The Triple Justification for Liberalism
It advances peace, prosperity, and human dignity
The Battle of White Mountain (1620) in Bohemia was one of the decisive battles of the Thirty Years' War that ultimately led to the forced conversion of the Bohemian population back to Roman Catholicism.
There have been three essential justifications for liberal societies that have been put forward over the centuries. The first is a pragmatic rationale: liberalism is a way of regulating violence and allowing diverse populations to live peacefully with one another. The second is moral: liberalism protects basic human dignity, and in particular human autonomy—the ability of each individual to make choices. The final justification is economic: liberalism promotes economic growth and all the good things that come from growth, by protecting property rights and the freedom to transact.
Liberalism has a strong association with certain forms of cognition, particularly the scientific method, which is seen as the best means of understanding and manipulating the external world. Individuals are assumed to be the best judges of their own interests, and are able to take in and test empirical information about the outside world in the making of those judgments. While judgments will necessarily vary, there is a liberal belief that in a free marketplace of ideas, good ideas will in the end drive out bad ones through deliberation and evidence.
The Pragmatic Case
The pragmatic argument for liberalism needs to be understood in the historical context in which liberal ideas first arose. The doctrine appeared in the middle of the 17th century towards the conclusion of Europe’s wars of religion, a 150-year period of almost continuous violence that was triggered by the Protestant Reformation. It is estimated that as much as one-third of central Europe’s population died in the course of the Thirty Years War, if not from direct violence then from the famine and disease that followed upon military conflict. Europe’s religious wars were driven by economic and social factors, such as the greed of monarchs eager to seize Church property. But they derived their ferocity from the fact that the warring parties represented different Christian sects that wanted to impose their particular interpretation of religious dogma on their populations. Martin Luther struggled with the Emperor Charles V; the Catholic League fought the Huguenots in France; Henry VIII sought to separate the Church of England from the Rome; and there were conflicts within the Protestant and Catholic camps between high and low Church Anglicans, Zwinglians and Lutherans, and many others. This was a period in which heretics were regularly burned at the stake or drawn and quartered for professing belief in things like “transubstantiation,” a level of cruelty that is hardly understandable as an outgrowth of economic motives alone.
Liberalism sought to lower the aspirations of politics, not as a means of seeking the good life as defined by religion, but rather as a way of ensuring life itself, that is, peace and security. Thomas Hobbes, writing in the middle of the English civil war, was a monarchist, but he saw a strong state primarily as a guarantee that mankind would not return to the war of “every man against every man.” The fear of violent death was, according to him, the most powerful passion, one that was universally shared by human beings in a way that religious beliefs were not. Therefore the first duty of the state was to protect the right to life. This was the distant origin of the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the US Declaration of Independence. Building on this foundation, John Locke observed that life could also be threatened by a tyrannical state, and that the state itself needed to be constrained by the “consent of the governed.”
Classical liberalism can therefore be understood as an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity, or, to put it in slightly different terms, of peacefully managing diversity in pluralistic societies. The most fundamental principle enshrined in liberalism is one of tolerance: you do not have to agree with your fellow citizens about the most important things, but only that each individual should get to decide what they are without interference from you or from the state. Liberalism lowers the temperature of politics by taking questions of final ends off the table: you can believe what you want, but you must do so in private life and not seek to impose your views on your fellow citizens.
The kinds of diversity that liberal societies can successfully manage are not unlimited. If a significant part of the society does not accept liberal principles themselves and seeks to restrict the fundamental rights of other people, or when citizens resort to violence to get their way, then liberalism is not sufficient to maintain political order. That was the situation in the United States prior to 1861 when the country was riven by the issue of slavery, and why it subsequently fell into civil war. During the Cold War, liberal societies in Western Europe faced similar threats from Eurocommunist parties in France and Italy, and in the contemporary Middle East the prospects for liberal democracy have suffered due to the strong suspicion that Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt do not accept the liberal rules of the game.
Diversity can take many forms: in 17th century Europe it was religious, but it can also be based on nationality, ethnicity, race, or other types of belief. Byzantine society was riven by a sharp polarization between the Blues and Greens, racing teams in the Hippodrome that corresponded to Christian sects professing belief in Monophysite and Monothelite doctrines respectively. Poland today is one of the most ethnically and religiously homogeneous societies in Europe, and yet it is sharply polarized between social groups based in its cosmopolitan cities and more conservative one in the countryside. Human beings are very good at dividing themselves into teams that go to war with one another metaphorically or literally; diversity thus is a prevalent characteristic of many human societies.
