Rethink­ing Lib­er­al­ism: Do We Need a New Lib­er­al­ism of Fear?

Shut­ter­stock

Lib­er­al­ism is a polit­i­cal per­sua­sion devoted to the pursuit of human flour­ish­ing. It demands that, at a minimum, every indi­vid­ual must be per­mit­ted to write its own life’s story, unob­structed by fear, cruelty, or crush­ing intru­sion. In light of new endoge­nous and exter­nal threats to free soci­eties, how can we prevent fear from becom­ing the dom­i­nant public sen­ti­ment? In his essay, Amichai Magen argues for a “New Lib­er­al­ism of Fear.”

Lib­er­al­ism – a term long sub­jected to much con­cep­tual-stretch­ing and abuse – is a polit­i­cal per­sua­sion devoted to the pursuit of human flour­ish­ing through the exer­cise of indi­vid­ual liberty, eco­nomic open­ness, limited and egal­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment, and the rule of law. At its core resides an insis­tence upon the sublime worth and dignity of each and every indi­vid­ual human being, and ulti­mately of life itself.

Liberalism’s over­rid­ing polit­i­cal mission is to secure the essen­tial con­di­tions nec­es­sary for the fullest pos­si­ble expres­sion of that sublime indi­vid­ual worth, and the unique human poten­tial imbued in it. It there­fore rejects any polit­i­cal doc­trine or system of gov­ern­ment that does not respect the dif­fer­ence between the spheres of the per­sonal and those of the state, between areas of indi­vid­ual private life (includ­ing family and com­mu­nal life) and that of public authority.

At a minimum, lib­er­al­ism demands, every indi­vid­ual must be per­mit­ted to write her own life’s story – unob­structed by fear, cruelty, or crush­ing intru­sion – as is com­pat­i­ble with the like freedom of every other indi­vid­ual. The life story written by the indi­vid­ual may amount to a heroic drama, a bitter-sweet comedy, or a tragic flop. Lib­er­al­ism does not insist on a happy ending; but it does insist that it must, to a mean­ing­ful extent, be her story to write for herself.

Lib­er­al­ism, in other words, is an essen­tially modern polit­i­cal quest for an exis­tence in which human beings need not fear anni­hi­la­tion, arbi­trary vio­lence, unnec­es­sary coer­cion, or vio­la­tion of what Isaiah Berlin – in his Oxford Don’s con­spic­u­ous under­state­ment — described as “a certain minimum area of per­sonal freedom which must on no account be vio­lated.”[1]

The Lib­er­al­ism of Fear

This “Lib­er­al­ism of Fear” – which Mon­tesquieu and Con­stant already alluded to, but which was only explic­itly illu­mi­nated and explored in Judith Shklar’s bril­liant 1989 chapter by the same name – is not the only species in the liberal tra­di­tion worth mining for ideas for twenty-first century liberal renewal.[2] Shklar rec­og­nizes this herself, refer­ring to other types of lib­er­al­ism, notably “the lib­er­al­ism of natural rights” and “the lib­er­al­ism of per­sonal devel­op­ment”, that differ from the lib­er­al­ism of fear.[3]

One more caveat is note­wor­thy before I proceed to outline a case for a “New Lib­er­al­ism of Fear”, as one avenue for liberal renewal. “Fear” is, on its face, an unat­trac­tive prop for the liberal per­suader. The smell of fear is nor­mally under­stood to be odious. Hope, uni­corns, and the promise of free love are, under­stand­ably, the pre­ferred mar­ket­ing tools of the polit­i­cal soothsayer.

Amichai Magen is a Senior Lec­turer and Direc­tor of the Program on Demo­c­ra­tic Resilience and Devel­op­ment at the Lauder School of Gov­ern­ment, Diplo­macy, and Strat­egy, IDC (Her­zliya), Israel. 

