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The Twilight of Liberalism?

The rise of populism, of Trump, of opiate epidemics, of bitter polarization, and of yawning economic inequality have tempered the triumphalism of those who once celebrated the inevitable victory of markets and democracy.

· 14 min read
The Twilight of Liberalism?

The place and the object gave ample scope for moralizing on the vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his works, which buries empires and cities in a common grave; and it was agreed, that in proportion to her former greatness,
the fall of Rome was the more awful and deplorable.

~Edward Gibbon

Is liberalism dying? Thirty years ago, those words would have provoked hearty laughter. Its chief ideological competitor, communism, had just collapsed, leaving it without serious rival. Some optimistic thinkers asserted that we had reached an ideological “end of history” and that, having triumphed over all viable alternatives, liberalism would govern “the material world for the long run.” Today, however, few are so optimistic. The rise of populism, of Trump, of opiate epidemics, of bitter polarization, and of yawning economic inequality have tempered the triumphalism of those who once celebrated the inevitable victory of markets and democracy. The good news is that this growing pessimism has compelled reflection and reanalysis; the bad news is that plausible solutions remain out of sight. So is it possible that the recent spate of challenges to modern liberalism are symptoms of a systemic and incurable disease?

If so, it is not the abstract logic of liberalism that is flawed, but rather the attempt to apply it to fallible humans. Like communism, liberalism conflicts with immutable human characteristics. However, unlike communism, certain kinds of liberalism (the industrial liberalism of the 1900s, for example) work because they are moderated by the material conditions of society. But as those moderating conditions are obliterated by technology, the problems of post-industrial liberalism have become clearer. The ultimate problem is this: Humans desire unfettered freedom, but need the discipline that constraint provides. Without such discipline, they risk slumping into an empty and unsatisfying hedonism that is ruinous to communities and to society more broadly.

Those who are intelligent and self-controlled often create their own constraints and can therefore thrive in post-industrial societies that are radically unlike the societies in which humans evolved. Those who are less intelligent or self-controlled, however, often fail to create successful constraints and therefore suffer when once powerful cultural guardrails (such as religion, strict norms, civic groups, and so on) are destroyed by accelerating innovation and secularism. The result is a growing cultural and economic gap between segments of the population which, when coupled with the declining outcomes for a once thriving middle class, fuels growing bitterness and discontent. Combine this with a trend toward cosmopolitanism that increases ethnic and religious diversity and therefore potential sources of faction and conflict, and liberalism’s immediate prospects look bleak.


The ideology of liberalism, of course, did not spring fully formed from the mind of some transcendent intellectual. It was, rather, a slow, piecemeal development of seventeenth and eighteenth century political practice and philosophy. However, if we make allowances for simplification, these ideas are traceable back to the writings of John Locke, who contended that society was a contract agreed upon by free and equal individuals. This contention that freedom is a primitive possession of humanity, something with which they are born and something that can only be legitimately constrained with their consent, is the foundation and most important premise of liberalism. It means that a political system cannot justify itself by appealing to tradition or to the supernatural (divine right of kings); rather, it must appeal to reason. Political systems that cannot survive such a strenuous test are illegitimate. And, at least in certain cases, the people have a right to rise against them. The free and rational consent of the governed is therefore the most basic building block of social order.

At first, most liberals focused on government intrusions upon autonomy, but as liberalism developed, it became more confident and bold. Not only did it contend that many government impositions were intolerable affronts to liberty, but it also asserted that public opinion and inflexible norms were potentially equally ruinous of freedom. Many liberals, especially after the Enlightenment, also derided conservatism as a strong source of traditional values, and religion as a body of superstition that degraded believers and discouraged reason.

Ultimately, the goal of liberalism is to maximize freedom so that humans can achieve self-fulfillment. To this end, not only is government a contract that people can dissolve, but so too are virtually all human relationships: friendship, employment, marriage. If the arrangements do not enhance well-being, then they are eliminable. And narratives that promote subservience to—or mutual dependence on—god or humans, deserve scorn unless they are completely contractual. At the extreme, liberalism argues that even the borders of countries are irrational violations of the freedom of individuals to move freely from place to place. Why should one be bound to the country into which one was born (without consent)? And why should others be prevented by the arbitrary circumstances of birth from pursuing their goals wherever they choose?

