The fifth of six posts on Francis Fukuyama’s recent book Liberalism and its Discontents.
The Discontent for Liberalism from the Right
The fiercest attacks against liberalism have always come from conservative intellectuals. Indeed, Americans imagine conservatism as the antithesis of liberalism. But conservatism is not the same as illiberalism. Moreover, conservatism can even complement liberal values and goals. At the same time, they come from different perspectives so it’s not surprising when they come to different conclusions. Liberalism is a philosophy of individualism. Every person is important for their own sake. In contrast, conservatives find meaning within a larger community. As a result, liberals look within themselves for purpose, while conservatives look outside of themselves. This difference has profound implications and is the basis for their disagreements.
Liberalism alienates the individual from the community. It focuses on the rights of each person, but rarely emphasizes their duties to institutions or the community. Instead, institutions have an obligation to protect the rights of individuals. In other words, liberalism takes institutions for granted. Fukuyama admits as much. He writes, “The substantive conservative critique of liberalism—that liberal societies provide no strong common moral horizon around which community can be built—is true enough. This is indeed a feature and not a bug of liberalism.”
Unfortunately, American conservatives have largely abandoned conservatism. They no longer refer to duties or obligations. They do not defend institutions or seek to preserve them. Instead, they view institutions as a threat. Fukuyama explains, “The postmodernist critique of liberalism and its associated cognitive methods has now drifted over to the right.” Liberalism depends upon conservatism. But it requires an older variant where people found meaning in the contributions they made to others. Conservatives who defend institutions help to consolidate the gains of liberal democracy. Today, the discontent for liberalism from the right simply wants to tear it apart.