Los Angeles, 1952. Photo by J R Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty


The many deaths of liberalism

More than a century of death notices have not diminished the achievements and the necessity of liberalism

by Daniel H Cole & Aurelian Craiutu + BIO

Los Angeles, 1952. Photo by J R Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

Modern democratic governments are founded on liberal principles meant to create the basis of a fair and just society. Liberalism emerged as a reaction against absolute power, in favour of individual autonomy protected by freedom of conscience and the rule of law. As the political theorist Judith Shklar put it in Political Thought and Political Thinkers (1998): ‘Liberalism’s deepest grounding is … in the conviction of the earliest defenders of toleration, born in horror, that cruelty is an absolute evil, an offence against God or humanity.’ That is why liberal principles include, among others, limited government under the rule of law, with individual rights enforceable against the government.

Liberal societies have not always lived up to these principles, which in some respects are always aspirational. But it cannot be denied that political societies based on liberal principles have been more successful, on almost any measure, than regimes that are more authoritarian, communitarian or sectarian.

So why do we read so often today that liberalism is in crisis, failing or already dead? Scholars and pundits of various ideological persuasions are busy signing death certificates and offering obituaries for liberalism, often without clearly defining what they mean by that term. Some claim that liberalism has failed to live up to its own promises. Others argue that it has become irrelevant precisely because it has succeeded in building a free society on allegedly dangerous foundations, such as individual autonomy, neutrality with regard to the good life, and free markets. These critics might differ among themselves, but they all seem to agree that liberalism can no longer solve our deep social, cultural, political and economic problems, and that it has become ‘unsustainable’.

Not coincidentally, all of these critics are living, writing and publishing in liberal countries. And they are demonstrating one of liberalism’s most successful features simply by participating in the quintessentially liberal enterprise of dialogue and disagreement under constitutional protections (with liberal limitations). These are, in fact, the only states in which actual competition for power and dissent is not just allowed but fostered. No one living in a totalitarian society has had the luxury of declaring liberalism, let alone totalitarianism, dead. Nevertheless, the pessimism of liberalism’s critics appears sensible, given the current depressing political climate, dominated by fears of the re-emergence of nationalistic populism reflected in Brexit and the rhetoric of, and policies pursued by, leaders such as Donald Trump in the United States, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Viktor Orbán in Hungary.

Yet, the prediction of liberalism’s imminent demise is hardly a new story. Scholars and statesmen have been declaring liberalism dead or in deep crisis for at least a century and a half. A review of the many deaths of liberalism might have something to teach us about what, in fact, is happening in the world today.

An article in the February 1900 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine declared that ‘Liberalism is dead’, referring not just to the UK’s Liberal Party but liberalism as a political theory. The anonymous author labelled liberalism ‘a bastard philosophy’ and a superfluous one. ‘Upon the whole,’ the Tory author concluded, ‘it is good to know that Liberalism is dead.’

That same year, across the Atlantic, Edwin Godkin, founder and editor of The Nation weekly magazine, wrote despairingly of ‘the eclipse of liberalism’ in the US by a new nationalism of greed. ‘The Declaration of Independence no longer arouses enthusiasm,’ he wrote, ‘it is an embarrassing instrument which requires to be explained away.’ Godkin thought that the liberal US Constitution was out of step with the new anti-liberal zeitgeist.

In 1906, the Right-wing Zionist Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky wrote ‘Homo Homini Lupus’, an article declaring liberalism dead because it is only a Utopian dream. He described liberalism as ‘a broad concept, vague because of its all-encompassing nature’ – nothing but ‘a dream about order and justice without violence, a universal dream woven of sympathy, tolerance, a belief in the basic goodness and righteousness of man’. Better to dispense with all that, in Jabotinsky’s view, and embrace the reality of intolerant and violent human nature.

Neither European anti-liberals nor English conservatives were engaged in dispassionate analyses of liberalism or liberal institutions. Rather, they were grinding political axes to wield against liberalism and its institutions, which they perceived as obstacles to their own political plans. At the same time, many liberals feared for liberalism’s future. When Friedrich von Hayek and Karl Popper sat down to write, respectively, The Road to Serfdom (1944) and The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), the mood among liberalism’s own defenders was sombre and dark. The prospects for its long-term survival appeared dim.

Even after the defeat of Nazism in the Second World War – a victory for liberalism in the West, but a triumph for communism in East-Central Europe – obituaries for liberalism continued to be written with surprising regularity. In his book Nixon Agonistes (1969), the liberal historian Garry Wills declared liberalism dead, despite noting that its ‘historical achievement … is a great one’. On Wills’s account, Richard Nixon killed it. Somewhat predictably, commentators such as Wills, who lean Democratic, accuse Republican politicians of killing liberalism, while more conservative pundits hurl the same accusation at Democrats. When, in 2011, R Emmett Tyrrell, Jr, founding editor of The American Spectator, proclaimed ‘The Death of Liberalism’, he was not presciently foretelling the rise of Trumpism, but condemning the administration of Barack Obama.