Whatever one’s attitude toward classical liberalism, it’s hard to argue that it was wholly mischievous. In fact, combined with the scientific and the industrial revolutions, liberalism has helped increase humanity’s well-being more than any ideology before or since conceived. Its emphasis on liberty contributed, in large part, to the abolition of slavery, of cruel punishments, of aristocracies and arbitrary power, and led to free markets, free trade, women’s suffrage, and myriad other increases in human freedom that we now take for granted. Liberalism was an energetic and emancipating ideology that worked well for hundreds of years. However, it is struggling to cope with the challenges of a rapidly modernizing world beset by polarization, inequality, and acrimony.

Technological innovation, once a boon to liberalism, freeing humans from dreadful toil and greatly increasing convenience and well-being, is the cause of many of these new challenges. This is because technology has led to three unintended developments.

1. The Cognitive Divide

Technological progress has increased demand for those high in cognitive capacity while decreasing demand for other skills (and especially decreasing demand for “middle-skills” jobs). Many analysts pointed to economic anxiety among the white working class as one of the reasons for Trump’s improbable 2016 election victory. Although this has been vigorously disputed, the increasing appeal of economic (and cultural) populism suggests that something transformative has occurred in the market. The most obvious change since the late ’70s (and especially since the late ’90s) is the decline of well-paying jobs for those with relatively low cognitive capital (education). Although this decline is a fairly general phenomenon, the weakening demand for manufacturing jobs illustrates the point. Between 1960 and 2000, the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States remained constant. But, since 2000, nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs have been lost.

The decline in well-paying jobs for relatively uneducated men has coincided with a decline in the prime age (25–54) male labor force participation rate. In 1996, 4.6 million prime aged males were out of the labor force. By 2016, that number had increased to 7.1 million. Importantly, most of the males who are leaving the labor force are those who do not possess skills fit for a post-industrial marketplace. Profound changes in the economy, most notably automation, have led to an increasingly polarized labor market with job opportunities concentrated in the high-skill, high-wage sector and the low-wage, low-skill sector.

These labor market changes fuel inequality and resentment as they destroy middle-income, middle-skill jobs that once provided opportunities for relatively uneducated males. It is unlikely that these jobs will return. In fact, as automation increases, many of the remaining well-paying jobs for uneducated males will disappear. For example, many experts project the loss of over one million jobs in heavy-trucking by 2030. Truck driving is currently the most common job in the majority of states and it is one of the only well-paying industries that has thus far been immune to automation and globalization. The forces unleashed by economic liberalism ensure that trucking will not be immune for long.

2. Geographic Mobility

Technology has increased mobility and therefore the ability of people to sort geographically. Travel is easy. Those with the cognitive capital to thrive in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco can readily leave their less affluent towns and cities to join huge cosmopolitan neighborhoods with others who possess similar skills, talents, and interests. The increasingly efficient college system also contributes to this big sort because it more effectively discerns and rewards intelligence than it once did. Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and other elite colleges act as social sieves that grant the requisite degrees for access to jobs in coveted locations. Since the 1960s, evidence suggests that elite colleges have become a more demanding and efficient sorting machine, delivering degrees to the cognitive elite and denying access to everyone else.

Ultimately, this means that many neighborhoods, towns, and cities will become more homogenous intellectually and ideologically. This is especially true of desirable neighborhoods, because only those with the required cognitive capital will be able to afford and thrive in them.

Equally important, technological innovations allow people to sort culturally. For example, television once offered only a handful of channels. Families, therefore, could choose among a few shows, most of which aimed for the middle of culture, so as not to alienate potential viewers. Now, however, Amazon, Netflix, HBO, and Showtime each offer a dizzying array of entertainment options. No longer required to reach an enormous audience, television shows and movies can appeal to specialized slivers of the populace. This means more choice. And more diversity. And a greater divergence between the entertainment that the highly intelligent and less intelligent consume.

The same holds for other forms of entertainment and for leisure more broadly. Because humans enjoy greater control over their environments than ever before, small personality or cognitive differences can lead to large downstream cultural differences. People who score high in openness and therefore desire novelty may cultivate a taste for Middle Eastern music and Polish cinema, whereas more conservative people may enjoy traditional American music and blockbuster films. The shared narrative that used to bind people together, the shared discussion about MASH or Monday Night Football, has long since fractured. Very few entertainment spectacles or cultural practices bind people together from across the intellectual and economic continuum. Instead, people exist in cultural cocoons that seem alien and mutually hostile. Elites denigrate “lower” culture for being crude and boorish; and much of the population ridicules elite culture for its inaccessibility and haughty pretension.

