Freedom from Fear and the Specter of Perfection

A review of Alan Kahan's history of liberalism.

Freedom from Fear and the Specter of Perfection

Liberals are going through one of their reflective moments. Competing forms of illiberalism are openly discussed—even in polite company—to a degree unprecedented since the end of World War Two. Any lingering hubris following the collapse of the Soviet Union has been fatally punctured by the rise of forces that really might spell the end of the liberal order in the West. Despite that, there is a prevailing sense that liberals have yet to really rise to the challenge. Several prominent liberals such as Francis Fukuyama and William Galston have offered reiterations of liberal values that, while well-meaning, have nevertheless felt ill-matched to the scale of their task, reading as if they could have been written in the more certain times of the 1990s when the future was still theirs.[1] The worry is not just that liberals have yet to adequately respond to their illiberal opponents, but that they are absolutely stumped as to how to respond at all. Deer and headlights come to mind.

Kahan’s Freedom from Fear: An Incomplete History of Liberalism joins several other recent volumes in approaching liberalism’s current malaise through reminding us of its history.[2] Liberalism’s past has become one of the most consequential areas for the debates as to its future. Though hardly the stuff of op-eds, what these studies nevertheless tell us in their different ways is of the utmost importance: that a lack of proper historical sense has left liberals and their critics alike with an emaciated view of what liberalism is. Enemies of liberalism mistake modern neoliberalism or contemporary identity politics for the total sum of liberal thought; liberals themselves seem adamant on fighting for a liberalism devoid of what have been its historically most attractive and promising features. Not knowing what they are fighting for, liberals do not know how to fight for it.

Kahan begins from but extends the insight of 20th century Harvard political theorist Judith Shklar that liberalism is primarily concerned with eradicating fear as the great impediment to human freedom. While Shklar was concerned chiefly (but not exclusively) with fear of the extensive cruelties made possible by the emergence of the modern state, Kahan sees liberalism as a response to a series of different fears throughout history, each response building upon rather than demolishing that form of liberalism which came before it. To distinguish these he borrows language from computing, differentiating between liberalisms like software versions (liberalism 1.0, 2.0 …). Though somewhat ungainly, it nonetheless highlights how subsequent versions of liberalism have developed previous iterations in response to new wants or problems while at the same time both transmitting their bugs into the future or creating new flaws in the process. Not all software updates really count as progress (as any user of Microsoft Word’s newest comment feature will attest). It is a conceit of software developers if they believe version 2.0 is always better than 1.0. At some point bugs become features that cannot be unpicked without unravelling the entire code. And eventually any software package will find itself obsolete, either outpaced by its rivals or unable to offer its users what they want.  

On Kahan’s telling, liberalism emerged initially in the 18th century as a response to the fear created by the religious fanaticism of the Wars of Religion, though he equivocates as to whether this is to be counted as liberalism proper or some form of ‘proto-liberalism’ (surely ‘beta-liberalism’?). Liberalism 1.0 took shape in the 19th century in response to the fear of the forces of revolution and reaction. 

Later in the same century but extending into the next came the fear of poverty (2.0), which was then itself followed by the fear of totalitarianism following the Second World War (3.0). Two decades into the twenty-first century the animating fear for liberals is the rise of populism, and the prospects of there being a liberalism 4.0 depends on whether it can successfully renew itself once more to meet this new challenge. 

The upshot of Kahan’s story is that successive updates to liberalism responded to the problems of their times by stressing and strengthening the political and economic pillars of liberalism but did so at the cost or neglect of its third pillar: morality. At their best, liberals have attempted to found freedom on all three pillars, with free governments and free markets working together with moral and religious institutions and arguments to keep liberalism stable. Indeed, Kahan contends that historically it has been the moral pillar that has been most central because few thought that liberal political or economic institutions could endure without some level of agreement as to the sort of lives individuals should and should not live. ‘A republic cannot exist without certain kinds of morality’, as Benjamin Constant put it. And yet since the last quarter of the 19th century, liberals have responded to the problems of their day by separating out these pillars. Increased emphasis was placed on its political and/or economic foundations while gradually relying less on moral justifications, until we reach a point in the later twentieth century when it seems perfectly reasonable to cast liberalism as completely neutral on questions of the good. Liberalism is not a way of life. It is and should be a political and economic doctrine only. Our predicament, Kahan argues, is that liberalism needs all three pillars if it is to successfully respond to their populist opponents. Liberals must learn to talk morality once more. Whether it can do so, and can do so in time, is the question. 

