🎧 Francis Fukuyama’s Defense of Liberalism
Francis Fukuyama and Yascha Mounk on how to make the case for liberalism.
Francis Fukuyama, one of the most important living political scientists, is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute. His writing spans from the origins of society in earliest prehistory to the rise of modern democracy and the identity wars of the 21st century. His new book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, a defense of the values of free societies, is scheduled for release in April 2022.
In this week’s conversation, Francis Fukuyama and Yascha Mounk discuss how neoliberalism has gone awry, the excesses of individualism on both the right and the left, and how to rejuvenate liberalism.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: I've just read a draft of your next book. Though there have been many defenses of liberalism in the last few years, there haven't been any so far which I felt made the thoughtful but also full-throated defense of liberalism that we need. But in my opinion, your book succeeds.
What is this tradition called liberalism?
Francis Fukuyama: It's a really old doctrine. And I think there are several reasons that it's been around for such a long time: A pragmatic, political reason; a moral reason; and then there's a very powerful economic one.
The practical one, I think, is one that we've lost sight of, which is that liberalism is really a doctrine meant to deal with diversity. When people really don't agree on some fundamental issues, how do you get them to live peacefully with one another? That's related to liberalism’s origin: It came out of the wars of religion in Europe following the Protestant Reformation, when Protestants and Catholics spent 150 years killing each other. And the founders of liberalism basically said, “Look, if we're going to base a society on some religious doctrine of some particular sect, we're never going to live in peace, because nobody agrees on those. And so let's detune politics and agree that we all need to live together and push religion into the private sphere. So you can worship whatever you want, but you're not going to impose it on anyone else.”
Over the years, that's really been one of liberalism’s most powerful selling points: That you have real diversity in societies. A couple hundred years later, it wasn't religion, it was nation—Germans versus Poles or Russians versus others. And I think for the same reason, liberalism after 1945 became a dominant doctrine. Because if you base it on one particular ethnicity and one particular culture, you can't deal with people that aren't of that ethnicity and culture, and we live in a pretty mixed world. So right now, when you use the word “diversity”—I think the left has captured that and may have only a very limited understanding of diversity—it's really things related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation. But there's political diversity as well. You need liberalism because people really don't agree about a lot of things in politics.
Mounk: How do we preserve and express the need for the freedom to make individual choices, but at the same time recognize that, for most people, pre-existing links to their families, or to their religious traditions, or perhaps to the ethnic communities are really important?
Fukuyama: Well, I think the answer to that is contained in the U.S. First Amendment, which protects the right to the free exercise of religion. It means several things. First of all, the state cannot prescribe what religious views you need to follow—but you yourself also cannot impose those religious views on other people, although you can try to persuade them and convert them and argue with them. But ultimately, if you hold any kind of power over people, you're not allowed to use that to force them to believe the same things that you do.
And I think that's been the American understanding right from the beginning, in contrast to the kind of anti-clerical French or Kemalist understandings where the target was religion itself. I think, in the United States, we've always understood that one of the basic freedoms that we enjoy is the freedom to choose our religious beliefs. But that's limited by an injunction that we cannot impose them on other people.
Mounk: You chronicle two different ways in which liberalism has gone astray over the last few decades, and that may help to explain why the critics of liberalism now seem to be in the ascendance in so many countries. Tell us more about that.
Fukuyama: Well, this is my opportunity to piss off people both on the right and on the left. I think that there are two versions of liberalism that have been carried to extremes. And a lot of the unhappiness with contemporary liberalism is because of that.
So on the right, it really has to do with the evolution of economic liberalism into what's been labeled “neoliberalism.” Some people think of neoliberalism just as a synonym for capitalism. But I have a much more specific definition: Neoliberalism is the version associated with the Chicago School of Economics—with people like Milton Friedman or George Stigler—who were market fundamentalists and really became intellectually ascendant in the Reagan and Thatcher years. One of the things that held that group together was a pervasive hostility to the state.
In their account, markets really were efficient allocators of goods and resources, and the state almost always got in the way of that efficient allocation. Therefore, minimization of state action became their single guiding principle. And that's something that took place all across the rich world from the 1980s on; it wasn't just in Britain and the United States.
