. Return to step 1 above and repeat.
This dance is itself notably “a byproduct of liberalism,” and occurs because, in its own conception, “Enlightenment liberalism is a rationalist system built on the premise that human beings are, by nature, free and equal.” And moreover, “this truth is said to be ‘self-evident,’ meaning that all of us can recognize it through the exercise of reason alone, without reference to the particular national or religious traditions of our time and place.” In reality, these are highly abstract terms that “cannot be given stable content by means of reason alone,” and it is only within the context of the “common sense” accumulated by inherited “traditions that we come to believe that words like freedom and equality mean one thing and not another.” But since Enlightenment liberalism has always felt “justified in setting inherited tradition aside and appealing directly to abstract principles,” it finds itself with no grounds to resist all those individuals or groups who “exercise reason, identify instances of unfreedom and inequality in society, and conclude from this that they (or others) are oppressed and that a revolutionary reconstitution of society is necessary to eliminate the oppression.”
Ultimately the result is that:
[W]hile Marxists know very well that their aim is to destroy the intellectual and cultural traditions that are holding liberalism in place, their liberal opponents for the most part refuse to engage in the kind of conservatism that would be needed to defend their traditions and strengthen them… The result is a radical imbalance between Marxists, who consciously work to bring about a conceptual revolution; and liberals, whose insistence on “freedom from inherited tradition” provides little or no defense – and indeed, opens the door for precisely the kinds of arguments and tactics that Marxists use against them. This imbalance means that under the hegemony of liberal ideas, the dance moves only in one direction – and that liberal ideas tend to collapse before Marxist criticism in a matter of decades.
Fukuyama himself helps illustrate this liberal dynamic by endorsing the premises and good intentions of contemporary “social justice” movements while insisting that “Identity politics initially emerged as an effort to fulfill the promise of liberalism, which preached a doctrine of universal equality and equal protection of human dignity under the law,” only becoming problematic when it goes “too far.”
So here we have another story of what’s gone wrong with liberalism: it accidentally hollowed out the critical traditions that served as the invisible superstructure holding it up, it can no longer conserve itself in the face of its successor, and so now all is chaos under heaven. Hazony’s book is largely about how and why we should aim to restore those traditions, and is worth discussing in more detail. But first there is I think another possible story of how liberalism’s “gone wrong” – one with the kind of especially pessimistic twist I can’t resist – latent in Fukuama’s book that’s worth exploring before moving on.
Let’s consider a point from earlier: that without an end in mind, one cannot act. And yet the state does act. And while the neutral liberal state shouldn’t be able to set norms and hierarchies of value, it has set norms and hierarchies of value – just look out your window at the nearest Pride flag(s) should you have any doubts. Again, diversity and difference is not just tolerated but honored and celebrated for its own sake, as a higher value. What is going on? One possibility is that classical liberalism has already been defeated and replaced by a more competitive ideological blend. But it is worth considering an alternative: that the liberal state was never actually neutral, and has moved consistently in the direction it has not because it was tricked into it, or out-maneuvered, but because it’s been acting out the logic of a subconscious goal all along.
Is liberalism a means, or an end? Is it a pragmatic process – a set of procedures and institutions designed to keep the peace while allowing democratic societies to set their own direction – or is it an ideal, the form and final cause of a project seeking to construct that end?
Let’s consider whether liberalism is really the latter: a utopian vision of pure equality, limitless freedom, and perpetual peace that has, since at least the time of Rousseau (not Rawls), and arguably since Hobbes, been the object of a great political and anthropological project. In this project, the goal is not just politically navigating an imperfect world, but the final freedom of mankind from care and want, returning him to the Rousseauean “state of nature” and the “natural goodness” and egalitarianism that once characterized man before he came under the oppressive sway of social structures imposed by historical civilization. To achieve this, man must be liberated from all imposed constraints, whether of social hierarchies, religion, inherited traditions, cultural norms, national identity, family, or any other unchosen relational duties or obligations. The liberal anthropological project, then, is ultimately the creation a New Liberal Man, fully liberated from the ties that bind. And if an unenlightened individual is reluctant to free himself from these ties, then the enlightened state has a moral duty to coerce that individual to obey for his own good, through the exercise of what Rousseau called “coercion to freedom.”
