Rethinking Liberalism: Do We Need a New Liberalism of Fear?
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.”
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. 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.
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.
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. 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”.
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. 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.
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. 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.”
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. 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.
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…” Confronting our era’s worst fears squarely, resolutely, and creatively is arguably our best path forward to once again reach a liberalism of hope.
 Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”, in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969) pp. 118–172 at pg. 122.
 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.
 Shklar, ibid. at p. 26–27.
 Berlin, Supra, note 1.
 Ibid. at p. 26.
 See: Hal Brands and Charles Edel, The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order (Yale University Press, 2019).
 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).
 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.
 Toby Ord, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity (Hachette, 2020).
 Shklar, Supra, note 3, at p. 29.
 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.
 Bernard Williams, In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument (Princeton University Press, 2005) p. 60.