No doubt there will be some who will quibble with Kahan’s historical story. It is, of course, true that not all liberals thought of their project in negative terms of avoiding fear, and even where this could be plausible they nevertheless might not have been so united in their views of which fears ought to concern us. Kahan knows this. Which in part is why he uses the subtitle of the book to flag the purposeful incompleteness of the history it tells. This is history told with a contemporary purpose—as a call for liberalism to regain its moral backbone—and should be judged on that basis. 

In the parlance of contemporary political philosophy, Kahan is calling for the return of liberal perfectionism. To be a political perfectionist is—along with such disparate luminaries of the Western political tradition as Aristotle, Saint Aquinas, Spinoza, Marx, and T. H. Green—to build an account of politics on an objective account of the good for all human beings. Only the latter was a specifically liberal perfectionist in thinking that it was liberal answers to what is of value in human life that ought to inform our politics, and while there have been others (the late Joseph Raz chief among its contemporary proponents, though Kahan finds his account wanting in several regards) it is certainly a minority sport in academic circles. Liberal neutrality has been and, in many ways, remains the dominant position. And yet it appears to be so blatantly counter-intuitive. Or, put the other way around, there is something deeply and instinctively appealing in perfectionism. Why, after all, would you not want politics to take an interest in helping people live good lives? What reason could you possibly have for thinking the state should recuse itself from what surely are among the most important questions humans ask? 

Liberal responses to this have ranged from the pragmatic to the principled to the philosophical. So-called Cold War liberals—the likes of Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, and Judith N. Shklar—remind us of the dangers to individual freedom that follow when you give the state the power and authority to intervene in matters of value and meaning. Better to leave these to individuals to work out for themselves in the private sphere. Principled arguments have tended to insist that such paternalism violates individuals’ natural rights, autonomy, or their equal dignity in some way or another. After all, no one has the authority to tell us how we should live. Anti-perfectionism is given a fillip too by those varied philosophical arguments that reject the very notion of there being an objective way of life that is good for all individuals. With no such account of universal human flourishing in sight, there is nothing for politics to try and perfect. 

Part of the value of Kahan’s book lies in how it reveals liberal neutrality is not just peculiar as a political position but that it is historically peculiar even within the liberal tradition. Almost everything that liberalism’s critics today take to be characteristic of liberal politics—the list is familiar: thin over thick values, atomistic individualism, rights rather than duties, maximising individual freedom at the expense of community, prioritising economic freedom over social goods, lack of concern for the moral lives of individuals, neglect of tradition and place, etc.—turn out to be very recent acquisitions. Even if it does capture the character of contemporary liberalism, it cannot possibly capture the entirety of the liberal tradition. Liberals have not always thought this way. They need not think this way in the future either. 

So, let’s have it out. Ditch neutrality; moral and religious cards on the table.  

Reasons to be skeptical

Whether liberal perfectionism is the answer to the rise of populism we have been looking for depends very much on what sort of answer it is we want. This is far from a simple question, and likely depends as much on judgments as to what is politically feasible within what might turn out to be a fairly limited timeframe as anything else. Kahan’s ambiguity on this issue is therefore unsatisfying but understandable. At points Kahan speaks as if the fourth wave of liberalism ought to aim at winning populists over. Liberalism 4.0, we are told, “must find a way to reduce the fears of populists, overcome their cultural alienation, and regain, to the extent that it is possible, legitimacy in their eyes.” Elsewhere he talks of ‘reconciliation’ between liberals and populists, which, in implying the possible compatibility of liberalism and populism, is quite a different prospect altogether.   