At the same time, to fulfill this project, the rights of man must simultaneously be protected from the Hobbesian “state of nature,” where life is nasty, brutish, and short – perfect freedom requires perfect safety, and liberation from any limits imposed by the cruel natural world. Hence the quest for the mastery of nature through science and techne, and the political quest for mastery of violence. And if this sounds incompatible with Rousseau’s vision of the state of nature, you simply need to liberate your mind: the rights of man must be granted and guaranteed somehow, and – absent any higher power – this can only be accomplished by entering into a contract with the state. The political project of the state then follows a simple logic: the more equality and freedom it seeks to introduce to the people, the more power it must wield; the more power it wields, the less it may seem to meet the principle of equality; but the less equal the power of the state, the more powerful is its position to make the world egalitarian for the individual; absolute equality for the individual necessitates absolute power of the state. Only then can Rousseau’s state of nature be reconstructed: a walled garden (paradeisos), in which the omnipotent state contains and protects the atomized individual, who is free to buzz around and bloom in every possible expression of the self, manifesting pure difference as evidence of perfect liberation. Towards this bright, rainbow-filled future the individual and the state march hand-in-hand.
If this vision is an accurate summation of the liberal project, then the Woke revolution is not a deformation or a “successor ideology” at all. It is simply liberalism openly embracing its own telos – the final end for which it was created and for which it exists to bring into being.
Is this the future of liberalism that Fukuyama wants? Surely not. He is openly critical of woke group-identity politics. The liberalism he advocates for in is a sort of steady-state moderate liberalism that remains merely a neutral process of non-abusive political governance, right? He just wants us all to “get to Denmark.” This must be what he is consciously committed to. And yet: a sure sign that a political-philosophical project indeed has an end is that, as soon as that end is identified, then at once there emerges the great god Progress. And Progress commands historicism: suddenly any action in the direction of Progress is by definition beneficial to humanity, regardless of means, while any obstruction of Progress is by definition immensely harmful to humanity. The world becomes divided only between those on the right and wrong sides of the Arc of History. And Fukuyama is a great devotee of Progress.
Fukuyama is of course best known for his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, which famously argued that liberalism was destined to be the final form of human politics (if one that would forever be intermittently challenged by those who grew ignorant of or bored with it). His view of this has not changed. His book, he affirmed in an op-ed published in April 2022, was indeed about “history with a capital H,” for “there is, indeed, an arc of history, with justice as its terminus.”
Which, when it comes to Liberalism and its Discontents, may explain some of the seeming discontinuities in Fukuyama’s commitment to liberalism remaining merely a neutral political framework – and might also explain a few of the somewhat troubling views he hints at on the actual value of democracy to the liberal project.
Fukuyama is clear that “strictly speaking liberalism and democracy are based on distinct principles and institutions,” and are separate things, even if the combination of liberal democracy is the most common form in which both appear in the world today. That has not always been the case, however – a fact that Fukuyama helps highlight throughout the book with admiring references to the “critical role in spreading liberalism” played by emperor Napoleon, the amazing industrial progress of “autocratic but liberal Germany” in the nineteenth century, and “China’s amazing growth story over the past four decades,” which “has been the product of its own flirtation with liberalism.”
He is also clear about which of the two ideas he considers the more important to human progress, concluding that: “It is liberalism much more than democracy that is associated with economic growth and prosperity in the modern world.” For Fukuyama prosperity and peace is the product of “modernization” – a “coherent process” that results from liberalism (not democracy) and “produces similar social results regardless of the cultural starting points of the society in which it occurs.” This is because, fundamentally, “Modern economic life… depends on individuals breaking free of the restrictive communal bonds that characterize traditional societies.” While, “In the earlier stages of human development… most human beings were tightly bound in fixed social groups and had little opportunity to express individual preferences,” the “modernization process that has been taking place over the past millennium has slowly liberated people from these social strictures,” providing more opportunities for them to uproot themselves, move to a city, and buy things.