The lib­er­al­ism of fear, con­se­quently, suffers from an inher­ent mar­ket­ing problem. In this sense it is a little like Isaiah Berlin’s notion of “Neg­a­tive Freedom” – wise but not catchy.[4] The average con­sumer of polit­i­cal ideas will find no fluffy comfort in the lib­er­al­ism of fear. What dis­tin­guishes it from those other types of lib­er­al­ism, Shklar herself tells us, is that it is entirely “nonu­topian”.[5]

The lib­er­al­ism of fear stares terror squarely in the face and shud­ders. It is starkly aware of the depths of deprav­ity human beings are capable of and the scale of sav­agery and destruc­tion that can be inflicted upon us fragile humans, par­tic­u­larly by insti­tu­tion­al­ized cruelty.

The lib­er­al­ism of fear is defined by a certain ter­ri­ble modesty of expec­ta­tions. It is the lib­er­al­ism of damage control, and of the good enough to get by. It is the lib­er­al­ism of avoid­ing Auschwitz-Birke­nau, the Soviet Gulag, and, in our own time, the bru­tal­iza­tion of the Yazidis, the star­va­tion of the Yemenites, or the prison camps of North Korea and Xin­jiang. Its primary – and in some respects primal – aim is to remind us to focus on avoid­ing the very worst that can happen to us, not assume that it somehow won’t happen, or be tempted by the allur­ing but false utopian promises of a world free of tragedy.

A Lib­er­al­ism of Damage Control

The “New Lib­er­al­ism of Fear” begins with the shaking-off of the his­tor­i­cal amnesia that has per­vaded our culture since 1989. Com­pla­cent, smug, and more than a little naïve, we slum­bered under the warm duvet of post-1989 tri­umphal­ism. Con­fi­dent that the end of history had arrived, that the arc of the moral uni­verse was inex­orably bending towards justice, and that the rest of the world would inevitably con­verge around an ever-expand­ing, ever-deep­en­ing Liberal Inter­na­tional Order under­writ­ten by the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Under the influ­ence of this Fukuyama Coma, lib­er­al­ism was per­mit­ted to stag­nate and decay. Iron­i­cally, we lib­er­als com­mit­ted the car­di­nal sin of Marxism, the sin of his­tor­i­cal deter­min­ism. We drifted, and largely squan­dered the hard won peace div­i­dend that came from victory in the mighty ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gles against Fascism, Nazism, and Soviet Com­mu­nism over the course of the bloody twen­ti­eth-century. We neglected to nurture the virtues, values, and insti­tu­tions upon which modern liberal democ­ra­cies depend for their sur­vival – active and engaged cit­i­zen­ship, effec­tive state­hood and robust public insti­tu­tions, genuine demo­c­ra­tic account­abil­ity to ensure gov­ern­ments act in the inter­est of the major­ity, and the rule of law to con­strain those who would wield coer­cive polit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and cul­tural power.

In the process, we left many of our fellow cit­i­zens behind – fool­ishly for­get­ting the first prin­ci­ple of liberal moder­nity, namely that the consent of the gov­erned is the only solid basis for a func­tion­ing demo­c­ra­tic order. We pre­tended that the dark sides of glob­al­iza­tion were either not there, did not matter too much (that they would soon melt away under the forces of liberal con­ver­gence), or that they could be effec­tively managed by the invis­i­ble hand of markets alone. We neglected to keep up with accel­er­at­ing con­nec­tiv­ity, com­plex­ity, and dis­rup­tive, anxiety-induc­ing tech­no­log­i­cal change. We failed to gen­er­ate con­vinc­ing liberal solu­tions to large emerg­ing threats – Chinese author­i­tar­i­an­ism, envi­ron­men­tal damage, uncon­trolled migra­tion, failed states, nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion, pan­demics, unaligned Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence, and a degraded infor­ma­tion ecology that risks oblit­er­at­ing our ability to agree on basic sci­en­tific and his­tor­i­cal facts.