Either way, there is good reason to be sceptical that readopting perfectionism will get us very far. For one, if Kahan is hoping that when liberals once more talk in a moral register this will lead to greater convergence on the nature of the good life then that seems fanciful. Philosophers (in the broadest sense) have been debating the good life for millennia now and, while it would be going too far to say there has been no progress, what progress there has been gives us little hope that ethical unanimity is just around the corner. Many of today’s illiberals are academics (e.g., Hazony, Deneen, Vermeule) and so presumably know what liberals themselves think are the strongest arguments in defence of liberal ways of life. And yet they remain decidedly unconvinced. 

Maybe the best, most irrefutable argument for liberalism is being written by someone somewhere at this very moment. Wait just a few more weeks, months, or years (academic peer review runs at glacial speeds) and it will be ours. Even if this were true, do we really think the illiberals among us will be so easily converted? It is wishful thinking to suppose that others’ moral beliefs are held in place solely or even predominantly by rational persuasion (self-deception when the same thought is applied to our own beliefs). We might enjoy some satisfaction by being able to label our opponents irrational, but that gets us nowhere politically—and may indeed serve to make our disagreements even more intractable.

There is little reason to think if liberalism ‘did morality’ that that would make understanding or reconciliation more likely. Liberalism’s critics tend to already think of it as a form of perfectionism, as a politics that promotes specifically liberal ends and actively works to undermine more traditional ways of life. It is no revelation to them that liberalism was once a perfectionist creed; the only surprise in accounts like Kahan’s is the claim that it ever stopped being so. Indeed, the issue is typically not so much that liberalism is perfectionist—its opponents are usually perfectionists after all, often from religious motives—but that liberals have the wrong account of human flourishing (emphasising individual autonomy over tradition, or community, or the common good, or God, etc.). What we need is to reorient society to the true (non-liberal) conception of the good life. In their pursuit of a false view of the good, liberal societies make people worse rather than better. Hence the significance of the transgender rights movement as what liberalism’s antagonists take to be the latest iteration of its foundational but erroneous commitment to ensuring that the individual is free from all unchosen impediments. Our identity must be ours to determine; not even nature can impede the autonomous individual in choosing what he/she/they are. That this issue has become so totemic for illiberals of liberalism’s moral corruption makes it hard to share Kahan’s hope that a perfectionist liberalism would not still be experienced as alienating by its opponents. 

Kahan is far from alone in thinking that the way forward lies in recovering liberalism’s moral backbone. Helena Rosenblatt and Samuel Moyn have reached similar conclusions in their own historical diagnoses of liberalism’s current predicament. Too often, however, there is a failure to take seriously enough the problems with dusting off an earlier liberalism to make it fit for the twenty-first century. The heyday (and, it turned out, twilight) of moral liberalism was the New or Social Liberalism of the late 19th - early 20th centuries, and often this is what people have in mind when they propose that liberalism needs to rediscover how to sing in a moral key. And yet there were reasons, some of them very good, why this Social Liberalism fell dramatically out of favour following World War One. 

Its optimism in the power of rationality, as well as in human nature itself, while rarely naïve, is nevertheless harder for us to accept (despite Steven Pinker’s best efforts). The sort of moral and creative agency liberals envisaged was possible for individuals in the Victorian era, and which would keep Western societies on the path of progress, looks almost idealistic given our greater awareness today of how technological advancements can hinder individual freedoms as easily as enhance them. Maybe the dawn of an AI revolution will dramatically unleash individuals’ potential, but we have been made such promises before (including by the Social Liberals themselves). And liberal notions of the good have come under decades of assault from those who believe it to be inextricably linked to the sins of imperialism and various forms of exclusion and discrimination. Faith in liberalism as a form of life would require a reckoning with those critiques, and a willingness to do so is severely hampered when the incentives of our public spaces (including universities) are hardly conducive to such inquiries. 