Liberal modernization also requires a state robust enough to provide a firm guiding hand, because “liberal states require governments that are strong enough to enforce rules and provide the basic institutional framework within which individuals can prosper.” When injustices and inequalities arise, it is also the state to which the people must turn to for redress and liberation, such as in the case of America’s 2020 “anti-racism” protests, which Fukuyama cites as a good example of how, “In a democratic political system, the only way such unequal treatment can be remedied is through political action” – or in this case “to understand the nature of racism, and be mobilized to demand political action to conquer it.”
Moreover, in his view it is only liberalism that can produce democracy that is really genuine, since, “At the heart of the liberal project is an assumption about human equality: that when you strip away the customs and accumulated cultural baggage that each one of us carries there is an underlying moral core that all human beings share and can recognize in one another. It is this mutual recognition that makes possible democratic deliberation and choice.” Without this liberal enlightenment, democracy is not conductive to modernization.
But of course the primacy of liberalism can in some cases make its elevation over democracy an unfortunate necessity. Such as in the case of the “heavy use of courts and bureaucracies instead of legislatures during the Civil Rights era” in the United States, which must be understood in the context of the country’s history, “in which voters themselves have not always chosen liberal policies” – in this case on racial equality. But this sidelining of democracy when necessary is in keeping with liberal ideas, since, “No liberal democracy grants untrammeled power to democratic majorities, because the founders of liberalism understood that the people themselves could make bad choices.” This is of course perfectly justifiable if liberal modernization is considered a just and humanity-affirming end, while democracy is only a means.
This does raise a problem that should be familiar: if the liberal state is a neutral state, how can it set liberal norms to guide democracy in the right direction when the people would otherwise make bad choices? Fukuyama’s answer is that, actually: “Successful liberal societies have their own culture and understanding of the good life, even if that vision may be thinner than those offered by societies bound by a single religious doctrine. They cannot be neutral with regard to the values that are necessary to sustain themselves as liberal societies.” Ah, yes (glances at nearby rainbow-colored public crosswalk) that seems right.
Fukuyama inadvertently provides an especially telling glimpse deeper into how he may believe liberal democracies should handle dissent from official values when he touches on one cluster of topics in particular: the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines, and “misinformation.” While he normally maintains a measured tone throughout the book, Fukuyama does not suppress his complete disdain for one particular group of people: vaccine sceptics and anyone who would protest vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions. He is left in disbelief that anyone could argue that “public health infrastructure recommending social distancing, mask-wearing, and shutdowns did not reflect ‘objective’ science, but was rather motivated by hidden political motives,” and is aghast that anyone could believe the government “mandating masks and vaccines to meet a health emergency” could indicate that “a tyrannical ‘far left’ state is trampling on their rights” or risking the expansion of executive power through means of a permanent emergency. For this he accuses a conspiratorial “right-wing” of committing the sin of “seeking to erode trust in the credibility of scientists generally, and in institutions making use of science.”
This is a particularly odd thing for Fukuyama to harp on, since there probably could be few arguments more firmly within the kind of classical liberal framework he claims to uphold than a defense of the autonomous individual’s free choice not to be coerced into accepting bodily interference and risk (of any kind) for the sake of the collective (or as John Locke once insisted, for example: “in the conservation of bodily health, every man may consider what suits his own convenience and follow what course he likes best.”) In fact, making a convincing pro-mandate argument seems like it would require an explicitly conservative, rather than liberal, argument (Probably something like: “for the sake of the common welfare, and to fulfill of your sacred obligation to protect your fellow citizens in general, and your elders in particular, you, citizen, are called upon to honorably accept any risks presented by this experimental vaccine as a necessary sacrifice in the name of your nation and the higher good.” As an aside, it’s striking that, as far as I know, this kind of argument was never attempted by any state in the West…)
But harp on it he does. Fukuyama believes free speech is important, since, “Freedom of speech implies a freedom to think, and is the basis for all the other freedoms that liberal orders seek to protect.” Sounds right to me. But criticism of Dr. Fauci has convinced him that speech “needs nonetheless to be governed by a host of norms, some promulgated by the state, and others much better enforced by private entities.” Most importantly, some people’s speech needs to be freer than others’, since:
“While liberal societies agree to disagree about final ends, they cannot survive if they are unable to establish a hierarchy of factual truths. This hierarchy is created by elites of various sorts, who act independently of those holding political power… Scientific journals will not publish studies that have not passed peer review, and will retract studies if they are shown to be fraudulent or based on bad evidence. Responsible journalists have systems for checking facts, and responsible media outlets will retract stories proven to be wrong or misleading.” (Editor’s note: LOL)
In contrast, “the internet has provided an unlimited number of channels for disinformation to spread,” which is bad. “An individual citing anecdotes about the effects of a particular medical treatment on his relatives should not have the same standing as a scientific study reporting the results of a large-scale randomized trial.” And, “The fact that some of these [elite] institutions are periodically shown to be wrong or biased does not mean that they should lose their privilege as sources of information, or that any alternative view expressed on the internet is just as valid.”
