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Week 2–Classical Liberalism: Contemporary Voices

At the "end of history," the liberal disciplining of power begins to undermine democracy itself.
Francis Fukuyama

This week we move from a consideration of the main sources of classical liberalism to several more contemporary voices. While many authors might have been considered, I will focus on three main features of contemporary “classical liberalism” that are worth emphasizing. They are: 1. liberalism’s creation of limited but powerful government, seen in the arguments of Paul Starr in his book Freedom’s Power; 2. liberalism as the first universal political ideology, articulated by Francis Fukuyama; and 3. liberalism’s affinity for, and ultimate taming and even suppression of, democracy. I will discuss each aspect, and conclude by suggesting potential problems arising from each that classical liberalism presents to itself.

A Limited but Powerful State

Paul Starr has written a singularly helpful book. Many of the main currents of liberalism today present a story of a fundamental break that occurred in the history of liberalism, between the “classical liberalism” of Locke and Montesquieu, which inspired (among other things) America’s constitutional tradition, and the liberalism of the 19th- and 20th-centuries, beginning with the Progressive tradition and further developed by mid-century liberals like FDR, JFK, LBJ, Tip O’Neill (among others, in the realm of politics), and Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Dahl, Louis Hartz (among others, in the realm of ideas), and later 20th-century figures like John Rawls. According both to figures in the Progressive era (e.g., Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly) and contemporary conservatives who are critical of the Progressives (“natural rights conservatives,” as we will see in several weeks), the progressive tradition constitutes a fundamental break with the classical liberal tradition. One finds many instances in which prominent figures in the progressive liberal tradition place themselves in opposition to the basic presuppositions of the classical liberal tradition, particularly the emphasis upon individual autonomy, a belief in individual agency and responsibility (which is contrasted to social forces), and inviolable rights (especially property rights).

Starr has been an active voice on behalf of contemporary “progressive liberalism” (and we will be reading and discussing some of those arguments in two weeks), but his book begins with a strong argument for the continuity between the classical and progressive liberal traditions and an endorsement of many of the main features of classical liberal constitutionalism. While he also finds a number of features of classical liberal constitutionalism ultimately to be wanting—particularly in light of historical, and particularly economic, developments—he nevertheless accurately perceives that there are many basic continuities within these two phases of the liberal tradition. Starr is able to see these continuities by a focus on what he describes as liberalism’s main effort to “discipline power”—not simply to minimize or decrease power but in fact, to “discipline” power in such a way that in fact allows power to increase. The frequent emphasis upon liberalism as a form of “limited government” often blinds many observers to the fact that liberalism seeks the growth, increase, and expansion of power—political, economic, scientific, and military. Liberalism is “limited” inasmuch as it claims indifference to any particular way of life: it does not presume a human telos or shared conception of the Good that ought to be the aim of all human beings. Rather, by assuming the incommensurability of our wants and desires, it seeks to organize both government and society in such a way that those wants and desires can be variously pursued in a generally peaceful and stable manner. Starr unwittingly echoes the sentiments of Machiavelli in chapter 15 of The Prince, acknowledging this basic feature of liberalism:

Earlier republicans held that politics demands a devotion to the public good, but they conceived of civic virtue as a quality that only leisured gentlemen cold be trusted to display. Skeptical of such claims, liberals looked to political institutions as machinery for the public good that could work reliably with men as they really are, not as dreamers and dissemblers might wish them to be. This impulse lay behind their rationale for representative government and the deliberative procedures embodied in it. And nothing was more critical to this aspect of the classical political discipline than dividing power. [p. 58]

Thus, power needs to be “disciplined,” particularly by devices in liberal constitutionalism such as separation of powers, checks and balances, representation, and multiplying interests to create political stalemate. But in successfully disciplining power, power becomes a reliable servant of individual pursuits and can thereby be expanded. Indeed, liberal citizens will come to demand the increase of political, economic, scientific, and military power, inasmuch as the wants and desires of liberal citizens are actually multiplied and new ones are constantly created. All of the energies of liberal societies become oriented toward “growth.” Limits that restrict our ability to pursue individual ends become the one insupportable commitment of a liberal society.

