Sohrab Ahmari on Post-Liberalism
Yascha Mounk and Sohrab Ahmari debate whether there is a viable alternative to philosophical liberalism.
Sohrab Ahmari is a writer, commentator, and the founding editor of Compact. He is the author of Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty–and What to Do About It.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Sohrab Ahmari discuss the threat corporate power poses to individual freedom in the United States; whether liberalism has gone too far in prioritizing individual autonomy over the common good; and why they disagree about whether attempting to move beyond liberalism would make things better or worse.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You have a really interesting new book called Tyranny, Inc. One might think that when a conservative intellectual writes about “Tyranny, Inc.,” they’re writing about Harvard or Brookings. But you're writing about the big corporations in the United States. What do you mean by “Tyranny, Inc.?”
Sohrab Ahmari: This is not a tirade against “woke capital.” It's really a critique of the workings of unhindered capitalism as such. And it comes not from a kind of conservative cultural place in the sense that corporations are pushing gender ideology and so forth. But rather, on a much more fundamental level, it's an attempt to show how our supposedly non-coercive market societies are in fact suffused with coercion. But that this coercion is taken to be in a “private sphere,” it's in the marketplace, or the workplace, and, therefore, it's not treated as being justiciable or being subjected to democratic give and take. We are forced to acquiesce to coercion that is sometimes so systematic and so unjust that I argue it amounts to what I call private tyranny.
I give a tour of our political economy from the bottom up, from the point of view of, typically, people who have been victims of this kind of coercion—workers who are whistleblowers but are gagged from speaking out because of non-disclosure or non-disparage agreements, or the abuse of commercial arbitration, which is something that was meant for merchants to have relatively equal bargaining power when they met each other on the marketplace so they could agree to resolve their disputes through a private mediator but was never meant to be expanded into the workplace where you have situations of vast disparities in bargaining power. I tell the story of an employee who had a case against Ernst & Young for unpaid wages under California law, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is established as a federal minimum wage. Precisely because of the arbitration clause, which our Supreme Court—mainly conservative Supreme Court justices—has treated as evermore ironclad, he wasn't able to do a class action, which is the remedy that the relevant statute provides. The arbitration clause overrode that such that he would have had to individually arbitrate at the cost of about $200,000 in order to recover about 2% of that amount, so about $4,000.
More broadly, the corrosion of the real economy by asset-stripping private equity and hedge funds, including the erosion of local journalism, which is a threat to basic civic fabric and being able to hold local actors accountable. Many, many counties in the United States now lack any sort of local news coverage. And there are all sorts of negative effects, as you know, associated with that, to how the wealthy abused the chapter 11 bankruptcy process to shield their assets from lawsuits by workers and consumers who are legitimately aggrieved. So I tell that reported story, and then in the second half of this story, I tell more of a political economic history of how we ended up here from, roughly speaking, Lincoln's address to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society where he set out essentially the Whig Republican account of a free labor market; through the reforms of the New Deal that addressed a lot of these problems and brought about what I call “political exchange capitalism” in which capitalism is subject to democratic give and take and where politics kind of compass the market; to now, the neoliberal era, which may be on its last legs, but we’re still living through it, which I argue has brought us back to the pre-reform, pre-New Deal. So the book is, shockingly, a conservative celebration of the New Deal as well.
Mounk: How new is this? Or how bad is this moment in American history relative to other periods? I'm sure that some of the specific phenomena you're talking about are of this moment. The role of the arbitration court, certainly, I imagine is much greater today than it would have been 50 or 100 years ago. But of course, in the late 19th century, you had all of the different ways in which railroad bosses and others were in charge of American economic life and able to really extract resources from workers in very bad ways.
Situate us in the largest sweep of American history.
Ahmari: I would say that, largely, it's a story of things being pretty bad. And then there was this mid-century era, on both sides of the Atlantic, this model took different names. Here it was New Deal liberalism. And then we have a kind of counterpunch with neoliberal ideology, this idea that not only should the state stay out of the way of market actors but the state should aggressively marketize elements of life that even the sort of most goonish 19th century, Gilded Age tycoon wouldn't have thought of as something that should be subject to market forces, like certain public utilities and so forth, that became very aggressively marketized in our time.
