No Alternatives to Liberalism

At a time when populists on the right and progressives on the left seem increasingly willing to abandon liberalism, Francis Fukuyama has offered a welcome defense in Liberalism and Its Discontents. The kind of liberalism he defends is “classical”; and his argument is that liberalism’s fiercest critics have uniformly missed the mark in focusing their ire not on classical liberal doctrines per se, but on the way “certain sound liberal ideas have been interpreted and pushed to extremes.” Fukuyama’s view is that liberalism today should not be abandoned, but moderated.

Fukuyama follows John Gray in defining liberalism in terms of four broad characteristics. It is individualist in asserting the moral primacy of the person over the collective, egalitarian in affording the same legal and political status to all citizens, universalist in viewing all human beings as possessing the same moral dignity, and meliorist in affirming the improvability of all social and political arrangements.

Fukuyama rehearses solid reasons for preferring liberalism to other forms of political association. Liberalism offers a more or less peaceful way of managing diversity in pluralist societies. It protects human dignity and autonomy through the rule of law. And it facilitates economic growth by protecting private property rights and the freedom to buy and sell. In none of these respects has liberalism’s moral track record been perfect. International in its scope, the book acknowledges problems such as European nationalism and colonialism, as well as various forms of invidious discrimination in America. But liberalism’s imperfect track record in these respects is not due to classical liberal doctrine, but to the want of it.


Fukuyama’s thesis about sound doctrines being pushed to extremes applies to the left and the right in modern liberal regimes. His critique of the right spans two consecutive chapters on “neo-liberalism” (a regrettably pseudo-scientific and pejorative term). According to Fukuyama, certain 20th-century economists and politicians under their sway transformed a valid set of liberal ideas about individual autonomy and private property into something like an anti-state religion: they came to worship free markets, deregulation, and privatization; they touted personal responsibility as a cure-all for dependency on the state; and they viewed “consumer welfare” as the ultimate criterion of social health.

His targets are Milton Friedman, Gary Becker, George Stigler, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, President Reagan, Prime Minister Thatcher, Robert Bork, Douglas North, and Mancur Olson—a formidable lot. But his argument is not so much that their thinking was wrong, as that it was sometimes exaggerated and crudely applied. Acknowledging that free markets are more efficient than government planning, and that deregulation and privatization have had positive economic effects, his complaint is that market competition has not always been the right answer, and that it has sometimes had disastrous effects. His recommendation is to moderate this neo-liberal tendency in light of the following (in my view, utterly uncontroversial) principles: Individuals need more than “consumer welfare” to be happy: they also need a sense of social belonging. And even while individuals are ultimately “responsible for their own happiness and life outcomes, the state is fully justified in stepping in to support them when they are subject to adverse circumstances beyond their control.”

Readers can judge for themselves whether Fukuyama’s criticisms of free-market economics are convincing. His evidence is anecdotal and some of his interpretations (e.g., of the financial crisis of 2008) are highly contestable. Methodologically speaking, though, he needs this critique to be convincing. Only if he can successfully argue that “neoliberals” are extremists can he then claim that it is this extreme, not liberalism itself, that is objectionable to critics. This, again, is his main argument—that true liberalism is untouched by many of its critics. 

The Political Left

The problem of pushing sound liberal insights too far is not limited to the right: it also occurs on the left. Fukuyama criticizes the left’s tendency to overvalue autonomy in the form of “self-actualization” and the “elevation of choice over all other human goods.” He refers to this as the “sovereign self.”  More often, it is referred to as expressive individualism, a “yearning for fulfillment through the definition and articulation of one’s own identity,” as Yuval Levin writes. For Fukuyama, the ultimate result of this tendency is a profound meaninglessness: “an autonomous self that has been detached from all prior loyalties and commitments,” a person “wholly without character, without moral depth.”  Fukuyama points out that the road is short from such meaninglessness to the phenomenon of identity politics, where meaning is found in diverse groups seeking political recognition.

Fukuyama’s critique of the left also includes a quick survey of “critical theory” and a highly compressed rebuttal. Neither the survey nor the rebuttal is very satisfying, but the overarching argument is worth noting. While, early on, the liberal left criticized liberalism for its failure to live up to its own ideals, over time it began to attack the ideals themselves. It came to reject outright liberalism’s conception of individualism, its claims to moral universality, and its relationship to capitalism. Prone to see hidden power structures behind every inequality, and impatient with the gridlock of checks and balances, these critics are prepared to resort to decidedly illiberal measures to bring about change. Fukuyama notes that “in some parts of the contemporary progressive left there has been a revived interest in the writings of Carl Schmitt,” the Nazi jurist who advocated the use of discretionary executive power in extreme cases. Thus can liberalism turn into dictatorship by evoking an “emergency.”

For Fukuyama the dangers to liberalism emanating from the left and right are asymmetrical: the right is far more threatening. He thinks that the populism that led to the election of Donald Trump was caused principally by neo-liberal policies that increased economic inequality. A more balanced analysis would perhaps take account of right-wing populists’ express contempt for years of progressive policy that paid insufficient attention to the state of the white middle class, and especially to men. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Matthew Rose’s A World after Liberalism help paint a fuller picture.