Liberalism’s most important selling point remains the pragmatic one that existed in the 17th century: if diverse societies like India or the United States move away from liberal principles and try to base national identity on race, ethnicity, religion, or some other substantive vision of the good life, they are inviting a return to potentially violent conflict. The United States suffered such conflict during its Civil War, and Modi’s India is inviting communal violence by shifting its national identity to one based on Hinduism.
The Moral Case
The second justification for a liberal society is a moral one: a liberal society protects human dignity by granting citizens an equal right to autonomy. The ability to make fundamental life choices is a critical human characteristic. Every individual wants to determine their life’s goals: what they will do for a living, whom they will marry, where they will live, with whom they will associate and transact, what and how they should speak, and what they will believe. It is this freedom that gives human beings dignity, and unlike intelligence, physical appearance, skin color, or other secondary characteristics, it is universally shared by all human beings. At a minimum, the law protects autonomy by granting and enforcing citizens’ rights to speak, associate, and believe. But over time autonomy has come to encompass the right to have a share in political power and to participate in self-government through the right to vote. Liberalism has thus become tied to democracy, which can be seen as an expression of collective autonomy.
The view of liberalism as a means of protecting basic human dignity that emerged in Europe by the time of the French Revolution has now been written into countless constitutions of liberal democracies around the world in the form of the “right to dignity,” that appears in the basic laws of countries as diverse as Germany, South Africa, and Japan. Most contemporary politicians would be hard-pressed to explain precisely what human quality gave people equal dignity, but they would have a vague sense that it implied something about the capacity for choice, and the ability to make decisions about one’s own life course without undue interference from governments or the broader society.
Liberal theory asserted that these rights applied to all human beings universally, as in the Declaration of Independence’s opening phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” But in practice, liberal regimes made invidious distinctions between individuals, and did not regard all of the people under their jurisdiction as full human beings. The United States did not grant citizenship and franchise to African Americans until passage of the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Amendments in the wake of the Civil War, and after Reconstruction shamefully took them back in a period that stretched up to the Civil Rights era in the 1960s. And the country also did not grant women the right to vote until passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919. Similarly, European democracies opened up the franchise to all adults only gradually, removing restrictions based on property ownership, gender, and race in a slow process that stretched into the middle of the twentieth century.
The Economic Case
The third major justification for liberalism had to do with its connection to economic growth and modernization. For many nineteenth-century liberals, the most important form of autonomy was the ability to buy, sell, and invest freely in a market economy. Property rights were central to the liberal agenda, along with contract enforcement through institutions that lowered the risk of trade and investment with strangers. The theoretical justification for this is clear: no entrepreneur will risk money in a business if he or she thinks that it will be appropriated the following year either by a government, business competitors, or a criminal organization. Property rights needed to be supported by a large legal apparatus that included a system of independent courts, lawyers, a bar, and a state that could use its police powers to enforce judgments against private parties.
Liberal theory did not only endorse the freedom to buy and sell within national borders; early on it argued in favor of an international system of free trade. Adam Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations demonstrated the ways in which mercantilist restrictions on trade (for example, the Spanish Empire’s requirement that Spanish goods be carried only in Spanish ships to Spanish ports) were highly inefficient. David Ricardo laid the basis for modern trade theory with his theory of comparative advantage. Liberal regimes did not necessarily follow these theoretical dictates: both Britain and the United States for example protected their early industries with tariffs, until the point where they grew to a scale that allowed them to compete without government assistance. Nonetheless, there has been a strong historical association between liberalism and freedom of commerce.
Property rights were among the initial rights to be guaranteed by rising liberal regimes, well before the right to associate or vote. The first two European countries to establish strong property rights were England and the Netherlands, both of which developed an entrepreneurial commercial class and saw explosive economic growth. In North America, English Common Law protected property rights prior to the time when the colonies gained their political independence. The German Rechtsstaat, building on civil codes like Prussia’s 1792 Allgemeines Landsrecht, protected private property long before the German lands saw a hint of democracy. Like America, autocratic but liberal Germany industrialized rapidly in the late nineteenth century and became an economic great power by the early twentieth century.
The connection between classical liberalism and economic growth is not a trivial one. Between 1800 and the present, output per person in the liberal world grew nearly 3,000 percent. These gains were felt up and down the economic ladder, with ordinary workers enjoying levels of health, longevity, and consumption unavailable to the most privileged elites in earlier ages.
This essay has been excerpted from Francis Fukuyama’s recent book, Liberalism and Its Discontents
Bonus Material: Watch Fukuyama defend liberalism from one of its detractors, University of Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen, who argues that liberalism is flawed because it does not offer ready-made ends to individuals, at a conference at Michigan State University’s LeFrak Forum.