So, when it comes down to it, diversity of opinions is important for liberalism to function, and must be allowed, just so long as those opinions aren’t wrong. Liberal elites (who, being enlightened, for some reason “act independently of those holding political power”) can be trusted to determine what is right or wrong through reason (even if they are “periodically shown to be wrong”), while the unenlightened masses cannot; so only elites can safely be allowed to enter the liberal marketplace of ideas or think for themselves.
Here then is the outline of what is necessitated by Progress: democracy has its upside, but can be dangerous to liberalism’s benevolent march of modernization; therefore a formal hierarchy of experts (technocracy) staffed by those most knowledgeable about what is correct (the aristocracy) is required to protect liberalism from being derailed by the demos.
This prerogative also seems to inform Fukuyama’s ultimate conclusion about which of the two “distortions” he has identified, left or right, presents the greatest danger to the liberal vision. For Fukuyama, “The threats to liberalism are not symmetrical.” By embracing populism, opposing large-scale immigration, implementing voter ID requirements, and questioning expertise, the right, as represented in America by the Republicans, “threaten the foundations of liberal democracy.” Whereas the threat from the left is “far milder,” since, “Unlike the right, very few people on the left are toying with the idea of overtly authoritarian government.” (Editor’s note: LOL)
All the Woke left would do if it has its way would be to oversee “a vast intensification of existing trends.” Yes, this would mean that, “Considerations of race, gender, gender preference, and other categories would be injected into every sphere of everyday life, and would become primary considerations for hiring, promotion, access to health, education, and other sectors.” And “society might decide to simply give up on efforts to manage borders, and to put in place an open-ended asylum system,” while, “Citizenship could be further watered down and become essentially meaningless by granting non-citizens the right to vote.” And there might be “much more deference given in law and policy to decisions made by international actors rather than by domestic courts and legislatures.”
But, despite the functional end of American democracy and the American nation, and the sublimation of every aspect of life to the ideological demands of totalitarian diktats, the fact that this leftist future would seem less inherently threatening to Fukuyama (even if he doesn’t see it as ideal) is perhaps understandable, in that it’s not clear how any of this would actually endanger the progress of liberalism’s modernizing anthropological project at all. In contrast, the right increasingly flirts with the greatest possible sin against Progress: looking backwards.
Indeed, it seems like there is only one thing that could effectively reverse the broader liberal project of atomization, preserve democracy, and potentially even save the best of classical liberalism from Progress: the widespread recovery of the inherited wisdom, tradition, and empirical common sense that once undergirded civilization before being progressively hollowed out and forgotten.
That is Hazony’s mission with Conservatism: A Rediscovery. The short shrift I must give to Hazony’s book here after spending 6,000 words on Fukuyama’s is an injustice. Hopefully he’ll forgive me if I say I consider his book an especially timely rejoinder to Fukuyama’s confusion on how we’ve ended up in our present crisis. Because, as the title implies, its essential work is the rediscovery of important, timeless truths we once knew – before we were dispossessed of them.
The first step Hazony is forced to take in that effort is to re-clarify what “conservatism” is not: classical liberalism. The fact that this needs to be specified is itself a telling sign of how thoroughly the liberal paradigm has captured Anglo-American politics, ever since, as Hazony details, during the Cold War traditional conservatives accepted an alliance with liberals (Bill Buckley’s “Fusionism”) in order to confront Communism. This alliance created a norm emphasizing private conservatism but public liberalism, added in an interventionist liberal-internationalist foreign policy, and called it American “conservatism.” This, Hazony argues, it was not; rather it was the acceptance by conservatives of a subordinate position that led inexorably to their unwitting absorption into hegemonic liberalism, until they found themselves reduced to a role consisting of defending corporate tax cuts, free trade, and open borders – while conserving nothing – on classical liberalism’s behalf. Among the most valuable services Conservatism provides is therefore a deliberate exercise in “de-fusionism,” re-separating genuine conservatism from right-liberalism.