I view liberalism not as an essence, but as a human practice that results from prudential choices people make.

Alternatives to Liberalism?

Fukuyama catalogues some of the criticisms of liberalism produced by the religious and nationalist right, including the age-old claim that liberalism “lowered the sights of politics to aim not at a good life as defined by a particular moral doctrine, or cultural tradition, but at the preservation of life itself.”  And he agrees with the critics that “this leaves liberal orders with a spiritual vacuum,” and a dangerously “thin sense of community.” He also agrees up to a point with the nationalists’ complaint that liberal universalism undermines the bonds of national community. In fact, he devotes an entire chapter to this subject, arguing for a “positive vision of liberal national identity.”

But Fukuyama does not think that conservative critics have any reasonable alternatives to liberalism: “It is possible to imagine some very ugly scenarios unfolding in the United States,” he writes, “surrounding future contested elections, though it still seems extremely unlikely that armed rebellion will ever succeed in the country. Nor does it seem likely that Americans will ever accept overtly authoritarian government of the sort suggested by [Adrian] Vermeule.”  As for Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher, “who have recommended retreat into small communities . . . in which like-minded believers [can] practice their beliefs shielded from the larger currents in liberal society”: there is “nothing about contemporary American liberalism that is preventing them from doing this.” This would not be an alternative to liberalism, but something liberalism itself allows.

Fukuyama is similarly doubtful that any credible alternatives to liberalism will come from the left. Full-on socialism is not on the agenda. Instead, the left seeks “a very expansive form of social democracy that has been tried, with varying success, in other liberal societies.”  Perhaps “considerations of race, gender, gender preference, and other identity categories would be injected into every sphere of everyday life, and would become the primary considerations for hiring, promotion, access to health, education, and other sectors.” But Fukuyama, apparently unfazed by the extent to which this has already happened, is doubtful that this illiberal agenda will be realized. This is a moment of weakness in his analysis. With “diversity, equity, and inclusion” increasingly embraced by corporate America, Fukuyama’s analysis seems too sanguine.

This leaves us, more or less, with liberalism; and Fukuyama closes with some advice about how to maintain it. I find his advice sound. He sees that “the nationalist-populist right and the progressive left have problems with accepting the actual diversity that exists in their society.” He thus recommends that the right “take a page out of Disraeli’s playbook,” by building a conservative majority not along racial or nationalist lines, but by taking advantage of the fact that many immigrant groups reject left-wing identity politics and prefer an older vision of the American dream. Progressives, for their part, “will have to accept the fact that roughly half the country does not agree with either their goals or their methods, and that they are very unlikely to simply overpower them at the ballot box any time soon.”

Fukuyama recommends a return to federalism, so that policy outcomes can better reflect the choices of citizens. This means giving up on political uniformity, however desirable that may seem to elites who suppose they know what is best for everyone. He recommends stronger protections for freedom of speech, stronger antitrust laws, a greater emphasis on individual rights over the rights of cultural groups, and a greater recognition on the part of citizens that human autonomy has limits. For instance, “America’s First Amendment was meant to protect the free exercise of religion, and not to protect citizens from religion. Liberal societies cannot, on Fukuyama’s view, be neutral or relativistic about “the values that are necessary to sustain themselves as liberal societies.” The book then ends where it began, with a call to moderation or, in the words of the Greeks, mēden agan, “nothing in excess.” 

Liberalism as a Human Practice

A weakness of the book relates to its lack of philosophical depth concerning the nature and meaning of liberalism itself. This may stem partly from the fact that the book is a “defense,” not a philosophical inquiry. Fukuyama locates the “essence” of liberalism in classical liberal doctrines—though, from hearing him speak, I happen to know that he regards Sweden and Denmark as classical liberal regimes. For my own part, I am not confident that liberalism actually has an essence, or that, if it did, it would be located in the domain of doctrine. Liberalism is also a set of practices, and practices naturally evolve over time. This means that liberalism’s own dramatic changes may be part of what liberalism itself is, not merely a regrettable falling away from an essence.

The language of essences is Hegelian, and so too is the overarching argument of the book. Two unstable extremes, one on the right and one on the left (call them thesis and antithesis) are battling it out in contemporary history, while the answer lies in between, in some sort of synthesis that contains them both, but not in extreme form. The trouble is that history appears to be working in reverse in the case of liberalism: Liberalism began as a moderate, stabilizing force in European history. But over time it has disintegrated into polar extremes. If this is the case, why should we imagine that any kind of reintegration or synthesis will occur?

I share Fukuyama’s hope that liberalism can be maintained. I hold this hope in part because (like Fukuyama) I see no better alternatives to liberalism for the pluralist, freedom-loving West; but I hold it too because I view liberalism not as an essence, but as a human practice that results from prudential choices people make; and I therefore think that liberalism can be made and remade in light of lessons that we learn in the doing. The chief lesson to be borne in mind today is that the alternative to liberalism is violence, whether that takes the form of physical violence or the coercive power of the state. And violence leads to grievous suffering, especially for the weak and powerless. Sober reflection on this fact should lead us to look at the possibilities of liberalism with renewed energy. It is, without doubt, an imperfect way of practicing politics. But Fukuyama is right that it is the best way we have for managing diversity in peace.