3. Evolutionary Mismatch

Evolutionary analysts contend that the human mind is comprised of mechanisms that evolved to solve recurrent evolutionary problems such as a need to procure and consume calories or seek and consummate romantic relationships. Although intuitive, the notion that the human mind is a general thinking machine and is therefore able to thrive in any environment is not supported by theory or data. The human mind is, of course, a marvel of nature, but it is limited and fallible. It evolved—with an important qualification—to solve specific problems. Therefore, it is particularly good at grappling with some challenges, but not so much at grappling with other, more recent challenges.

Modern humans in the West, of course, inhabit a world full of novel challenges because of thousands of generations of technological evolution and innovation. Humans are cultural animals and have always thrived by creating useful technologies. But for much of human evolution, these technologies did not change dramatically. After the 1700s, however, technological innovation exploded, birthing the modern world and providing it with televisions, refrigerators, computers, automobiles, airplanes, iPhones, pornography, cigarettes, refined sugars, and much more. Novel and often bewildering or dangerously seductive, these technologies pose significant challenges to the human mind. Theorists call this gap between the environment humans inhabit and the one in which they evolved “evolutionary mismatch.”

Has Liberalism Failed?
Every regime hits peaks and troughs. What is the evidence that this present crisis is terminal failure, rather than another periodic setback?

Sometimes new inventions cause problems because they are simply confusing or perplexing. For example, it is highly unlikely that humans “evolved” to learn calculus. Rather, a small subset of the population can learn calculus with explicit instruction and careful attention and effort. But many cannot and are totally perplexed by its inscrutable equations. And sometimes modern inventions cause problems because they appeal to evolved systems but are ultimately distracting or harmful. Humans did not evolve in an environment with Hostess cupcakes or Oreo cookies. While a sweet tooth three thousand years ago was functional, compelling humans to seek wild fruits and perhaps honey, today, concentrated sugar is notoriously easy to procure and delightful to consume. Unfortunately, it is also potentially pernicious in the long run and can lead to obesity even in the short run.

We have already noted in passing a qualification to the contention that the mind evolved to solve specific problems. That qualification is general intelligence. Many theorists have contended that intelligence either evolved specifically to deal with novelty or at least allows humans better to cope with it. Consistent with this theory, evidence suggests that those who are more intelligent than others are better able to navigate and thrive in novel environments than others. Relatedly, self-control also seems to help humans function with novelty. This should not be surprising because one of the primary challenges many modern inventions pose is that they are incredibly pleasurable but also potentially dangerous or distracting. It requires self-control not to abuse euphoria-inducing drugs or lose one’s self in the appealing universe of an online video game.

The Consequences

These three stressors conspire to exacerbate divisions between cognitive elites and others, which creates an unstable and fractious political environment. Adding to this ferment, the West has become increasingly diverse ethnically, culturally, and religiously. One may celebrate this diversity, but it is difficult to contend that it has been an unequivocal blessing. Diversity increases divisions and undermines cultural cohesion, augmenting polarization, bitterness, and alienation.

The elites, because they are, on average, more intelligent and more self-controlled than much of the population, prosper in a technologically sophisticated (and mismatched) world and thrive in a social ecology that is less constrained by traditional narratives, judgments, and norms than by reason and rational interests. Flourishing in this freedom, these elites come to believe that others should enjoy the blessings of liberty and therefore assail what they see as stultifying institutions and values such as organized religion and other conservative ideologies. But this actually exacerbates the problem because it degrades valuable narratives and institutions that guide and give meaning to people’s lives.

This point deserves reflection. It seems likely that certain generally conservative ideologies (Christianity, for example) arose and evolved to guide humans successfully through the thicket of temptations that life offers, from reckless sex to wasteful violence. Arguably, these ideologies became more valuable, at least to a subset of the population, as society became more novel because they provided counterweights to the charms of seductive but potentially dangerous novelties such as drugs, refined sugars, and distracting but ultimately frivolous entertainments. As noted above, people who are higher in intelligence and self-control are better able to navigate these novel temptations and obstacles; therefore, many of them probably legitimately believe that conservative social narratives aren’t beneficial and are, in fact, intolerably coercive. They attack them, then, not because they are mean-spirited people, but because they think that by attacking them they are liberating humans from the chains of antiquated ideologies. And their persistent attacks on these narratives and institutions devalue and ultimately undermine them, causing them to retreat and decay.

