Making History End, Again

By Andrew KoppelmanSeptember 10, 2022

Making History End, Again

Liberalism and Its Discontents by Francis Fukuyama

LIBERALISM — THE IDEA that the purpose of government is to guarantee individuals the freedom to shape their own lives — is, Francis Fukuyama observes, “under severe threat around the world today.” Political rights and civil liberties became more widespread in the late 20th century, but have since been in retreat. His new book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, is a shrewd and concise anatomy and critique of the new authoritarian alternatives: neoliberalism on the right and identity politics on the left.

Some think his most recent work retreats from the triumphalism of his bestselling 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. In fact, he hasn’t budged an inch. Nor should he. There he argued that with the advent of liberal democracy, mankind “achieved a form of society that satisfied its deepest and most fundamental longings” as much as any political principle could. Liberty and equality “are not accidents or the results of ethnocentric prejudice, but are in fact discoveries about the nature of man as man.” His core claim in his new work is that, despite recent setbacks, he was right the first time: the rivals are variant forms of liberalism and draw their rhetorical power from the attractions of a free society. They are, however, defective mutations: the discontents with liberalism arise from “the way in which certain sound liberal ideas have been interpreted and pushed to extremes.”

The earlier book was commonly misunderstood as a prediction that liberalism was inevitably destined to prevail. In fact, he explained in 2019, “The word ‘end’ was not meant in the sense of ‘termination’ but ‘target’ or ‘objective.’” History is contingent and unpredictable. His claim was that history has a point, that the human race has a common purpose toward which it has moved and should strive. Misfortunes can’t refute that purpose, any more than my claim that a student has enormous promise is refuted if she is then hit by a bus.

The deeper challenge to liberalism, the one that Fukuyama must answer, is loss of faith in its institutions. The fall of the Soviet Union showed that a regime is vulnerable if its leaders no longer believe its guiding philosophy. He wrote in The End of History: “The critical weakness that eventually toppled these strong states was in the last analysis a failure of legitimacy — that is, a crisis on the level of ideas.” Is liberalism headed for a similar fate?

Liberalism and Its Discontents aims to show that purported alternatives to liberalism, on left and right, are phony remedies that will produce oppression and misery. He manages to cover a lot in 154 pages, with impressive erudition and clarity.

The root of liberalism’s present difficulties, he argues, is neoliberalism, the idea that freedom requires unrestricted free trade and small government — an idea championed by Ronald Reagan and adopted by Bill Clinton, who dismantled welfare and deregulated Wall Street. It promoted privatization, austerity, and the shrinking of the social safety net, all in the name of greater overall prosperity.

It has led to inequality and precarity. “[F]inancial crises occurred with alarming regularity,” culminating in the 2008 subprime disaster. These in turn helped to produce new deformations of liberalism on the left. Fukuyama argues that neoliberalism was based on a misunderstanding of liberalism, which “properly understood is compatible with a wide range of social protections provided by the state.” What went wrong is that a “valid insight into the superior efficiency of markets evolved into something of a religion, in which state intervention was opposed as a matter of principle.”

Although he now disavows neoliberalism, Fukuyama still displays neoliberal instincts that can mislead him. He admires the effort that began in the 1980s to limit the regulatory and welfare states of Europe and North America: “Margaret Thatcher’s most heroic moment was in her confrontation with Arthur Scargill and the coal-miners’ union: Britain had no business mining coal at that point in its economic development.” But he acknowledges that people face circumstances beyond their control, and that the state can remedy these. Thatcher’s triumph over the miners left large parts of her country — once thriving and prosperous mining regions — as sites of persistent stagnation and poverty. And, of course, the United States has its own Rust Belt, with similar pathologies. If this is what liberalism offers, the discontents are inevitable and justified. Compare France, which phased out its coal industry (at its peak, it employed 350,000 miners) gradually, with a series of planned retirements and retrainings, and managed not to lay off a single worker. (The one aspect of French economic policy Fukuyama acknowledges is its protection of small producers, and he notes that the country would not “be better off if its thousands of cafés were driven out of business by Starbucks.”)