The “New Lib­er­al­ism of Fear” demands a strongly devel­oped sense of his­tor­i­cal memory, and an his­tor­i­cally-informed imag­i­na­tion about the future of human­ity. It would there­fore bring history back in, in three dis­tinct ways:

First, to para­phrase Hal Brands and Charles Edel, it would insist that an under­stand­ing of tragedy remains indis­pens­able to the conduct of pol­i­tics, state­craft, and the preser­va­tion of world order.[6] If we forget the inher­ent fragility of liberal orders – and the need to con­tin­u­ously defend, pre­serve, and update them – we will invari­ably con­tinue to sink into neglect and decline.

Making the Case for the Moral­ity of Liberal Orders

Second, it would invest real time and energy in making the case for the moral­ity (yes, moral­ity, not just effi­ciency) of liberal orders. It would proudly cham­pion and cel­e­brate the aston­ish­ing human progress achieved since the birth of the liberal era, and espe­cially over the past several decades, across all the main indi­ca­tors of human mate­r­ial well­be­ing, where liberal values and insti­tu­tions took root. It would high­light the truly stun­ning 3,000 percent increase in real GDP for the poorest people since 1800, and how in the past three decades most of this “Great Enrich­ment” has occurred not in “white America” or Western Europe, but in lib­er­al­iz­ing Latin America, Eastern Europe, China, India, and increas­ingly Africa.[7]

The “New Lib­er­al­ism of Fear” would actively seek to make living and suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions grasp the true meaning – in terms of human lives saved, improved, enriched, and lib­er­ated – of the fol­low­ing sta­tis­tics: In 1950 global average life expectancy was less than 30 years, today it is 72.6. In 1950 global child mor­tal­ity was 24 percent – meaning that nearly one in four babies died before their fifth birth­day – today it is 4 percent. In 1950 the per­cent­age of the world’s pop­u­la­tion living in extreme poverty was 63.5 percent, today it is less than 9. And in 1950 only 10 percent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion lived in democ­ra­cies, today – even after a decade and a half of a global demo­c­ra­tic reces­sion – 56 percent of human beings live in democ­ra­cies.[8] This is an aston­ish­ing record of mate­r­ial and moral progress. It is imper­fect, incom­plete, and fragile, but it is also incal­cu­la­bly good and deserv­ing of our grat­i­tude, pro­tec­tion, and con­tin­ued development.

Lastly here, the “New Lib­er­al­ism of Fear” would make the case that rethink­ing lib­er­al­ism must involve an expan­sion of our his­tor­i­cal imag­i­na­tions not just with ref­er­ence to the past – with its litany of suc­cesses and fail­ures, tri­umphs and crimes – but towards the future. Rethink­ing lib­er­al­ism, as Toby Ord’s won­der­ful ded­i­ca­tion in his book The Precipice puts it, must involve a com­mit­ment: “To the hundred billion people before us, who fash­ioned our civ­i­liza­tion; To the seven billion now alive, whose actions may deter­mine our fate; To the tril­lions to come, whose exis­tence lies in the balance.”[9]

Living in Fear Makes Us Unfree

The ques­tion of whether or not we live in a free society, the “New Lib­er­al­ism of Fear” under­stands, is to a great extent a matter of col­lec­tive psy­chol­ogy. “We fear a society of fearful people” as Shklar puts it, because sys­tem­atic mass fear makes human freedom impos­si­ble.[10] If we live in fear, we are fun­da­men­tally unfree.

High-tech tyranny of the type offered by the Chinese Com­mu­nist Party might be more “effi­cient” than the pol­i­tics of imper­fec­tion, indi­vid­ual choice, and uncer­tainty offered by lib­er­al­ism. But what is the use of such effi­ciency to the human spirit? What is the point of it if it would make us into a gar­gan­tuan colony of fearful, cow­er­ing slaves? Sim­i­larly, what is the point of our human civ­i­liza­tion if we make our planet unin­hab­it­able or permit unaligned AI to run amok and hurl us into slavery or even extinc­tion? The New Lib­er­al­ism of Fear stares into that soul­less abyss of pos­si­ble dystopian traps and shud­ders. It refuses to go gentle into those night­mar­ish nights. It rages against the dying of the light.