For Hazony, the core problem with liberalism began with the same philosopher Fukuyama extols: Rene Descartes, whose purely rationalist Cartesian theory of knowledge (in which facts are determined through pure reason) was quickly determined by Enlightenment physical scientists to be worthless bunk, and was swept away by Newtonian empiricism (experimental science) – except in political theory, where his method was embraced with gusto by Enlightenment liberal theorists like Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and their descendants. Rationalist political theory has been a plague on mankind ever since, repeatedly attempting to impose grand theories devised by pure reason on society with no reference to or interest in observed reality or experience. Predictably, these have all tended to end poorly. The long line of empiricist political philosophers, like John Selden and Edmund Burke, who have attempted to counter this folly are among those we now call conservatives.
The conservative empiricists understood that, human nature remaining fixed, some means of organizing life in tribes, nations, states, societies, families, and personal lives work better than others, and we can observe this fact. Those that work best tend to get passed down through time; the longer they have existed and been passed down, the more robustly they are likely to have proven themselves as beneficial, valuable, and in accordance with reality. These empirically tested and inherited innovations are called traditions. They are a form of intergenerational heuristic wisdom, in addition to being the source of lasting culture. Cultivating, conserving, repairing, and restoring received traditions through generational transmission is the heart of conservatism.
Hazony’s book is an extended argument for the critical role traditions play in allowing societies to remain rooted to values that make them coherent, cohesive, and conductive of human flourishing. Most centrally in opposition to liberalism is the traditional understanding that human individuals are not wholly autonomous beings who enter relationships with others only by consent. Rather, humans are relational by nature – they are born into multiple overlapping, mutual relationships (to family, nation, elders, ancestors, those yet to be born, and so on), and therefore mutual obligations, responsibilities, and loyalties, from the moment they enter the world. They never signed a social contract, but these obligations exist nonetheless.
These mutual obligations are fulfilled, generation upon generation, when doing so is honored. What is honored is what is afforded public gravity, importance, and status by the group (nation, society, church, family, etc.). When behaviors, virtues, accomplishments, institutions, or traditions are honored, individuals respect and seek to attain and preserve them. When they are not honored, or actively dishonored, they fade away and disappear. Honor is inimical to liberal theory, because it is incompatible to egalitarianism, non-judgement, and full freedom of choice. And yet every group honors something.
Honor plays an especially important role in incentivizing (or dis-incentivizing) constraint. Submission to constraints allows for the channeled accomplishment of higher goals – such as in the voluntary, disciplined constraint necessary to learn a musical instrument, or transmission of any received skill or tradition. More broadly, Hazony argues, there can be no freedoms or rights without some form of constraint, as “what we call freedoms or rights always turn out, on inspection, to be forms of disciplined constraint to which others conform so that I can possess a certain measure of freedom.” E.g. property rights rely on constraints on the behavior of theft. Constraints can be imposed by the power of the state, but also, more ideally, by individuals themselves. Self-regulation, such as moderation, is a form of constraint. And the more individuals are willing to voluntarily practice disciplined constraint, the more capable they are of self-governance and the less need or desire they have for a strict and far-reaching government. Constraint is valued if it is culturally honored. Religion is an especially systematized and effective way to establish what deserves to be honored. Constraint and liberalism do not get along.
Honor can only be distributed in hierarchies to which we are loyal. All human groups arrange themselves into hierarchies automatically, whether we want them to or not. Healthy, self-aware hierarchies facilitate gradations of respect and honor, and allow for the modeling of values, virtues, and constraint for those lower in the hierarchy by those higher up. Those lower in the hierarchy can rise by being honored with status for meeting these standards. Hierarchies are a medium capable of the transmission and propagation of traditions and institutions across generations. The quintessential example is from parents to children.
