The sleeping giant of classical liberalism is awaking with a start, as if beset on all sides. Its most powerful foe is presently the illiberal right, due to their waxing power. Thus the Niskanen Center met Donald Trump’s rise with a new effort to revitalize liberalism rather than assuming its primacy, a project inspired by a liberal icon’s words.
“If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations,” Friedrich Hayek wrote. “What at one time are their most effective expressions gradually become so worn with use that they cease to carry a definite meaning. The underlying ideas may be as valid as ever, but the words, even when they refer to problems that are still with us, no longer convey the same conviction; the arguments do not move in a context familiar to us; and they rarely give us direct answers to the questions we are asking.”
Alas, liberalism is threatened from other directions, too. On college campuses, where members of successive generations are acculturated, old liberal truths are as vital as ever. But they have never been unanimously embraced, and today’s most potent challenges include a faction that seeks to limit debate on subjects as varied as race, gender, sexual assault, war, same sex marriage, divestment from Israel, and whether administrators or students ought to shape norms surrounding Halloween costumes. At times, these conflicts go beyond mere peaceful protests of speakers alleged to be racist, sexist, imperialist, or otherwise wrongheaded or insensitive, and involve disinviting, shouting down, or even or violently attacking speakers.