On the one hand, politics must thereby be limited: unlike classical political philosophy (e.g., Aristotelian), which argued that the aim of politics was the cultivation of human virtue for the goal of realizing the human telos, liberalism holds that government should be largely out of the business of encouraging one way of life or belief over another. In this sense, liberalism is more “limited.” However, classical political philosophy held that the goal of cultivating virtue required a polity of modest size, scope, power, wealth, and even (potentially) duration. The polity itself had to be moderate, thrifty, and virtuous. It had to be geographically small and economically modest. It was thereby less likely to be expansive and corrupt; but as a result, it was more likely to be subject to conquest and enslavement by greater powers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Aristotle’s arguments on behalf of the ideal polis occur just as Aristotle’s student Alexander the Great is absorbing the Greek poleis into the Macedonian empire.

By contrast, liberalism’s limited ends justified a potentially limitless expansion of means: in order to assist every individual’s capacity to realize his or her own personal ends, an expansion of power was required. If the aim of politics is to provide “commodious living” (in the words of Thomas Hobbes) or “indolency of the body” (in the words of John Locke), then the main aim of politics is not to influence how people lead their lives, but to assist in providing them every possible tool for the realization of their own life goals. Starr persuasively argues that this expansion of power is best achieved by “disciplining” power. Thus—ironically perhaps—the more “expansive” ends of classical political philosophy led to a more practically limited government; while the more “limited” aims of liberalism leads to the expansion of “disciplined power.” It’s not mere coincidence that the most powerful nations in the history of the world are modern liberal democracies—even more powerful than competitor dictatorial nations that organized their society’s around the goal of military might, e.g., Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Liberalism’s aim and organization of “disciplining” power allows power to expand exponentially. And, as a result (Starr will argue), requires eventually the need not only to discipline public power (the aim of classical liberalism), but also private concentrations of power, particularly economic power (a main aim of progressive liberalism).

In contrast to the arguments we will see lodged by proponents of “Natural Right Conservatism” in several weeks’ time—and even some proponents of “Progressive Liberalism”—there is warrant to believe that Progressive liberalism is in certain respects less a departure and rejection of classical liberalism than its logical successor.

Universal and Homogenous State

Some 25 years after the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s seminal article, “The End of History?,” my students—who were then not yet born—were singularly fascinated by the argument. Their horizon has been shaped by what Fukuyama predicted (and then partially recanted)—that the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the triumph of liberalism as “the end of history.” While they have vague memories of the devastation and terror of 9/11, the idea of fundamentalist Islamism serving as a viable political alternative to liberalism is not remotely a consideration for them. They are the first “post-historical” generation, born after the possibilities of fascism and communism had evaporated, having been raised in an age when liberalism apparently has no viable competitors. Fukuyama seemed to them to be describing historical fact rather than prophecy.

Inasmuch as liberalism is the “water” in which they swim, they have little capacity to understand that liberalism is not simply just “there” like the sun, air, and the sky, but was the result of philosophical ideas and daring action. Fukuyama tells a story in which the rise and triumph of liberalism was historically and naturally inevitable: it is the only regime that accords with our nature as creatures that crave “recognition” (in Hegel’s parlance) and which allows for the full unleashing of our scientific, technological, and economic ingenuity. Liberalism is the first ideology—that is, a set of ideas that seek the remaking all human societies in their image and likeness, regardless of any particular history, culture, and traditions—and leads inexorably to the creation of the “Universal and Homogenous State.” That state—hoped for by Hegel’s disciple, Alexandre Kojeve—is, on the one hand, universal, because its philosophical principles can be accepted as true anywhere and everywhere. It is homogenous because those principles require standardization of political and social life through law, education, commerce, and even a universalized mass culture. Having discerned the outlines of the universal and homogenous state, Kojeve resigned his teaching post and took up a position as a bureaucratic functionary, concluding that administratively advancing the universal and homogenous State now was more important than teaching and writing and thinking about it.

