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.”[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: 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:‑history-of-global-living-conditions-in-5-charts). On life-expectancy see:,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.