There are echoes between now and the pre-reform, pre-New Deal era. For example, I argued that we're back to in many ways, the Lochner era, named for a 1905 Supreme Court case where the High Court held that New York State could not regulate the hours that bankers had to work in one week. The legislature had imposed the 60-hour limit, but the court struck that down on the idea that this was a violation of the constitutional principle of liberty of contract, and many other child labor-type violations were struck down. I think we are going back to that in some ways: non-disclosure agreements, non-disparage agreements, etc. That kind of Lochner, libertarian mentality, which is very attractive to many American judges, is that at that point, if you look at that document and you see a clause that you don't like, you are free to either try to renegotiate or walk away. But that's not how reality at all works. The New Dealers recognized this and they tried to rectify it.
I present in the book an actual employment agreement from a very large, important company that says that its employees give up the right to their persona, their voice, and they do so for commercial purposes. And it's not just that the company might record you in order to use your phone or your image in a training brochure, but to market your voice to, for example, Siri, which uses human voice and likeness data to perfect its service. But that also could be sold to, I don't know, a future virtual pornography system.
Mounk: I see you as part of an effort to align the Republican Party's economic policies with some of its more natural constituency after this realignment towards cultural politics which has scrambled American politics in a certain kind of way. Does that feel like a fair characterization of your project? How successful has it been?
Ahmari: That's absolutely the correct characterization. And I would say, without sounding self important, that I have been one of the protagonists of trying to articulate a conservatism that tries to ameliorate some of the stresses caused by the market system on assetless Americans, and tries to build up lives of greater stability, less precarity for working class and assetless people. I've been trying to do that, I would say, for more than half a decade. And I didn't immediately warm up to Trumpism. In fact, I was one of the Never Trumpers at The Wall Street Journal in 2016. But over time, through a lot of thinking and even reflecting on my own life, and the sense of precarity that I felt as an immigrant when I first got here, struggling with health care costs—I'm a man of the right and so that pushed me toward embracing this ideal of working class or populist conservatism: it would solve the wounds of economic neoliberalism and, because it's conservative, it would also pay a due respect to ordinary people's yearning for greater order and more social cohesion than left liberals had granted them.
Looking back at it now, I'm actually quite disillusioned with that project. Circa 2018-19, it seemed like it would be so easy. But I don't think that Trump was able to actually realign the Republican Party during his time in office. Partly, you can blame the fact that you had to spend so much energy fending off challenges to his legitimacy. But even barring that, even if he had the executive willpower of an Andrew Jackson or the reforming genius of FDR, I just don't think that it's possible to easily realign the Republican Party. There are shining little exceptions. I would point to you know, Senator Hawley, Senator Rubio, Senator Vance as the people who are trying to play around with this. But largely, I just have come to believe that the Republican Party will continue to be a vehicle for the wealthy and a specific type of wealthy, even as Trump has brought in more, initially, white working class people and, in 2020, more of the multiracial working class.
Mounk: We have a bunch of disagreements about Trump that we don't need to prosecute right now, but we seem to be in agreement about the fact that even though he made certain moves in the direction of a more economically populist set of policies that would actually help the working class (which I think was an underplayed part of his appeal in 2016)—the fact that he said perhaps it is the state's job to make sure you have decent health insurance—he didn't really deliver on that.
Ahmari: I can give you a good example. Trump got the highest share of union household votes in 2016 for a Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984. It's because of his trade talk and the sort of gestures that he made toward unions. But his Department of Labor was ultimately put in charge of Eugene Scalia, who is just a Big Law lawyer for corporations. And so on the issue of arbitration in that particular case of the Ernst & Young employee, the Trump administration actually went against his own National Labor Relations Board to side with Ernst & Young and ensured that the arbitration clause was upheld. That's just kind of confirming what you're saying.