The Trump campaign and post-election rhetoric, along with Brexit’s implicit nativism, the election of illiberal governments in Hungary and Poland that are intent on destroying electoral competition, and the faltering of the Arab Spring heightened the stakes and the intensity of the debate. Some journalists and scholars declared that our world is in disarray, and it was time to start thinking anew. A few went so far as to declare that liberalism is once again dead or dying and, as a result, must be replaced with a new doctrine.

This January, The American Conservative published ‘Announcing the Death of Classical Liberalism’, a review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (2018), a book highly critical of liberalism’s failures. A month later, an article in The Atlantic asked ‘What’s Killing Liberalism?’ Meanwhile, political scientists have been attempting to explain ‘how democracies die’ and shed light on the causes of ‘democratic deconsolidation’. Confronted with the slowing pace of economic growth, journalists such as Edward Luce analysed the ‘retreat of Western liberalism’, offering a dark diagnosis of its present state. Writing in The New Yorker last March, Adam Gopnik wondered whether liberals might simply be on the wrong side of history because ‘illiberalism’ might be ‘a permanent fact of life’.

The intellectual attraction of liberalism’s jeopardy must be great if liberalism has been declared dead so often

It is hard to know what to make of all these pronouncements, some more rhetorical than others. They bring to mind a related trope, the ‘jeopardy thesis’ coined by the economist Albert Hirschman. In The Rhetoric of Reaction (1991), Hirschman analysed the claim that many government-enacted reforms always jeopardise liberal institutions and individual liberty. He made two trenchant observations about this thesis: (1) the prophecies turn out to be correct – except when they are not; and (2) since the frequency of such pronouncements considerably exceed what occurs ‘in nature’, there must be some inherent intellectual attraction (and benefit) in advancing various versions of the jeopardy thesis.

One of Hirschman’s historical examples involved predictions that the Reform Act of 1832, changing England’s electoral system, and the Reform Act of 1867, extending suffrage to many working-class males, would result in the ‘death of liberty’ in England. Of course, they did nothing of the kind. Indeed, the very notion that restricting the franchise from working-class males was necessary to protect liberalism today appears paradoxical, if not a contradiction in terms.

The intellectual attraction of liberalism’s jeopardy must be great indeed because liberalism has been declared dead so often. We conducted a Google Books Ngram analysis, which graphs the number of books containing a certain word or phrase as a percentage of all books in Google’s collection, numbering more than 30 million volumes at present. (We do not claim that the Ngram analysis presents a complete or completely accurate representation of publication frequency. We did not test alternative search terms, such as ‘liberalism is dead’ or ‘liberalism is dying’. Moreover, Google’s Ngram analysis does not capture many journal articles.) According to this analysis, liberalism first died in the late 1870s (although, according to Hirschman, it was already declared to be dying as early as the 1830s), then died some more at the turn of the 20th century, and has been dying almost continuously since 1920.

Courtesy Google

As the graph illustrates, communism is even ‘deader’ (as it were) than liberalism, according to the percentage of books in Google’s collection containing the phrase ‘death of communism’. However, authors did not start declaring it dead until just before its actual demise. Liberalism, by contrast, has been pronounced dead for at least the past 150 years, though it has not yet actually died. Fascism, too, has regularly been declared dead almost since it originated in the 1920s, but at a significantly lower frequency than liberalism. For a while, at least, fascism actually did seem moribund, if not actually dead, throughout Western Europe and North America.

Google Books was unable to generate Ngrams for the phrases ‘death of conservatism’ or ‘death of authoritarianism’, implying that those phrases do not appear in enough books published between 1860 and 2008 to register even as a tiny fraction of a fraction of 1 per cent of all books published over that 148-year period. Hardly anyone has ever declared the death of authoritarianism (according to a separate Google Scholar search), lending support to Gopnik’s notion that illiberalism might simply be an enduring fact of life. The death of conservatism has been proclaimed, though only very rarely. Why is it then that authoritarianism seemingly never dies (as a political theory) and conservatism dies only very rarely, yet liberalism is declared dead so frequently and persistently?

Today, ‘new’ liberals criticise ‘neoliberalism’ as a cause of increasing inequality and declining social mobility

We can offer some tentative hypotheses. First, the meaning of ‘liberalism’ has always been ambiguous. As Montesquieu noted nearly 300 years ago: ‘No word has received more different significations and has struck minds in so many ways as has liberty.’ The same might be said about its close relation, liberalism. According to the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron writing in 1987, ‘liberalism’ does not describe a unified, coherent political theory but serves as an umbrella for a large family of theories created over the course of several centuries by diverse authors with disparate notions of its meaning, and harbouring no intentions of creating a fully fledged system of governance.

