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The second of six posts on Francis Fukuyama’s recent book Liberalism and its Discontents.
Why Does Liberalism Matter
Like so many other ideas in the political lexicon, liberalism is surprisingly difficult to define. Francis Fukuyama, however, does not shy away from the attempt. He writes, “Classical liberalism is a big tent that encompasses a range of political views that nonetheless agree on the foundational importance of equal individual rights, law, and freedom.” Readers may note Fukuyama refers specifically to classical liberalism. He does not refer to other variants that may cause more confusion than clarity. Secondly, he leaves a lot of room to maneuver when he describes it as a big tent.
But this definition does not answer the more important question. Why does liberalism matter? Certainly, Fukuyama references liberal values as an implicit defense of the larger idea. But values can stand independent of a wider philosophy. So, what does liberalism provide? Let’s start with its contribution to democracy. Fukuyama writes, “Liberalism lowers the temperature of politics by taking questions of final ends off the table.” In many ways this is an odd remark. It even comes across as undemocratic, because the final ends come across as predetermined. However, liberalism does guarantee space for people to participate in a democracy without fear of reprisals. It allows people to participate more fully through their speech and actions.
Perhaps even more importantly liberalism contributes a dynamism to society. Fukuyama writes, “It is liberalism much more than democracy that is associated with economic growth and the prosperity of the modern world.” Some will interpret this line as a nod to neoliberal economic policies. However, liberalism contributes to economic growth in other ways as well. It establishes markets through the rule of law and allows for creativity through freedom of expression. Nonetheless, despite liberalism’s obvious advantages, it is under attack. Indeed, its strongest critics turn liberalism against itself.
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Definitions matter. That is something I appreciate about this article and it is something I find missing in much that I read and hear discussed. I’m often at a loss to understand what people mean when they use terms like liberal, conservative or progressive and I’m not sure that even they know what they mean. So it is refreshing to find someone actually offering a definition, even if that definition is a bit at odds to how I’ve come to understand a term.
Thank you. It’s really appreciated.