Who is to blame for that? Well, it's partly Trump and his indiscipline—even if he has certain instincts, he couldn't will them through. But that's the party apparatus. If you're a Republican, you get elected, and you want to staff up the Department of Labor, well, you go to Eugene Scalia. That's who we have. And that's a problem.
What is my theory of change? I still do think that this kind of reform will have to happen in the middle. And that's why it's important for senators like Vance to work with people like Sanders and Warren and with the Biden administration, which I think, frankly, gets a lot right on political economy. And you gradually do see a replacement for the neoliberal model potentially emerge.
Mounk: There is a really interesting area of deep intellectual disagreement between us, and that is about the role that philosophical liberalism should play, broadly speaking, in the United States. I'd love to get into that topic a little bit.
Why don't you state in your own words what you charge liberalism with. What is it that in your mind philosophical liberalism gets wrong?
Ahmari: It's fair to characterize me as a post-liberal. It's a complicated term because it's sort of still pegged to liberalism in some way and doesn't have a positive content. But nevertheless, I think it's an apt term. I think that the biggest problem with philosophical liberalism is its refusal, quite consciously, to acknowledge the common good as something that is legible to all human beings. In other words, often liberals, classical or otherwise, when they hear the common good, they sort of imagine statist collectivism overriding the individual. But classically understood, common goods are goods that can be secured only by the community and that aren't diminished by virtue of being shared. That is, the more you share them, the more of those goods there are—justice, good order, etc. You don't get less justice if you divide up justice between people, and you can't individually secure justice.
I think philosophical liberalism, fundamentally, beginning whenever you want to date its rise, is a product of a world in which things seem much more in flux. Therefore, to speak of the common good appears as an imposition on the individual who should be free to maximize his or her individual autonomy as he or she sees it as long as there's no sort of harm done to the other or as long as the relationships are mediated by consent. So this ideology, I think it's a denial of the capacities of human reason (forget about Revelation), but it's a denial of the capacities of human reason of what we can reason about the good of the person. You could call it a classical critique of liberalism.
Mounk: One thing that puzzles me about what you were just saying is that when you read the founding documents of the American republic or of modern liberal democracy in other countries, some idea of the public or the common good is fundamental both to the rhetoric that was used to justify those institutions and to the design of US institutions. The Federalist Papers say that the point of representation is not just to mirror public opinion but to filter it in such a way as to derive superior insight. When you read Edmund Burke on the purpose of representation, it is precisely not for representatives to go and carry the interest of their constituencies to Parliament in London but rather for them to deliberate together in the pursuit of finding something that is actually in the larger good of a Commonwealth. I would argue that the basic institutions that we have today have been designed with an understanding of the public good. I would argue that what you're presenting as a critique of liberalism isn't a critique of liberalism at all—it's a description of some of the core insights of the founders of the liberal tradition. My stance is that you can absolutely think of some of the things you're arguing for in Tyranny, Inc. as part of a broader public good that is very recognizable to the Founding Fathers.
Where I start to get nervous is when that public good legislates a set of specific moral precepts. And my understanding is that your writing about what you call the “higher good” is starting to push against some of the other fundamental insights of a liberal tradition; namely, that there's a fact of fundamental pluralism in modern society, that you and I have fundamentally different conceptions about what our moral duty is, what we should do with our free time, how we should live our lives, and that part of the fundamental recognition of human equality is that there might not be a right answer to that. It’s perfectly compatible with liberalism that some members of our polity are going to be convinced that there is a right answer to that. And they may, in fact, be right; it may turn out that there is heaven and hell—we're not sitting in judgment of that. What we're sitting in judgment of is a policy in which some people arrogate to themselves the right to say, “I have the objectively right answer, and I'm going to impose that on you.” I might really think that, you know, your salvation is at stake. And I want you to be saved, and so I'm going to be making an argument for you with all passion and so on. But what I'm not allowed to do is to use the power of a coercive state in order to force you to do that.