Lib­er­als have feared dif­fer­ent things at dif­fer­ent times and so have striven to create and adapt polit­i­cal orders to tackle a suc­ces­sion of chang­ing fears. Early modern lib­er­al­ism – and there existed no lib­er­al­ism in the pre-modern world – emerged from the chaos and carnage of reli­gious intol­er­ance and war. Fear of reli­gious coer­cion is the cradle of modern lib­er­al­ism. Grad­u­ally, over the course of the six­teenth and sev­en­teen cen­turies, we dis­cov­ered that tol­er­a­tion was supe­rior to the cruelty of reli­gious fanaticism.

Then, in a second grand wave of com­pe­ti­tion over the nature of polit­i­cal order, the prin­ci­ples and insti­tu­tions of limited and egal­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment proved to provide supe­rior advan­tages – mil­i­tary, eco­nomic, sci­en­tific, and in terms of per­sonal hap­pi­ness – com­pared with Abso­lutism. Once Leviathan was firmly estab­lished, we dis­cov­ered that it could devour us with greater ease and system than pre-modern author­i­ties ever could. We there­fore grad­u­ally then invented various mech­a­nisms for taming Leviathan. We call these, vari­ably, civil and polit­i­cal rights, the rule of law, con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism, fed­er­al­ism and, even­tu­ally, modern rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy. Those soci­eties who adopted and prac­ticed these mech­a­nisms sen­si­bly achieved greater power, pros­per­ity, and dynamism.

And from the turn of the twen­ti­eth century, our liberal orders – national, regional, and inter­na­tional – evolved again because we came to fear poverty, total war, and the rise of col­lec­tivist total­i­tar­ian ide­olo­gies and states. Spurred by these fears, nation-state based, market-based liberal democ­ra­cies con­tested, and even­tu­ally defeated, their impe­r­ial, fascist, Nazi, and Soviet Com­mu­nist adversaries.

Viewed through this prism, con­tem­po­rary liberal orders are essen­tially a “triple-dis­tilled” package of nor­ma­tive and insti­tu­tional goods, accrued over cen­turies in a series of his­tor­i­cal com­pe­ti­tions where “the liberal solu­tion” even­tu­ally emerged vic­to­ri­ous, having proved supe­rior to its com­peti­tors at pro­vid­ing phys­i­cal and onto­log­i­cal well­be­ing. Our modern forms of liberal order – con­tain­ing the genome of tol­er­a­tion, bounded-state­hood, consent-based rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy, and the market-economy – are the outcome of repeated suc­cess­ful con­tes­ta­tion and selec­tion. Liberal order has sur­vived and pro­lif­er­ated because it has repeat­edly proven supe­rior in pro­vid­ing phys­i­cal and onto­log­i­cal secu­rity. At the same time, the evo­lu­tion­ary logic is a cold one. Unless liberal orders are able to once again compete and demon­strate their supe­ri­or­ity, we should expect anti-liberal order-con­tes­ta­tion and defec­tions to increase.[11]

The Fear of Human Redundancy

What do we fear most today? In some places we still fear what Locke, Con­stant, Mill, Popper, Hayek, Arndt, Berlin, Solzhen­it­syn and Shklar feared in the past – the unequal power of the author­i­tar­ian and preda­tory state over the indi­vid­ual. And yet, the “New Lib­er­al­ism of Fear” would admit – with a pinch of skep­ti­cism mixed with cau­tious sat­is­fac­tion – that in most con­tem­po­rary soci­eties, most of the time, it is not state power that we fear most. Indeed, in many areas of limited state­hood – in Iraq and Libya, Syria, Somalia, Congo and Haiti, to name but a few sorry exam­ples – it is the con­se­quences of the absence of effec­tive state­hood that people fear most.

