This essay is adapted from a contribution to a special online forum organized by the Cato Institute in honor of the 40th anniversary of its founding.
Conserving hard won liberties and advancing toward a freer society would be easy if everyone wanted to “live and let live” among a wide variety of people, or if the humans who want to suppress, disparage, or punish difference could be educated or acculturated into rejecting coercion. But what if those necessary tools are not sufficient?
So suggests Karen Stenner in The Authoritarian Dynamic, where she warns of the dangers of seeing intolerance as “a simple product of social learning” that will wane as the world’s cultures unlearn bad ideas. According to her scholarship, there will always be a subset of humans, across cultures and eras, whose deep discomfort with diversity predisposes them to support coercing others, as they reject and seek to undermine “any system that fails to promote oneness and sameness.”
Alas, these people are most likely to be activated in liberal democracies, where many will never feel entirely comfortable. And because their intolerance “springs from aberrant individual psychology,” rather than cultural norms, it is “bound to be more passionate and irrational, less predictable, less amenable to persuasion, and more aggravated than elevated by the cultural promotion of tolerance,” she argues. “Authoritarianism is a problem of and for libertarian, more than authoritarian, cultures. And intolerance is not a thing of the past, it is very much a thing of the future.”