Ahmari: The first point I would make is that you mentioned the founding. For example, the Constitution commits the polity to securing the general welfare, and that sure sounds a lot like the common good. And I agree. In fact, in the kind of Aristotelian frame, it's impossible for people not to try to aim at some good. And statesmen, generally, try to aim at the common good. More importantly for me is not necessarily the text of the founding, but, in American historical practice, you have the common good reasserting itself in various forms, sometimes haltingly to be sure, imperfectly. But this strengthens the idea that human beings yearn for the common good over and against the sort of pure liberal theory that seeks as much as possible to really shrink the common good to a point of deep privatization. And that privatization played out in the form of grave injustices for the people who had been living largely sort of sedentary, communal agricultural subsistence-based lives. The rise of the Hamiltonian state was experienced as an economic, cultural and moral trauma. And they respond in the form of the Jacksonian uprising against the Second Bank of the United States and this sort of larger market system—again, it's an imperfect uprising. A little later you have progressive farmers, you have the New Deal, etc. All of these, to me, are this sort of American tradition of the common good. And so I don't set myself up against the American tradition. I think, for people who are in my position, it is a mistake to do that, because that ideal is woven through our tradition, and it expresses itself in progressive farmers, populists—by which I mean the Populist Party, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR.
But I think all of these, in some ways, stand in contradiction to the purist liberal theory. Lincolnian political economy and the Lincolnian response to Civil War is, is, first of all, an idea of the executive that pure liberal theory couldn't tolerate. FDR and his various economic actions trampled liberal ideals and pissed off the liberals of his era because they were seen as illiberal, but he was asserting, I think, this idea of the common good. So I am not clashing with the American tradition, I would just say that the American tradition is more complicated than liberal theory and more valuable for that.
Mounk: Here, there's a point where, in my perception, you're in danger of inadvertently playing a kind of conjuring trick, where a sort of critique of liberalism becomes a critique of a particular set of economic policies, or perhaps a critique of some people who are liberals, and that then stands in for the larger liberal tradition. And so the legitimate critique of one set of views that you can hold at the same time as you also hold liberal views becomes a stand-in for an overall critique of the ideology in a way that I perceive to be unfair. To me, you can be a kind of Bidenite on economic policy, or you can be a Reaganite on economic policy, or you can be FDR on economic policy. And broadly speaking, all of that is compatible with philosophical liberalism.
Ahmari: The reason that I mentioned some of the economic stuff, but I've mentioned other examples, is just to point out that at various points the American tradition (even the European tradition, although that's much more difficult to speak about in sweeping terms as there are so many individual nations) but that, at various points, actually practicing liberal societies have gone against this idea that I think is axiomatic to liberalism, that the goal of our common life together is to maximize the autonomy of the individual. And so if you want it to boil down liberal theory to an axiom, it's no doubt that, right? And if not—
Mounk: —I disagree with that. You said the goal of liberal society is to maximize human autonomy. And I think that there may be some liberals who think that we're trying to create a society which already lives like that person who is most maximally self-creating; their model of life is what John Rawls would call the “comprehensive conception of good” (e.g. “I want to go and have all the experiences in the world, I want to be untethered from other human beings,” and so on)—that is certainly not my motivation for liberal society. I would say, Look, we have this big fractious Republic of 300 million people. And some people think that that is what they want to do in life. But others are deeply guided by a religious sense of what their duties are in the world, by their ties with their family members. How do we keep this together? How do we have a society in which these people co-exist? We want to create a society not of maximizing autonomy but where autonomy is a side limit on what the state can impose on you. And that means that we respect the deeply religious person and their family ties and their religious obligations, and we want to create a society where they can be true to themselves. But we also respect the person who's self-creating in the way that I outlined and say, “You get to go and lead your life.” And we have to figure out how to hold a society together that can do both of those things. But the goal is not to maximize autonomy. I resist that formulation.