Part of the problem is his limited conception of liberalism, which he understands as “the limitation of the powers of governments through law and ultimately constitutions, creating institutions protecting the rights of individuals living under their jurisdiction.” The people in dying towns in Northern England and the American Midwest have that. A lot of good it does them. A better liberalism, Martha Nussbaum has argued, focuses not solely on abstract rights, but on actual capabilities, what people are able to be and do.

Fukuyama regrets the breadth of the 1980s attack on state capacity: “[B]y relentlessly attacking the state and the idea of collective action, Reaganism served to delegitimize existing institutions and increase cynicism about the potential role of government.” That kind of cynicism makes industrial policy, of the kind pursued by France, unthinkable here. (Despite its disregard of neoliberal imperatives, France manages to be one of the most prosperous economies in the world.)

Neoliberals are confident that any such policy will be abused by self-seeking interests. But as Fukuyama’s hero Hegel observed, public officials can be understood as, and sometimes regard themselves as, a kind of universal class, representing the interests of society as a whole. Even libertarians — at least, the ones who are not anarchists — concede that some officials, such as police and judges, usually are immune to bribery. They have to believe that, or their minimal state couldn’t be trusted to do its job. If those officials can develop an internal culture that insulates them from capture, it is hard to see why, in principle, it is impossible for other agencies, agencies with far more expertise at detecting market failures, to do the same thing.

Neoliberalism confronts a contradiction in the Marxist sense. As Fukuyama explained in The End of History, “A ‘problem’ does not become a ‘contradiction’ unless it is so serious that it not only cannot be solved within the system, but corrodes the legitimacy of the system itself such that the latter collapses under its own weight.”

Friedrich Hayek, the leading theorist of neoliberalism, faced a dilemma. The dynamism of markets, he noted, “will always mean that someone is going to be hurt, that someone's expectations will be disappointed or his efforts frustrated.” He thought these effects must, for the sake of opportunity for everyone, be disregarded by the state. But at the same time, he understood — but didn’t really grapple with the fact — that too much disappointment and frustration is politically dangerous: “The one thing modern democracy will not bear without cracking is the necessity of a substantial lowering of the standards of living in peace time or even prolonged stationariness of its economic conditions.” Neoliberalism is unsustainable. It must collapse either into a more generous social democracy or into authoritarianism. The losers must be either accommodated or crushed.

The inequality that neoliberalism generated is, Fukuyama writes, “at the core of the progressive case against liberalism and the capitalist system with which it is associated.” Yet the progressives’ real adversary isn’t liberalism, but its ideological deformation.

Fukuyama’s principal adversary on the left is identity politics. It, too, is a mutation: it “initially emerged as an effort to fulfill the promise of liberalism, which preached a doctrine of universal equality and equal protection of human dignity under the law.” In societies where racism, sexism, and other indefensible hierarchies persisted, liberalism could fairly be accused of “hypocrisy and a failure to live up to its own principles.”

But many on the left now attack the principles themselves, noting that they emerged from a racist and sexist society. This, Fukuyama argues, amounts to “a charge of guilt by association.” In The End of History, he observed that this is how historical progress works, building attractive institutions from unattractive materials. In the strongest liberal democracies, liberty preceded democracy and freedom preceded equality, perhaps because these practices “were more readily learned first by a small, elite group with similar social backgrounds and inclinations.” He was right, and the new book could push the point harder. The rule of law always begins as a bargain among elites, who sometimes find it in their interest to constrain their regime with impersonal rules. Magna Carta, an early deal between the English king and his nobles (with little protection for anyone else), is a famous early example. Liberal rights begin as another instance of this: a set of rules that establish a kind of equality for members of an elite that has been broadened somewhat. In the United States, that meant the equal dignity of white men. Notoriously, the Declaration of Independence’s ringing claim that “all men are created equal” was written by the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. The 1866 Civil Rights Act recognized the preexisting baseline when it declared that “All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States” were entitled “to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens.” Liberalism emerged from nasty antecedents, but it could not have come into existence any other way.

