Liberalism and Its Discontents – Francis Fukuyama on Fixing Democracy


If self-analysis could cure anxiety, liberal democracy would be in bad shape. Books have been pouring in lately about the failures of liberalism and how democracies break down. Among diagnosticians, none is more eminent or experienced than Francis Fukuyama. None, in recent decades, has proven to be a better indicator of liberalism’s choppy morale. Since the 1990s, in what looked like a victory for liberal democracy, he pushed and probed, ready to change his mind as moods or circumstances changed.

He made a name for himself in the world when a newspaper article “The end of history?” (1989) was released as a book of the same title, although it lacks the question mark. With great brilliance, the young academic and government adviser argued that the collapse of Soviet Communism had left democratic liberalism as the only remaining prospect with lasting appeal. Others – authoritarianism, state capitalism, theocracy, strongman populism – each had incurable flaws.

Fukuyama’s early sunny judgments of local health and the global appeal of liberalism have since darkened. He did not lose faith. Liberalism remains healthy, attractive even alongside looming rivals (as it eloquently argued recently in this article). Yet this favorable diagnosis comes with some big “ifs”. Embodied in the liberal democracies of what, since Russia’s assault on Ukraine, people are again calling the West, liberalism has serious problems, he believes, especially from its opponents. .

Fukuyama sets out to show what liberalism is, why it matters, and how much of its “discontents” are due to overzealous defenders and ill-advised critics. The approach is more intellectual than geopolitical or governmental. How to fix liberal institutions has long preoccupied him but receives little attention. Liberalism and its discontents looks inside, not outside, and was finished before the war in Ukraine. Darkened by the international crisis, these 154 lucid pages can still be read with profit. One assumption runs throughout the screen: if liberal democracies can’t fix themselves and better deliver on their promises, authoritarians who despise liberalism and its works can still prevail.

A quick first chapter outlines “classical liberalism”, Fukuyama’s favorite genre. He sees it as a way to “serenely manage diversity in pluralistic societies”. Its fundamental ideas are tolerance, rooted in respect for personal autonomy and guaranteed by a limited and legal government. Other elements are private property and free markets, which best ensure great prosperity. Whether these different elements should hold together or just happen is left open. As early champions of “classical liberalism,” Fukuyama invokes, without too much detail, a mixed canon of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, the drafters of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), and Kant.

Fukuyama rightly reminds us that liberalism and democracy are distinct. There is illiberal democracy (Hungary under Viktor Orban, for example, or India as Narendra Modi would have it) as well as anti-democratic liberalism (Bismarckian Germany, Singapore and Hong Kong now). Democracy is seen procedurally as a say for all in how those who wield state power are chosen and removed.

With definitions and abstractions out of the way, Fukuyama turns to his main target: two types of intellectuals who undermine classical liberalism: free-market economists on the right and social-cultural critics on the left. Both overvalue “the sovereign self”. The former have twisted autonomy by delegating it to the market, the latter by entrusting it to identity groups.

Dogmatic neoliberals, he complains, have made a “religion” of free markets. Once-venerated names fill the dock: Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Becker, Stigler. Despite passing benefits, their ideas have in practice accelerated financial collapse, slowing growth and austerity without addressing the local harms of globalization.

Francis Fukuyama: “He’s strict but never parody or sarcastic” © Getty

Among the culprits on the left are 1960s illiberal thinkers who favored identity politics over tolerance: Herbert Marcuse (tolerance is repressive), Carole Pateman (liberalism protects male autonomy) and Charles Mills (a godfather of critical race theory). Far from serving diversity, identity politics puts personal autonomy at the mercy of the group. Two famous French subversives, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, are accused of accelerating a “cognitive crisis” of distrust of scientific authority and attested facts, which is now gripping the “nationalist-populist right with his anti-vaccination rants and conspiracy theories.

As for where now, Fukuyama sees little alternative but the liberal center. Calls for a more (and stricter) community from illiberal Catholics such as Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule and Sohrab Ahmari are heard but rejected. The progressive left, he thinks, promises a decline toward bigger government, checks and deficits.

In summary, Fukuyama’s bravery charge sounds harsher than it says. He is strict but never parody or snide. His call to order ends with a short, positive list of things to do to strengthen the liberal center: effective and “impersonal” government; deconcentration or subsidiarity; antitrust, especially for major media; minus a quarter for group requests; a “liberal” patriotism against the wrong kind of nationalists. Human as always, he adds two practical virtues: intellectual moderation and a sense of achievable.

It’s hard to think of a better case for liberal centrism with a conservative tinge than Liberalism and its discontents. Or, to be exact, a better argument against the harsher critics of liberal centrism. An obvious question is: will critics and their admirers listen?

book cover

Proponents of free trade may reasonably wonder to what extent strong, trustworthy governments will pay for temperate, softer capitalism in the West, while the cruder type of capitalism creatively filibusters in the rest of the world. Critics of liberalism today on the left may reasonably ask why, despite the successes after 1945, temperate capitalism seems incapable of reducing or reversing persistent social inequalities in work, health and wealth.

Fukuyama’s journey through liberalism began at the end of the Cold War when the West lost an ideological unifier with the death of Soviet communism. A natural thought is that Russia under Putin now gives grumpy liberals a Determinant Other to rally against. For Fukuyama, it would be false comfort. “The troubles of liberalism,” he recently wrote in the FT, “will not end even if Putin loses.” Nor will they end when the culture wars that Fukuyama so well died out. The difficulties of liberalism are more social and structural than intellectual. Mitigation, let alone healing, will require more than self-analysis. The Liberals are right to be concerned.

Liberalism and its discontents by Francis Fukuyama Profile £16.99 / Farrar Straus and Giroux $26, 178 pages

Edmund Fawcett is the author of ‘Liberalism’ (2018) and ‘Conservatism’ (2020)

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