The name ‘liberalism’ has been used to describe systems of governance as distinctive as the French physiocrats’ laissez-faire, the libertarians’ ‘night watchman state’, Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, the law-ordered state of German Ordoliberals, including Walter Eucken and Wilhelm Röpke, and Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’. Today, ‘new’ liberals criticise ‘neoliberalism’ as a cause of increasing inequality and declining social mobility. At the same time, ‘classical’ liberals denounce the excesses of the social welfare state for its encroachments on individual liberty and the state-dependency it creates.

Just how many types of liberalism are there? In his fascinating and idiosyncratic book Liberalism: Old and New (1991), the Brazilian diplomat and philosopher J G Merquior identified nearly 30 varieties of liberalism (no doubt with substantial overlap between them) in fewer than 140 pages. Here is a list of Merquior’s sub-species of liberalism:

Merquior used these descriptions to differentiate how various liberal thinkers conceived of liberalism. With such internal diversity, it is possible that one form of liberalism could ‘die’ or disappear without implicating the entire body of liberal theories. For instance, the welfare state could be dismantled, but leave standing a constitutionalised rule of law, free-market economic systems, international free trade, and individual freedom of choice, association and speech. Some neoliberals (including followers of Hayek and Ludwig von Mises) would certainly applaud a substantial reduction in the size of the welfare state as a boon to liberalism. Other progressive liberals (following the ideas of Leonard Hobhouse, John Dewey or Amartya Sen, for example) might well consider it a serious setback for ‘modern’ liberalism. Michel Foucault might not have liked classical liberalism very much, but he seemed positively inclined toward the end of his life toward Ordoliberalism. In the end, liberalism, broadly speaking, would survive.

The problem for anyone declaring the death of liberalism is that it has not one but several pillars and dimensions: legal, political, economic and moral (or religious). The weakening or disappearance of one or two liberal pillars or tenets would not be enough to declare liberalism as a whole dead. For example, one might express skepticism toward key liberal principles such as the commitments to individual agency and individual choice, while maintaining a commitment to freedom of expression. In the same vein, one might be skeptical toward unregulated markets or trade, but embrace other essential features of liberalism such as nondiscrimination under law, security of property rights and freedom of contract. Neither does liberalism require open borders, but it opposes limits on immigration based solely on what the potential immigrants look like, where they come from, what language they speak or their religious preferences.

Liberals disagree, often vociferously, with one another over just how free markets and trade should be – hardly anyone thinks that they should not be regulated at all or that they should be centrally planned by self-anointed experts. They also differ over how strongly to protect property rights versus competing interests and, more generally, the size, scope, and intrusiveness of ‘the government’. These disagreements are themselves emblematic of the internal diversity and complexity of liberalism.

There are, however, some fundamental tenets on which nearly all liberals agree. For example, they agree that individual improvement and social progress are both possible by the cultivation of what Adam Smith in 1759 referred to as the ‘moral sentiments’ and the application of reason to evidence in accordance with the scientific method. They believe that institutional structures – the constitutional and legal rules and policies that society establishes – are always experiments. And they adhere (though not always enough) to a counter-ideological humility based on the brute fact of human fallibility. This moderating feature of liberalism, most closely associated with Popper, is fundamental because it requires liberals, in contrast to theocrats and other ideologues, to cultivate dialogue and treat political and other disagreements seriously, without self-righteousness and with respect for opposing views (assuming the toleration is mutual).

Modern liberal societies are the best political systems we fallible humans have managed to create

As such, liberalism creates a big tent for many different conceptions of the ‘good life’, in accordance with its commitment to individual choice. Some have seen this feature as a weakness of liberalism. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset could not have disagreed more. Writing at a moment when liberalism’s death was being widely proclaimed in the Western world, he argued in The Revolt of the Masses (1930) that liberalism should best be defined as ‘the supreme form of generosity’. In liberal regimes, he argued, the majority, which has power on its side, concedes to weaker minorities the right to live on their own terms, thus announcing the determination to share existence with – and respect those – who have a different view of the good society.

That such ‘generosity’ can be a source of real strength is attested by liberalism’s real successes. Late in his life, Popper, a self-described liberal ‘optimist’, named several liberal achievements as undeniable facts. At no other time, and nowhere else, he pointed out in 1986, have human beings been more valued, as individuals, than in liberal societies: ‘Never before have their human rights, and their human dignity, been so respected, and never before have so many been ready to bring great sacrifices for others, especially for those less fortunate than themselves.’