The most malign version of identity politics, Fukuyama thinks, “denies the possibility of universally valid modes of cognition” and “elevates the value of group experience over what diverse individuals hold in common.” This view, strongly influenced by Michel Foucault, is an incoherent basis for any political claims: “If there are no truly universal values other than power, why should one want to accept the empowerment of any marginalized group, which will simply replace one expression of power with another?” It also “merges cleanly with a historical nationalism more commonly associated with the right.” The rhetoric is the same: “White nationalist groups today regard themselves as a beleaguered identity group.”

Fukuyama, however, offers an implausible account of the origins of identity politics. He traces its hypertrophy to the philosophy of John Rawls, whose 1971 book A Theory of Justice, he accurately reports, “has become the dominant articulation of contemporary liberal theory.” Rawls’s most important contribution to liberalism was to focus not only on abstract rights, but also on the actual choices that citizens have, which may require radical redistribution of resources. (Nussbaum’s focus on capabilities reflects Rawls’s continuing influence.) Fukuyama accuses Rawls of “the absolutization of autonomy, and the elevation of choice over all other human goods.” Presented with differences in the degree to which people are “public-spirited, generous, thoughtful, meaningfully connected to the people around them, courageous, well-informed, and interested in improving themselves through education,” Rawlsian liberalism “would not allow either public authorities or the rest of us to pass judgment,” because it “enjoins non-judgmentalism regarding other people’s life choices.”

This is fundamentally mistaken. Liberalism, Rawlsian or other, lets us pass judgment as much as we like. We are free to say that our neighbors are headed for hell because of their false religions. What liberalism forbids is the enforcement of those judgements with state power. The idea that we should be free to use our liberty in ways that others regard as contemptible ended the religious wars of the Reformation. Fukuyama is troubled that “the meaning of personal autonomy was steadily broadened from choice within an established moral framework, to the ability to choose the framework itself.” Excuse me, but that just sounds like the centuries-old idea of religious freedom, in which I get to worship what you regard as an evil demon. Religious conversion is now protected, and that’s choosing one’s moral framework if anything is.

Fukuyama worries that the most dangerous “expansion of the realm of individual autonomy” happened when “autonomy came to mean autonomy not for an individual but for the group in which the individual was embedded.” It is not clear how the absolutism of personal autonomy can, by its own logic, morph into identity politics — how a relentlessly individualistic ideology can become collectivism. Even if our inner selves are “heavily shaped by external forces like racism and patriarchy,” that doesn’t mean that our individual freedom no longer concerns us.

I suspect that some identitarian claims implicitly rely on individualist premises, and vanish once we focus on those premises. Consider the Black/white wealth gap, which lately has been the object of considerable discussion. It is often insinuated that closing this gap would help most Black people: individual people who would thereby be given more options. But in fact, the gap just means that the top 10 percent of white people, who have 75 percent of white wealth (the top 20 percent have nearly all of it), are a lot richer than the top 10 percent of blacks, who have 75 percent of the black wealth. The problem is one of class, not race, and identity politics is a distraction. A fairer distribution of resources would give individuals a better chance to prosper.

Fukuyama understands that the deepest dangers today aren’t deformations of liberalism, which in none of its forms, not even the mutant ones, supports “efforts to manipulate the electoral system in the United States in order to guarantee that conservatives remain in power, regardless of democratic choice” or “the use of violence and authoritarian government.” If liberalism deserves a share of blame for the rise of Trumpism, it is because of the damage caused by neoliberalism, which created an embittered constituency vulnerable to Trump’s lies.

The answer has to be better mechanisms of democratic accountability. Fukuyama observes that “strictly speaking liberalism and democracy are based on distinct principles and institutions.” It is possible to have one without the other, an authoritarian government that imposes liberal principles. Yet this is unlikely. Democracy may not be able to forge a coherent general will, but it does an excellent job of registering pain. Trump and Brexit showed that, for many citizens, the state was not delivering the lives that they wanted: “Liberalism by itself is not a sufficient governing doctrine on its own; it needs to be paired with democracy so that there can be political corrections made to the inequalities produced by market economics.”