Fukuyama came to have misgivings about his own arguments for the inevitability of the “end of history” for two reasons. First, in the original article itself, and in the subsequent book revealingly entitled The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama recognized that the “end of history” would mean the triumph of the secular bourgeois human, surrounded by comfort, predictability, and security, and bored senseless—Nietzsche’s “Last Man.” Distraction through popular culture might satiate a large number of this mass, but some would prove discontent, leading, Fukuyama suspected, to a potential resumption of history as some of these figures rose up in opposition to the comfortable degradation of the “universal and homogenous state.” Perhaps the “end of history” was not the end after all.

Secondly, Fukuyama came to recognize a fundamental and inevitable contradiction between the two impulses that he attributed at the heart of liberalism’s universal appeal: its insistence upon human dignity (“recognition”), on the one hand, and its capacity to generate extraordinary scientific and technological advances, on the other. Fukuyama’s subsequent writing focused on the ways that the latter imperative, in the form of biotechnology and genetic engineering, would likely come into conflict with the former commitment. He would express his deep misgivings about liberalism’s inevitable bright future in his subsequent book Our Posthuman Future. Interestingly, as we will discuss in a few weeks, the libertarian strand of liberalism is much less worried about these developments, and begins to resemble certain characteristics of “progressive liberalism” in its cheerleading of post- and trans-humanism.

Liberal Democracy?

Lastly, with the assistance of Fareed Zakaria’s article “Illiberal Democracy,” we explored the question of liberalism’s relationship to democracy. While most of my students take for granted that liberalism and democracy are natural allies, Zakaria’s article, and discussions that one finds throughout the classical liberal tradition (including the Federalist Papers) emphasize that liberalism and democracy are strained partners at best. While there is an affinity between liberalism and democracy, for liberalism to succeed, it must restrain, “discipline,” and even in certain essential respects supress democracy.

The affinity between liberalism and democracy is found most fundamentally in liberalism’s insistence upon consent as the only basis for legitimate power and authority. While in theory liberalism can accept any form of government, including a constitutional monarchy, from the very beginning, the architects of classical liberal regimes decided that periodic consent was the best means of ensuring ongoing legitimation. While John Locke speaks of the theoretical possibility of “tacit consent” as an ongoing basis on which to ground claims of legitimacy, as a practical matter, it is difficult for people simply to pull up stakes or foment a revolution when they decide that their tacit consent no longer suffices. Elections solve a practical problem, and liberalism became wed to democracy.

But liberalism also came into being at least in part to restrain democratic impulses, particularly driven by the classical belief that democracy is simply the rule of the poor many who seek to exercise unjust power over the wealthy few. Locke forefronts property as a fundamental right, and that belief is explicitly echoed by James Madison in Federalist 10, when he states that the purpose of government is to protect the “diverse faculties of men,” particularly inasmuch as that diversity is expressed through differences in property accumulation. The mechanics of constitutionalism seek to secure ongoing popular consent, but also to restrain and even discourage active political participation. Just as classical liberal thinkers hoped and believed that commerce would take the place of war and military honor as a central activity of the government, they hoped too that private economic concerns would come to preoccupy liberal democratic citizens, lessening and even eviscerating their interest in public affairs.

Thus, while political scientists of various stripes often lament the declining interest and participation of liberal democratic citizens in political affairs (e.g., elections), considering the basic premises of the classical liberal tradition, we should not be surprised that this is one of the signs of its success. But in this case, again, we see an apparent contradiction that may imperil the marriage of liberal democracy: if the citizenry ceases to have considerable interest in exercising even nominal forms of ongoing consent, then the presumptive basis for political legitimacy becomes tenuous. While some political scientists see political disinterest as a sign of relative political health—particularly those who (largely unwittingly) follow the logic of Locke’s theory of “tacit consent”—elections practically cease to be exercises of ongoing consent and instead become captured by more intensely interested political partisans—factions—that the system was designed to disarm. The current political divisions of our polity may not be the result of discrete problems subject to a tweak, but rather emanate directly from the logic of liberalism. And if that logic continues to unfold, we can only assume that untutored democracy will use the engine of liberalism to dismantle liberalism’s achievement.

History, it seems, may not be over after all.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Read Patrick Deneen’s seminar introduction and syllabus here.



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