Ahmari: You began with the founding and the American tradition. And I just wanted to emphasize that there's much in American practice that runs against liberal theory. And I value that. And I think we can sort of concretize this in an interesting way that would suss out how extreme liberal theory can be compared with actual practice in these societies, which is why I'm opposed to the society that I live in, root and branch. But, for example, the United States had a Sabbatarian tradition going back to the colonial era—the idea that the state should preserve one day for rest, contemplation, prayer, etc. And it stayed with us after the American Revolution. And it had so intensely taken root that, at one point, President George Washington was cited by a magistrate [sic] for riding his horse from Connecticut to New York in violation of Sabbatarian law. Now, it took a very long time for the Sabbatarian tradition to be dismantled on fundamentally liberal autonomy grounds. So whether you think it's maximizing or just creating enough autonomy to protect the individual's autonomy, or however you want to formulate it, this is a good concrete example. We had this communal tradition of cities, municipalities—even, in the case of the US Postal Service, not delivering mail on Sunday. Now, in pure liberal theory, that's a crime.
To a certain kind of liberal, this tradition that we had, which was gotten rid of mostly by sort of Chamber of Commerce Republicans over many years (the most recent statewide blue law was only repealed in 201, in [North] Dakota)—that is completely unacceptable. And if the thrust of liberal society is to maximize individual autonomy, the state can't set aside a certain day for rest or contemplation, because I should be free to shop, to labor, or what have you.
Now, I would argue in practice that redounds to the benefit of the asset-owning few and to the disadvantage of working people. But if you commit to philosophical liberalism, you can't help but think that, as recently as not too long ago, Americans were living in this authoritarian state that was awful. But if you actually look at American practice, it runs against the idea of maximal autonomy in this case. It had this religious position and a pluralist reality, but it could legislate one day for rest and for church.
Mounk: Your point is an interesting one. But when I look at a lot of European countries that I think are clearly liberal societies, they have laws mandating that many shops be closed on Sundays, for example, certain kinds of shops that are necessary for daily necessities are going to be open, gas stations are going to be open, but many clothing stores, even most supermarkets, are going to be closed in many European societies. There is a broad debate within the liberal tradition, with some arguing that that is an important enough aspect of the common or public good that we should preserve those kinds of laws, and then others will disagree on whatever economic grounds, and that's fine. But the debate is firmly within the liberal tradition.
Liberals would start to step in, if you're saying that our society, even though it's deeply religiously diverse with deeply different ideas about what religion mandates, should be so guided by the religious sensibilities of one portion of a population that you shouldn't be allowed to have a dance party in your home on a Sunday, or ride your horse from one town to the next; or, as is the case on Friday evenings and Saturdays in parts of Israel, you're going to be pelted with stones if you use a motorized vehicle on a day that some people think as a holy day of rest. Then the state has to step in and say “No, you get to have your dance party, that is your own decision. And if somebody is pelting you with stones for violating their religious sensibility, we're going to punish them, because that way lies deep social conflict, and that is unacceptable.”
Ahmari: I insist that at the level of theory, autonomy is the highest good of liberal theory. Okay? At the level of care—we've litigated that enough. What I'm hearing from you is that, for you, liberalism stands for the idea that in order to maintain a healthy pluralism, let's say, that you cannot legislate things having to do with people's deepest convictions. You can partition law from morality when it comes to people's deepest convictions.
Mounk: No, what I'm saying is that one of the recognitions of a liberal society, for reasons both moral and practical, is that humans have deeply different convictions about how to lead their lives, and that what a liberal society will do is to allow them to pursue their own ideas about how to lead their life. That is different from maximizing autonomy, and it is not saying that we're not going to legislate on some of our deepest convictions when they don't interfere with our liberty to pursue our own lives as we see fit; it's simply a side constraint on the kind of society we have, and the ways in which we can pursue the public good when it requires a majority using coercive power in order to dictate to a minority how they have to live.
Ahmari: I think where you are coming from is a very typical liberal account of a world before liberalism that was just constantly riven by religious conflict, by ideological violence and coercion, which liberalism then diffused through a set of procedures and rights that were genuinely novel. And there are two answers to that.
One is that, first of all, many of what you consider liberal achievements, like rational public deliberation or filtering public views through both representative institutions and persons, or charters for the protection of rights—these predate philosophical liberalism, and, therefore, to critique liberal ideology or liberal theory is not to then say that the goal here is to dispense with a lot of these, because I recognize these as rooted, in many cases, in the classical and Christian tradition.