The dangers of re-moralisation

If liberals can neither win populists round nor achieve reconciliation with them then ‘liberals must find a way to defeat them’. That is quite a different sort of answer altogether, and it is to Kahan’s credit that he takes that thought seriously. However, it remains unclear why perfectionist liberalism has the advantage over neutrality if that is the objective. We need to be alive to the possibility that the re-moralisation of liberalism could itself become a source of fear, and not just for illiberals. Ours are, after all, societies that have become quite used to the thought that morality and God are not areas into which the state ought to stray, and that our individual freedoms in large part depend upon it not doing so. From those who believe liberal moralising smacks of racism, sexism, and various other forms of bigotry, we should expect it to meet resistance; such groups suspect liberal universalism undermines the chances for achieving social justice. 

Then there is the issue that a perfectionist liberalism will need to be much more specific about precisely which sort of lives it values and which it does not, and potentially which it will use state resources to support and which it will not. This is a judgmental liberalism. Once you start saying that people must be free not to live as they wish but to live as they should, that is going to exclude a great number of ways of life which neutral liberalism makes room for. Many who hold more traditional or religious notions of the good will simply find it very hard to get onboard with liberal views of human flourishing. What looms is not state-level intolerance and repression; it is liberal perfectionism, after all. Nevertheless, and as best exemplified in the work of John Stuart Mill, a liberalism that simultaneously restricts the use of state power for moral or religious ends while maintaining that there are still better and worse lives (based on whether they pursue the ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ pleasures in Mill’s theory) is neither a reassuringly stable position nor a particularly inclusive one. Alienation from a society that judges what you value as inferior, or possibly as outright immoral, is still something one can quite reasonably fear even if those judgments are not backed up by state power. 

Liberalism’s turn to neutrality did not come from nowhere. If it began in an earlier period, then certainly it was given further justification as Western societies became radically pluralistic throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. We can overstate the moral homogeneity of previous times, but ours are the most diverse societies in which liberalism has ever sought legitimacy. Part of the reason why moral neutrality so often seems the only viable option for liberals is precisely because such pluralism as it exists today has undercut the conditions of greater regularity in people’s moral and religious beliefs that make political perfectionism at all plausible (and which could only be recreated through means liberals would judge thoroughly illiberal). 

Kahan interprets this as abandoning the moral pillar of liberalism, but that is not right. Better to think of it as thinning out liberalism’s ethical commitments precisely so that it can still enjoy moral legitimacy across as broad a base of the population as possible, or as reimagining of what can morally legitimate the liberal state for autonomous individuals in conditions of such radical pluralism. This is still liberal morality, just for very different sorts of societies. Defeating populists and their illiberal associates must include pressing in the strongest possible terms just how fundamentally estranged they are from the realities of modern societies, and which explains the air of reactionary authoritarianism that consistently surrounds them. Theirs is not a solution for societies such as ours. Yet that same line of attack explains why liberal perfectionism remains such a problematic option also.

If this all sounds defeatist, that is not the intention. The point is that matters are not so simple as shifting into reverse to take a missed turn. Kahan and others know this, of course. And it is a significant virtue of Kahan’s analysis that he shows why this cannot be the case (Moyn gives the greatest impression that an older strand of the liberal tradition becomes readily available to us once we disavow the dominant Cold War liberalism). Reminding us of the richness and complexity of the liberal tradition, and in doing so of the potential that it retains, is a vital task, but it is a job half-done if that potential is not then cashed out in terms fit for the twenty-first century. 

[1]:  Francis Fukuyama, Liberalism and its Discontents (Profile Books, 2023); William Galston, Anti-Pluralism - The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy (Yale University Press, 2018)

[2]:  Joshua Cherniss, Liberalism in Dark Times - The Liberal Ethos in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 2022); Edmund Fawcett, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (Princeton University Press, 2014); Samuel Moyn, Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times (Yale University Press, 2023); Helena Rosenblatt, The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2018).

Featured image is The FDR Memorial, by Courtney McGough