Now, there was something to that. By the 1970s, there was too much regulation, there was a lot of stagnation due to inefficient state-owned enterprises in Britain and France and a lot of other countries. So, there was a point to that critique—but it became a religion. The state was simply opposed, whether or not there was actually something useful it was doing, and I think that went too far.
A lot of today’s populist backlash is actually due to this neoliberal economic world, where if you could squeeze the slightest couple of cents out of the supply chain by moving your production out of North America into some Asian country, you would immediately do it. And if you could squeeze your workers, you could insist that they not join a union, and then you could nibble away at their benefits and so forth. You were justified in doing this because there were economists who said, “Well, that's what makes capitalism efficient.”
That was one of the versions of neoliberalism, and I think it has made a lot of young people really dislike capitalism. Today, they associate capitalism with this extremely ruthless and competitive version of neoliberalism, and that has had a lot of dire political consequences for all of us.
Mounk: So if one way in which liberalism has become misshapen over the last decades is economic—with the rise of neoliberalism—the other is more cultural: A doubling-down on an emphasis on autonomy. Individualism, which is core to the liberal tradition, is undermining itself in a way. What does that mean?
Fukuyama: It's the raising up of choice itself, and making that a superior moral value to any of the pre-existing moral frameworks within which choice had been limited previously. This leads to things like innate hostility to religion, because any kind of religious framework becomes a cage; it's an iron constraint that is preventing the actualization of one's inner self. And there is this idea that each of us has a kind of Rousseauian natural man or woman residing deep within us, and that it's really society that is the evil prison within which this self is contained. That's a very familiar trope to any teenager. And it leads to seemingly contradictory outcomes.
One is a kind of hyperindividualism, where opposing constraint in itself—opposing any kind of conformism—becomes the primary moral value. Although there are innocent versions of this, it also means that collective action becomes a lot less possible. In a certain way, you're seeing a version of it right now in the United States with the hostility to vaccines and health mandates like mask wearing, where you've actually got a collective good that the state is trying to impose. But there’s a view that individuals shouldn't accept the slightest diminution of their individual choice, even in cases when that is going to affect the health of their family members or their friends, and so forth. This is an absolute position of choice over any kind of collective good.
But I think that a lot of the examples of this are also on the left, where an exploration of self-actualization has led to a kind of moral incoherence. That's one reaction. But the other reaction, I think, is more powerful. This other response is to say, “Well, actually, we are not these suppressed individuals, we're actually members of suppressed groups. We are marginalized because of our race, our ethnicity, or gender or sexual orientation, and the ‘real us’ is our group membership, which is based on a fixed characteristic that we were simply born with. That is really what defines us.”
I think modern identity politics then springs from this particular source, where it's felt that liberal individualism is a kind of fairytale that's told by elites that has convinced everybody that they've got individual freedom, when in fact they're living in a racist and sexist hierarchy. Then there's a further extension of this view, which is also an attack on modern natural science, that says these elites are putting you into these categories and have lowered you into obedience because they control your cognitive processes that are telling you what's objectively true. And that's not true either. And so this is what's led to the left-wing version of identity politics, that then leads to an equally pervasive critique of liberalism itself. And that's the point at which I think liberalism ended up turning on itself.
Mounk: What would the alternatives to liberalism actually look like? This identitarian political movement seems to desire a system where we explicitly help the historical victims of oppression by designing policies [that explicitly discriminate between citizens on the basis of their religion or ethnicity], which is a way of rejecting the neutrality of universalism that has traditionally characterized liberal societies.
Do you think that is an accurate description, and why should we reject that?
Fukuyama: I think that is pretty much what would happen. It's an intensification of trends that you see today, where in every college admission, club membership, or hiring and promotion decision made by a private company, the first question that you would ask is, “What's the race, gender, and so forth, of the candidate?” And then once you have satisfied those criteria, then you can ask, “Well, is this person qualified?” or “What does their background or CV look like?”
And there are countries that do that, if you look at the Balkans, or Iraq, or even India—which has had extremely extensive affirmative action programs—or Malaysia. There are countries that we still, more or less, count as democracies that do have these very powerful affirmative action programs going. Yes, we are defined to some extent by these descriptive identities; but we are also individuals, and we also have choice. We also bring things to the table that we alone possess, and so it means a great devaluing of those characteristics.
