Classical Liberalism

January 16, 2023 [books] #reviews #political-theory

Book: Liberalism and Its Discontents
Author: Francis Fukuyama

Liberalism is a big tent. The social contract is that you have a rule of law, a respect for private property, and a respect for human autonomy and choice. Within these constraints you can find governing systems as varied as the neoliberal USA, the welfare states of Europe, and conglomerate-run East Asian countries. These constraints meant that liberalism eventually became the ideological basis of market economy - you can’t have a market economy if the government can change and you lose access to land or goods. Francis Fukuyama charts the global prosperity and standard of living we have now to the liberal world order, and its inherent tolerance for diversity. Liberalism historically had two enemies - communism and nationalism. The world wars were an out-growth of nationalism, and the cold war, communism. That it survived both is to Fukuyama an indication of the strength of liberal ideas.

Liberalism’s current threats are again from the left and the right. The frame of reference here is mostly the USA and Europe (in India, all parties are to the left of USA-center, even if Fukuyama thinks otherwise). Fukuyama’s argument is that both the left and right take issues with liberalism's excesses, misidentify these with liberalism’s core ideas, and in rejecting it are in the process of throwing the baby along with the bath water. An example of this excess is neoliberalism - a divorcing of state oversight and devaluing of the welfare state - that has led to enormous inequality and financial crises. Yes, there has been an increase in aggregate prosperity, but you cannot explain to a voter in the United States that he has lost his job, but someone in Asia has been pulled out of poverty thanks to outsourcing.

The now fashionable criticism of liberalism from the progressive left in USA is that since these ideas emerged from Europe after 150 years of war, it is alien and inapplicable to other countries and groups. Fukuyama rejects that criticism, giving the examples of Taiwan, South Korea and Japan that propelled to first world status using the same operating principles in the second half of the twentieth century. China became prosperous only when starting relaxing its economy and permitted peasants to keep the earnings from their family plots under the household responsibility system instead of working on collective farms. Similarly, he considers identity politics, critical theory, globalization and addresses their premises. In doing this, he’s fair in how he’s characterizing these postmodern arguments and their dominance in academia. I found myself willingly led by him as he argues against these extremes of epistemic relativism. In the end, his defense seems to be that yes, liberalism doesn’t result in equality of outcomes, but everything else is worse. This echoes what Churchill said about democracy. And I agree.

The one liberal ideal I endorse wholeheartedly is its tolerance of diversity - not just race and gender, but also political viewpoints and religious traditions. This tolerance is critical for human prosperity and managing violence. In choosing between which diversity among many it's willing to endorse, the loudest voices on the progressive left are being hypocritical, both in India and elsewhere. Yes, tolerance and liberal ideas emerged in and were adopted by countries that were not liberal themselves. United States gave women representation only in 1920, and enfranchisement to African Americans only in the 1960s. Liberal Britain was also a rapacious colonizer. "But saying that racism and patriarchy were intrinsic to liberalism is to essentialize historically contingent phenomena. The fact that self-proclaimed liberals endorsed illiberal ideas and policies in the past does not mean that the doctrine was incapable of acknowledging and correcting these mistakes..". The world has grown richer since colonialism was dismantled.

Fukuyama notes that between liberal universalism and national identity there is a powerful point of tension, but he thinks there needn't be a contradiction. If forced to choose, it's clear which side of the fence he falls on - that of the universalism. On the other hand, I am quite sympathetic to ideas around strengthening national identities. What the last 50 years has shown is that concerns about human rights are a sham, and countries are willing to do what they want to further either corporate interests or those of the elites. National identities offer a buffer around such predation, no matter what the globalized elite seem to think.

While Fukuyama does as he promises with the title, describing liberalism and its discontents, he doesn’t deliver on the solutions to its excesses. His alternatives are more or less commonsensical, but lacking in realpolitik. That is a very tame end to the book, and it left me wanting more. Fukuyama's focus is on the West, aside from some hand-wavy statements on India. I would like to read more about India and its interpretation of the liberal tradition. Sudipta Kaviraj, Udai Singh Mehta, and Rahul Sagar seem to point a way.

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