Elections are not a sufficient democratic check. In The End of History, Fukuyama noted “the smallness of the individual when compared to the largeness of the country,” and asked, “[e]xcept on the most abstract and theoretical level, then, what sense does it make to say that the people have become their own masters?” Other institutions are necessary. One of the worst consequences of neoliberal governance in the United States has been the decline of labor unions, which the neoliberals eagerly abetted. Hayek thought that unions inefficiently raise labor costs, promote inflation, and distort the allocation of investment. On the other hand, organized labor was one of the few mechanisms that mobilized the less advantaged members of society and organized them into coherent voting blocs. Without private-sector unions, the political system is under little pressure to respond to those people’s interests, including their interests in the basic legal protections that Hayek hoped to guarantee for everyone. Bad neoliberal ideas have changed the configuration of political power.

The source of the discontents, Fukuyama writes, is that neoliberalism “dramatically increased economic inequality” and “[i]t is this inequality that is at the core of the progressive case against liberalism and the capitalist system with which it is associated.” He recognizes that inequality is, however, an inevitable byproduct of free markets. How are we to decide which inequalities ought to be remedied?

Here Fukuyama’s argument would be stronger if he would accept some help from Rawls. In The End of History, he wrote that a chronic weakness of liberalism is the lowness of its aspirations: Hobbes and Locke offered formulae for comfortable self-preservation, but people in fact want something more exalted than that. Fukuyama wondered whether liberal democracy could satisfy the desire for recognition of one’s dignity and worth. Rawls had an answer.

One of Rawls’s most important innovations was to make mutual respect the ultimate foundation of the liberal social contract. In a (hypothetical) contract entered into in which the parties were ignorant of moral irrelevancies, it would be irrational for them to risk “outcomes that one can hardly accept.” That rules out a state of affairs in which some “experience their condition as so miserable, or their needs so unmet, that they reject society’s conceptions of justice and are ready to resort to violence to improve their condition.” Even those with the least wealth are “those to whom reciprocity is owed as a matter of political justice among those who are free and equal citizens along with everyone else.” The distribution of wealth must not jeopardize their political equality. If, however, inequalities work to the benefit of the least well-off — and there is no doubt that free markets accomplish that — then those at the bottom have reason to accept the system. “Although they control fewer resources, they are doing their full share on terms recognized by all as mutually advantageous and consistent with everyone’s self-respect.”

Rawls’s Harvard colleague T. M. Scanlon, in a little book called Why Does Inequality Matter? (2018), observes that, once one sets aside issues of absolute deprivation, there are six different reasons why economic inequality as such could be in tension with mutual respect (a foundational concern he shares with Rawls): it may reflect that the state is treating people with unequal concern, valuing the well-being and autonomy of some more than others; it may lead to inferior status in society, which tends to engender shame and degradation; it may violate equality of opportunity, giving those who are better off unfair access to the best positions; it may give the rich unacceptable control over those who have less; it may undermine political fairness, giving the rich an undemocratic degree of influence; or it may be the consequence of a distribution of income and wealth that is unfair in itself.

These are the inequalities that liberalism should target for remedy. They are also the injuries and insults that have produced liberalism’s discontents. A free society will inevitably produce these, but the state can ameliorate them. We need to figure out how to do that if we are to realize Fukuyama’s admirable aspiration.


Andrew Koppelman, John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University, is the author of Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed (St. Martin’s Press, forthcoming). Follow him on Twitter @AndrewKoppelman.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Koppelman is the John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University. He is the author of Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed (St. Martin’s Press, 2022). His other books include Gay Rights vs. Religious Liberty? The Unnecessary Conflict and The Tough Luck Constitution and the Assault on Health Care Reform. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today,, The New Republic, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, and Vox. He is a regular contributor to The Hill and Balkinization.


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