Then you run into these other political problems, where politics simply becomes a fight over the division of the pie between these fixed groups. You essentially end up like Lebanon right now, where everything is allocated according to what religious sect you're a member of. It leads to a great deal of rigidity. When the demographics no longer fit that particular division, your society is stuck, because you've committed yourself to dividing the pie in this fixed way.
Mounk: One of the really interesting arguments you make is that the attack on science and the scientific method originated in the academy and—politically speaking—on the left, from structuralism, post-structuralism, and postmodernism, to the emphasis on subjective truth today. But it’s actually found a strange home on an influential part of the political right, and in many ways it is now used most effectively by right-wing populists. How should we feel about that migration?
Fukuyama: Well, I think the evil genius that lies behind a lot of this was actually Michel Foucault, who wrote some very brilliant books. And, like many other phenomena in recent years, he began with the correct observation that a lot of times, science has been used to maintain an existing hierarchy. His chief example of that is sexuality: Homosexuality was criminalized, and it was regarded as a mental disorder by respectable scientists. So that part of it was quite legitimate.
But then it broadens into this bigger argument about what he called “biopower,” in which he basically saw every debate that was held—and every use of language—to be an exercise of power, rather than a reflection of a real empirical world about which people needed to gather information and come to some kind of consensus as to how it worked. And so it led to this great skepticism on the left as to whether science was actually something objective or not. And it has moved over to the right.
I did a blog post where I said that I doubted that anyone in Trump-world had actually read Foucault, and that they were just kind of coming to a similar kind of conclusion because it was politically useful. And a professor wrote to me and said that there are at least three people in the Trump White House that have explicitly written about Foucault. I had no idea that this was the case.
But yes, indeed, those arguments were there to be picked up. Arguments like: The elites want you to believe that science is objective, but it's really not. And that's exactly the argument that Trump and his followers wanted to make during the COVID epidemic to undermine the credibility of all of the public health measures. So there does appear to be some connection there between the extreme left and the extreme right, intellectually.
Mounk: The reason why many people are rebelling against liberalism is that it has been perverted in these two different ways that you've talked about—and yet the alternatives to it are unpalatable. What does a liberalism that avoids the traps of neoliberalism or an exaggerated version of personal autonomy look like?
Fukuyama: You need to not be apologetic about liberalism. That's why I've written this book: To try to remind people why they should be liberals. Say it now and say out loud: “I’m a liberal”. Obviously, in the United States, it has a very specific connotation. So you might want to say, “I’m a classical liberal.” People have to understand that being a classical liberal has these very powerful arguments standing in its favor.
But the other part is much more difficult, which is the pragmatic argument for liberalism: It’s a powerful way of governing diversity, but it doesn't get you out of bed in the morning. You don't say, “Oh, am I grateful that we’re not in a civil war with people that don't look like me today!” I think that you need a more positive understanding of why you want to live in a liberal society, and that partly has to do with national identity, although a lot of contemporary progressives have downplayed the nation-state, or even attack the nation as a kind of reactionary vessel for exclusion, racial intolerance, or international aggression.
I think it’s really important to recapture the high ground and come up with a sense of national identity that people are not simply unembarrassed by, but are actually proud of, and to define that. And for that, you need to have borders, you need to have a kind of shared narrative. And there are some real obstacles, both on the left and the right, to creating that.
Finally, I would just say that there are a lot of other things that make liberal societies attractive: They are more innovative, they’re wealthier, they're more culturally rich. You think of all of the things that have come out of classically liberal societies over the centuries, and that's basically the modern world in many respects. I think that we need to constantly remind ourselves that that's really what we're fighting to preserve. Just think of something like jazz. I guess this is a generational thing—young people don't listen to jazz and the Great American Songbook anymore—but you couldn't have done that in a homogeneous, racially exclusive society. This is something that really did flow from the fact that, even back in the 1930s and 40s, when you had Jim Crow and so forth, there still was this multiracial culture that could be created in the semi-liberal America of that time.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry
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