Ulti­mately, what we – in what until recently was lightly called “The Free World” – now fear most is a coming human redun­dancy. We fear phys­i­cal redun­dancy as the result of exis­ten­tial cat­a­stro­phes – demo­graphic decline, climate extinc­tion, unre­cov­er­able civ­i­liza­tional col­lapse, or unre­cov­er­able dystopia – at the hands of nature or anthro­pogenic threats. We fear the com­plete loss of eco­nomic and polit­i­cal human agency to uncon­trolled forces of finan­cial markets, Big-Tech algo­rithms, and ubiq­ui­tous cor­po­rate and state sur­veil­lance. We fear meta­phys­i­cal redun­dancy in the loss of meaning, purpose, belong­ing and attach­ment, not so much to indus­trial-age alien­ation but to digital era machines and syn­thetic biology. We even fear epis­temic redun­dancy, in that very soon AI and Deep Fake tech­nolo­gies may very well extin­guish ordi­nary people’s ability to handle the accel­er­at­ing com­plex­ity of the world or tell the dif­fer­ence between fact and con­spir­acy theory.

The chal­lenge before us lib­er­als today is nothing less than to stem and reverse human redun­dancy. We require a new human­is­tic lib­er­al­ism that is at once true to the core values of the liberal tra­di­tion and pro­vides supe­rior out­comes of human flour­ish­ing to those prof­fered by our author­i­tar­ian and col­lec­tivist adversaries.

The chal­lenge posed by the “New Lib­er­al­ism of Fear” is serious, pos­si­bly exis­ten­tial, but it is not entirely grim. As Bernard Williams observed in his own med­i­ta­tion upon Judith Shklar’s text: “the lib­er­al­ism of fear is not con­fined to utter­ing warn­ings and reminders. If indeed primary free­doms are secured, and basic fears are assuaged, then the atten­tions of the lib­er­al­ism of fear will move to more sophis­ti­cated con­cep­tions of freedom…[12] Con­fronting our era’s worst fears squarely, res­olutely, and cre­atively is arguably our best path forward to once again reach a lib­er­al­ism of hope.

 

[1] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Con­cepts of Liberty”, in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1969) pp. 118–172 at pg. 122.

[2] On Montesquieu’s ref­er­ence to the human need for per­sonal secu­rity as a pre­con­di­tion for polit­i­cal freedom see: Mon­tesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, tr. Cohler, Miller, and Stone (Cam­bridge, 1989), p. 157. Ben­jamin Con­stant also reflects on the rela­tion­ship between secu­rity, fear, and liberty in his 1819 lecture The Liberty of the Ancients Com­pared with That of the Moderns. Judith N. Shklar, “The Lib­er­al­ism of Fear”, in Lib­er­al­ism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy L. Rosen­blum (Harvard 1989) pp. 21–38.

[3] Shklar, ibid. at p. 26–27.

[4] Berlin, Supra, note 1.

[5] Ibid. at p. 26.

[6] See: Hal Brands and Charles Edel, The Lessons of Tragedy: State­craft and World Order (Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 2019).

[7] For the full data see The Mad­di­son Project Data­base 2020 (avail­able: https://www.rug.nl/ggdc/historicaldevelopment/maddison/releases/maddison-project-database-2020?lang=en). For a summary and analy­sis see: Deidre N. McCloskey, Bour­geois Equal­ity: How Ideas, Not Capital or Insti­tu­tions, Enriched the World (Chicago Uni­ver­sity Press, 2016); Steven Pinker, Enlight­en­ment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Human­ism, and Progress (Viking, 2018).

[8] Figures drawn from Our World in Data (avail­able: https://ourworldindata.org/a‑history-of-global-living-conditions-in-5-charts). On life-expectancy see: https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy#:~:text=The%20divided%20world%20of%201950,achieved%20in%20a%20few%20places.

[9] Toby Ord, The Precipice: Exis­ten­tial Risk and the Future of Human­ity (Hachette, 2020).

[10] Shklar, Supra, note 3, at p. 29.

[11] See: Amichai Magen, Liberal Order in the Twenty-First Century: Search­ing for Eunomia Once Again, 139/2–4 Journal of Con­tex­tual Eco­nom­ics (2019) 271–284.

[12] Bernard Williams, In the Begin­ning Was the Deed: Realism and Moral­ism in Polit­i­cal Argu­ment (Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 2005) p. 60.