Popper was no Dr Pangloss. He did not believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Nor did he overlook social problems that persist in liberal societies. But he appreciated that modern liberal societies are the best political systems we fallible humans have managed to create. He believed that such societies create the best conditions for individual development and social improvement. By contrast, he was deeply skeptical of utopian claims based on beliefs of human perfectibility. Even in liberal societies, Popper observed, power corrupts, civil servants sometimes behave like ‘uncivil masters’, and ‘pocket dictators’ persist. Nevertheless, throughout the liberal and free world, many of life’s ‘greatest evils’, including slavery, abject poverty, unemployment, race- and class-based legal differences, and religious discrimination have been eliminated or greatly ameliorated.

Popper celebrated liberalism a half-decade before the Iron Curtain disappeared in eastern and central Europe. Millions from that region then saw liberalism as a major hope for their countries, promising individual freedom, above all, along with economic prosperity. The sudden collapse of communist regimes was, in fact, a remarkable ‘success’ for liberalism. But only liberalism in its broadest sense triumphed in 1989. For liberalism is not an intellectually rigorous system, manifested in a single institutional form. It is, as the political theorist Alan Ryan put it in The Making of Modern Liberalism (2012), a somewhat ‘awkward and intellectually insecure system’ whose achievements can never be more than equivocal and ambivalent.

Success itself is a highly ambiguous and contingent concept. It would be inappropriate for the members of a liberal society ever to expect more than a partial success. Given what Immanuel Kant in 1784 called the ‘crooked timber of humanity’, liberalism’s ambitions and hopes will always exceed its actual achievements. Moreover, liberal democratic societies remain congenitally unstable and imperfect, in part because of liberalism’s conflicting demands for both more individual autonomy and greater equality. Because of that inherent tension, liberalism carries the seeds of its own destruction.

At the same time, it might be short-sighted to see liberalism’s alleged failures as anything more than partial and temporary ones. Even if liberalism does not provide a telos or supreme good toward which we should strive, it helps us avoid greater evils, the most salient being cruelty and the fear it inspires. As Ortega y Gasset reminds us, it was no mean accomplishment ‘that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so paradoxical, so refined’ in the course of a long history marked by bloodshed, intolerance and violence. But he also noted that such an attitude is often ‘too difficult and complex to take firm root on earth’. The French philosopher Raymond Aron was right when he wrote in 1978 that liberalism is not a ‘philosophy for tender souls’. Liberals have a duty, according to Popper, to preserve liberalism through intolerance of intolerant enemies. They must always remain vigilant against those who would seek to undermine liberal values and practices through the use of liberal institutions.

For all its progress, liberalism is inseparable from the doubts we feel about it

In the end, liberalism neither promises nor delivers ready-made solutions to our problems. It is neither a shorthand for universal bliss nor a synonym for utopia. More modestly, it seeks to limit political power and enables individuals, alone or in voluntary associations, to experiment freely in various spheres of life. When we fail, as inevitably we must, liberal institutions allow us to learn from policy failures and make incremental headway. This ability to learn from mistakes is simultaneously a guarantee of some progress and a source of permanent dissatisfaction. The dissatisfaction reflects liberalism’s inherent fragility. But critics and adherents alike tend to underestimate liberalism’s adaptive resilience and success.

The US case is instructive in this regard, both for its achievements and its struggles. The 18th and 21st Amendments to the US Constitution bookend the failed history of Prohibition, the largest-scale policy experiment in US history. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments serve as constant reminders of long-standing and deeply entrenched moral and institutional failures. Today, anyone who claims that the country is less liberal as a result of ending slavery and granting civil rights to African Americans, as well as to women and Native Americans, would rightly be ostracised – not for being ‘politically incorrect’ (although ‘political correctness’ is a significant problem for liberal societies) but for clinging to illiberal notions that political and legal inequality are acceptable, let alone appropriate, within purportedly liberal societies.

Today, a country that declared freedom of conscience for Christians of all denominations (but only Christians) would hardly be considered liberal. More generally, any notion of individual rights that applies only to some individuals within a polity while excluding others is illiberal and illegitimate. And today, hardly anyone thinks otherwise. Hardly anyone favours overturning the Brown v Board of Education case that made school segregation illegal, or re-establishing de jure segregation, or repealing women’s suffrage. Anyone who did would rightly be ostracised by polite society. That marks quite a change within less than a century, and is a sure sign of liberal progress.

For all its progress, liberalism is inseparable from the doubts we feel about it. Those doubts should cause us to heed, even celebrate, liberalism’s critics for pointing out its real flaws. Less attention should be paid, however, to the loud prophets of liberalism’s demise, who declare the entire liberal project dead or fatally flawed. To the extent that liberalism is about solving problems, if only incrementally, we must continue to conjecture, experiment and refute hypotheses about the best means of maintaining and improving our coexistence on Earth.

Declaring the ‘death of liberalism’ might trigger alarm bells in the media and help to sell books. But it will not solve any of the real problems that modern liberal societies confront, including the real threats to liberal values about which nearly everyone cares and agrees.