The second point is that, after the rise of liberalism, we suddenly came to an age where ideological conflict was largely smothered or stifled, and all we did was sort of deliberate, etc. And we have sort of competing rights, etc., and, therefore, no longer are people imposed upon when they don't share the majority views or what have you. And I just think that that's untrue. First of all, the liberal age ushered in enormous violence in itself, right—the Napoleonic Wars. Liberalism has this tendency (just like Christianity, frankly—they're both Universalist faiths) where it cannot tolerate places where liberalism does not reign. And so you have the sort of expansion of liberalism in the clashing of arms. Liberalism coincided with the rise of nationalism—the two are kind of shared bourgeois ideologies. And by saying that you now have the rights-bearing citizen, it created this frenzy for border drawing and deciding who now belongs as a citizen, often based on racial, ethnic and religious characteristics, etc. So if your account of the pre-liberal past is a place of darkness and a place of irrationality, and with the rise of liberalism comes suddenly this age of peace—no, in some cases because of technology, in some cases because of the nature of liberal ideology, it comes with a much more violent turbulence that crashes down on the heads of ordinary people and in unsettling ways. In our life today, you cannot say that the liberal state is not legislating morality and in ways that are completely oppressive of the views of religious people. It's no longer enough to recognize that there's a right, for example, to change one's sex or gender, but that you, as the other person, coercively have to recognize that a man has become a woman, etc. Of course this is coercive.
And I don't draw a sort of clear or sharp distinction between public and private coercion. The fact that much of this is done, for example, by large Silicon Valley companies run by tech oligarchs—that it’s they who can discipline you, punish you, unperson you for using the wrong pronoun is not a matter of great importance to me, because their power rests ultimately on state power. It just seems impossible to me to create the state that you're talking about, which I think is why you're putting this difficulty of saying, “That's not the liberal theory. That's not liberal theory, either. That's not it either. And it's not the world we live in now. But it's not—” And so what is liberal theory then? I think you run into these struggles because, of course, people have an account of the good and it's always normative. There's no way you can just create a purely procedural system when it comes to people's deepest convictions about, for example, what is a man and what is a woman. You will legislate these things one way or another. And by the way, again, the sort of terms of service we accept upon joining a social media company—that's a form of legislation that's a form of coercion. It is state backed.
Mounk: I've laid out quite clearly what my view of liberalism is. I just think that your formulations of it were not fair to the tradition. But I've given a kind of impromptu definition of what I do understand liberalism to be. I agree with you that no society has been fully liberal in the history of the world, just as no society has been truly socialist, capitalist, Christian, Islamic or anything else. Empirically existing human societies are always both imperfect and imperfectly live up to the ideals.
But I would see the overall picture here much less apocalyptically than you do. The Supreme Court recently decided, for example, that if you have deep religious convictions, you're not required to create a website for a client who is going to celebrate a same sex marriage. Now, I'm a strong supporter of same-sex marriage, but I agree with the Supreme Court on that ruling. I think that when it goes beyond the sale of standard services, of course, the basic liberal principle of free speech and free expression and freedom of conscience needs to give us control over what we do. And I absolutely don't think that the state has a right to compel speech, including which pronouns to use, and I will defend this, I think, on very straightforward, natural grounds in the need to have basic liberties in our society in which people can lead the lives as they wish in accordance with their deepest convictions. And one of those liberties we need in order to facilitate that is the liberty of free speech.
Now, you can say, “Look, but in the state of California, there's this particular law,” and on some of those I'll agree with you, and on some we’ll disagree. But to take those specific examples and say that these few examples of where societies that claim and try to live up to liberal principles go wrong and end up being illiberal should color our overall judgment of whether this philosophy that, over the course of 250 years, has in fact been a boon, not just to human freedom, but to the ability of humans who have vastly different convictions, to live their lives in an authentic manner—I don't think that that is a fair and balanced way to judge the overall impact of those principles.
