But while this new liberal historicism may have a certain rhetorical appeal, it fails to convince. Instead of recognizing the weakness of Fukuyama’s original approach, Siedentop, Fawcett, Cameron, and Clinton have simply dusted down the same old historical determinism, just without the economics. It isn’t any more convincing than when Fukuyama tried it.
It was the great liberal philosopher Karl Popper who first exposed the weaknesses of historicism as a mode of political justification in his devastating critique of Marxist and fascist determinism. It is ironic that his arguments now apply to the liberalism he sought to defend. Following Popper’s argument, it’s easy to see at least two fundamental logical problems with the historicist approach to liberalism. First is the claim that anyone in the past who expressed any degree of egalitarianism or concern for individual conscience is a liberal. The idea that there is a straight line of human progress that leads from Saint Paul through Luther, the Philosophes, and Lloyd George to Jack Kennedy is patently absurd: They all had different definitions of freedom and what it ought to accomplish. Second, the idea that there is a “historical law” guiding the development of societies is fanciful. Even if there were some weird sort of pattern which suggested that “liberal” ideas did indeed “win out” in the past, it wouldn’t be anything more than a mere curiosity. It wouldn’t prove anything about liberalism in itself, nor would it say anything about the future. It would just tell us what happened before. To read meaning or predictive power into any pattern in the past is, in fact, about as intellectually respectable as reading tea leaves.
As the weaknesses of the new liberal historicists’ arguments show, liberalism is struggling to recover from its post-Fukuyama malaise because its defenders are just being too lazy. Siedentop, Fawcett, Cameron, and Clinton seem to assume that everyone with an ounce of sanity must be a liberal, and that there is hence no need to defend liberalism against its shortcomings. But no amount of retrospective back-patting will convince those who simply don’t think the same way. It’s no wonder, given their intellectual arrogance, that so many liberals are surprised when large parts of the world rejects them—or that people spurn their wise counsel when markets collapse and life savings are threatened by the accidents of free-market capitalism.
If liberalism is to survive and flourish, it has to be rescued from Fukuyama’s grasp and from the perils of historical determinism. It has to be defined and defended all over again. This of course raises the question of what liberalism actually is—and it’s notable that so many liberals skip this step in debate as though it was unimportant. In a recent issue of Foreign Policy dedicated exclusively to reevaluating Fukuyama’s legacy, the unresolved problem of “the liberal identity” was conspicuous by its absence. Article after article foundered in their attempts to defend liberal alternatives to populism or socialism precisely because they offered no satisfactory post-Fukuyama understanding of liberalism. But it is impossible to defend liberalism against its critics without making it clear precisely what it stands for. Skeptics can hardly be won over if liberals can’t tell them what they are being won over to or how it differs from the uninspiring mess created by Fukuyama and his continuators.
Surrounded by the confused, jargon-ridden babble of political commentators today, it is perhaps easy to forget that liberalism is defined by a commitment to liberty. At root, liberty is a concept grounded in the individual. It is the freedom to be all that one is, to actualize the fullness of one’s potential as a human being endowed with the capacity for creativity and the ability to make autonomous value judgments for ourselves.
It is, of course, true that liberty can be read many ways. As Isaiah Berlin observed, there is positive liberty, the freedom to do something; and there is negative liberty, the freedom from something; and depending on circumstances, one or the other can appear to be of greater importance. But while this distinction has tended to dominate debates in political philosophy since the Second World War, it is perhaps more useful to think back to the writings of Voltaire and the earliest Encyclopédistes and to remind ourselves that liberty in its purest form—both positive and negative—can be thought of as the realization of man’s inherent dignity as a human being.
This is more than just a matter of high-flown words. The concept of human dignity has two important implications, both of which were recognized by Cicero as far back as the first century B.C. but seem to have been forgotten today. The first is that we all share the same degree of dignity: No one has any less potential than any other, and no one’s humanity is any less pronounced than anyone else’s. The second is that our humanity imposes upon us the same basic needs. By virtue of our nature, we all require food, shelter, clothing, security, and a range of other basic goods necessary for sufficiency and survival. Though deceptively simple, these implications have profound meaning when we consider how individual liberty is to be translated into a social and political construct. If the liberty of each person is to be maintained and maximized, the principles of equity and the common good must be embedded in the structure of society. And since society is structured above all by law, the law must reflect these precepts. To have liberty is hence to live according to laws grounded on equity and the common good; and where law deviates to even the smallest degree from either, it necessarily becomes the instrument of private or factional interests, and liberty is lost.