However, for transmission to occur – or even more so, for the repair or restoration of failing and diminished traditions or institutions to be accomplished – leaders in a societal hierarchy must personally be seen to publicly honor what is to be passed on. Transmission of traditions is not possible through only the transmission of ideas, but must be practiced by those leaders who seek its propagation, and by those who are to learn. Conservatism is therefore not a theory, but a lived tradition.
Hazony argues in significant detail that most of the American founders, like Washington and Adams (if not Jefferson), knew all this implicitly, and that the United States was founded not as a “liberal democracy” (a term that dates only from after WWII), but quite explicitly on the basis of the conservative principles of the English constitutional tradition, along with some Enlightenment-era ideas (creating an institution Hazony offers as “conservative democracy”).
Hazony’s book has its issues, including a commitment to public religion that I am skeptical can make real headway in a now very secular society, and only limited discussion of how conservative societies can prevent their own slide into unpleasantly authoritarian hierarchies. But his core message is compelling: it is the conservative principles above that have always kept societies together, and which liberalism has systematically uprooted in the name of liberating the autonomous individual from all received traditions and constraints. Hence why liberalism is collapsing in on itself. When liberal societies honor no traditions, but actively dishonor them, individuals have nowhere to turn for guidance on how to live; the result is fundamental confusion and nihilism, lawlessness and an expansive state. Liberalism promises the individual dignity, but felt dignity cannot be handed out: it is experienced when an individual pursues dignified pursuits in life, meets their mutual responsibilities, and is honored for it. Thus many now languish in nihilism or seek to try to seize dignity for themselves by force of power.
But Hazony’s message is intended to be an optimistic one: conservatism, properly understood as a lived tradition, can regrow these traditions, which still exist in the hearts of those who continue to carry them. A true conservative is therefore not “someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop’,” or a progressive who’s just twenty years behind the curve, but an agent of restoration and rejuvenation through retraditioning. What Hazony is offering is therefore essentially what inadvertent popularizer of conservatism Jordan B. Peterson has famously described as the archetypical “rescuing of one’s father from the deep” – a recovery of the wisdom and potential latent in one’s inherited traditional culture, made possible through confrontation with an adversary and a forced recognition of what is most fundamentally valuable. In doing so, Hazony is reaching out to try to offer hope not only to mainstream conservatives, but to two other groups as well: to the younger, reactionary “dissident” right who feel there is nothing at all left to conserve and are therefore open to radical alternatives; and to those committed classical liberals (like, one might assume, Fukuyama) who are genuinely disturbed by the direction liberalism has taken and are looking for a way forward (or, rather, backward).
For the latter group, however, Hazony has a stark warning:
“I know that many liberals are confused, and that they still suppose there are various alternatives before them. But it isn’t true. At this point, most of the alternatives that existed a few years ago are gone. Liberals will have to choose between two alternatives: Either they will submit to the Marxists and help them bring democracy in America to an end. Or they will assemble a pro-democracy alliance with conservatives. There aren’t any other choices.”
He’s right. Because, in the end, Fukuyama is also correct that the only thing that can now possibly save liberalism – by putting some breaks on this runaway train – is moderation. But that would mean accepting a retraditioning of core civilizational values, finding a way to jettison liberalism’s utopian anthropological project, and returning to the kind of purely procedural political liberalism Fukuyama originally outlined on the first pages of Liberalism and its Discontents, just before he got his means and his ends confused. And ultimately liberalism can’t moderate itself – only a reconstituted conservatism can do that.
 “‘Plato, Rousseau, Fourier, aluminum columns – all that is good only for sparrows, not human society. But since the future form of human society is needed right now, when we’re finally ready to take action, in order to forestall any further thought on the subject, I’m proposing my own system of world organization. Here it is!’ he said, tapping his notebook. ‘I wanted to expatiate on my book to this meeting as briefly as possible, but I see it’s necessary to provide a great deal of verbal clarification; therefore my entire explication will take at least ten evenings, corresponding to the number of chapters in my book..’ (More laughter was heard) ‘Moreover I must declare in advance that my system is not yet complete.’ (Laughter again). ‘I became lost in my own data and my conclusion contradicts the original premise from which I started. Beginning with unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism.’” – The liberal intellectual Shigalyov explaining his solution to the “social problem,” in Dostoyevsky’s Demons.