Ahmari: I'll try to be brief. Several points. One is that, to me, many of those principles of social generosity, of liberality in the old-fashioned sense, etc., needn’t be mourned if we move past liberal ideology, which is being rejected across wide swaths of the world precisely because it has this imperious quality that I mentioned. Domestically, in the West, across the developed world, it's bred the alienation that concerns people on the left and the right these days. At the heart of liberal society, you have 100,000 Americans dying of opioids every year; it has this corrosive tendency precisely because it puts far too much emphasis on individual autonomy. There's a sort of recognition now, far more than you would grant (and I respect your point of view), that liberalism is far more normative than it claims to be.
Liberalism’s claims to neutrality are belied when liberalism imperiously and evermore expansively spreads itself and its normative practices to the detriment and, in some ways, to the coercive oppression of people who are non-liberals, whatever kind of non-liberals they may be. It just becomes more and more difficult to say, “Well, that example is not really liberalism. Well, yes, some liberals do bad things, etc.” But there's a thrust of an ideology that I think a lot of people are rising up against. And, by the way, I'm worried that they're turning to genuinely unpleasant populisms that are festering that will make Trump seem relatively tame. The problem from my point of view (not necessarily with you) is that there's a kind of “defend liberalism” cottage industry—it often calls itself “defend democracy,” but really you should talk about it as defend liberalism, because it’s an attempt to shore up liberalism when it runs up against majority discontent. But instead of asking what about liberal ideology is breeding this kind of discontent, it just says, “Well, people are fooled by dangerous demagogues, people are fooled by Russian bots, etc.” And it doesn't recognize how a lot of ordinary people experience liberalism, its unfolding as a sort of theory, in practice it sort of dismisses them as people who have fallen for Trump or Orbán, or what have you. And I think that's a mistake. What is happening with democracy that you would want to defend it? It puts you in a position where you have to yell at people that democracy is good. But what does that mean to someone whose family has been torn apart, who's suffering from opioid addiction in the family, joblessness—liberal blessings of free trade have coincided with his county being completely overrun by opioids, etc. And whenever you point any of these things out to a certain kind of defender of liberalism, it's either that you have to just double down and say, “liberalism is good, it's great, etc,” or that XYZ thing you point out is not liberal theory. It edges into this sort of, “well, that's not real socialism.” But this is the lifeworld of liberalism today.
Mounk: That's an interesting point. But I think that there is a fundamental difference, which is that every human society is going to have its shortcomings. And I do think that there's a strange conjuring trick where we're blaming particular aspects of contemporary reality on liberalism with a capital-L, when lots of liberal societies don't have those aspects. Is the opioid crisis because of capital-L liberalism, or because of corporate power and the particularities of the American medical system—which, incredibly, lacks regulation of when doctors can prescribe things to people—in ways that we don't have anywhere in Western Europe. We don't have an opiate crisis caused by the oversubscription of painkillers in Germany or in Italy, and those are liberal societies. America is a liberal society, Germany is a liberal society, and Sweden is a liberal society. And they all have their flaws, as all human societies do. But I will defend the claim that they are better than these countries were 200, 100, or 50 years ago, and that much of the reason why they are better is that they are living up, in many aspects of their society, to liberal principles.
But I think we've had our disagreements about liberalism. To go back to your new book, Tyranny, Inc., what is something people can do who are worried about some of those same things, either concretely fighting back against some of those forms of corporate power or, in a broader sense, building the kind of political coalition that you think is going to be necessary in order to change the set of economic policies that we have on the books today.
Ahmari: Generally speaking, I think that what we need is an economy in which a much greater share of workers are unionized. People who aren't in a position where they would buy books like this, I think that showing solidarity with workers on strike, instead of complaining about slightly higher prices, etc., is the kind of thing that you can do. And by the way, I think a lot of people who are intellectual workers, you manipulate information on a screen for a living whatever the job might be, you can also organize. You're a worker. So I think just rethinking what it means to be a worker and not being tied to the idea that a worker is a burly teamster, carpenter, or electrician, is a good start.
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