This doesn’t harm the cognitive elites because they don’t need those institutions or narratives (they create different institutions and narratives that serve similar functions), but it quite likely does harm other people. And it arouses resentment in those who feel besieged and denigrated for, as former president Obama put it, clinging to “guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” As this cultural battle between cognitive elites and others intensifies, political elections become more fraught. People become more willing to support those who violate pivotal democratic norms because winning is perceived as more important than preserving fraying traditions. And authoritarianism is seen as an expedient way to win a furious cultural war and to cut through frustrating partisan gridlock.

These same growing cultural divisions enable (and perhaps impel) the cognitive elite to believe in more elaborate, esoteric, and alienating doctrines (which elsewhere we have called “radical progressivism“). For example, radical cultural progressivism, which maintains that the West is nearly irredeemably sexist, racist, and bigoted, is ascendant and widely promoted by educated elites, capturing much of the Democratic party in the United States, which is forced at minimum to feign fidelity to its principles. Although many of the people who promulgate this ideology are undoubtedly earnest, it is hard not to see it as something of a signaling system complete with a legitimation narrative that justifies the enviable social position of the elites who espouse it. This, in itself, although slightly obnoxious is mostly innocuous.

However, the problem is that radical progressivism also promotes policies that exacerbate divisiveness and undermine the cohesion necessary to sustain Western liberalism. For example, radical progressivism promotes a very generous immigration policy because it believes that diversity is everywhere and always a social good. From the perspective of the cognitive elite, this is likely true (at least in the short term). They benefit from the exchange of new ideas and foods and delight in exploring novel cultural practices. Those who are not highly educated or who are less open and less cosmopolitan suffer because their communities are irrevocably altered. Worse, they are then belittled as bigots for attempting to preserve their culture. This, in turn, makes authoritarianism even more appealing to many in the population as a way to protect their communities and countries from rapidly changing demographics and cultural norms.

Meanwhile, these cultural divisions will likely be aggravated by increasing economic inequality for the foreseeable future as technology continues to eliminate middle-tier jobs, creating a kind of market polarization between cognitive elites and others. This will likely lead to more support for economic populists and less concern to protect a market system that is perceived to be failing a significant proportion of the population.


The most depressing feature of this potential dissolution of liberalism is that it seems almost inevitable. It is not a conspiracy nor the result of a tyrant’s whim, but rather the collective outcome of myriad rational decisions. People want to live in cities where they can maximize the return on their social and cognitive capital. And they want to associate with others with whom they share talents and interests. But this locally desirable sorting almost inescapably creates and exacerbates cultural divisions. Furthermore, as technology increases the return on cognitive abilities relative to other skills, the market will continue to produce large economic inequalities. In other words, freedom, as understood by liberalism, will likely lead to an explosive level of bitterness, envy, and polarization.

The political theorist Patrick Deneen has argued that liberalism, whatever its benefits, was always a dubious political philosophy and has already failed. For those sympathetic to such an argument, these trends might not be surprising and, in fact, the decline of liberalism might be cause for cautious celebration. Its disease is, after all, fatal; all that is left is the painful wait for it to expire. Perhaps we should even hasten its death and begin to arrange the post-liberal world we’ll inevitably inhabit.

Others, however, see less reason for celebration. Despite its many flaws and despite the difficult challenges it now faces, liberalism has been one of the greatest and most resilient forces for good in human history. In his recent monograph, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argued that it is nearly impossible to envision a superior ideological alternative. The world before liberalism was one of arbitrary power, barbaric punishments, grotesque inequalities, and preposterous superstitions. What the modern era has lost in mystery and community, it has more than made up for in comfort, convenience, freedom, tolerance, and scientific understanding. Therefore, instead of denigrating liberalism, we should fight to save it.

What is needed for liberalism from this perspective is a fuller appreciation of the frailties and fallibilities of humans, a deeper respect for tradition and order, and a more tempered understanding of individual freedom—in other words, a kind of liberal conservatism that eschews dogmas about limited government and economic freedom in favor of the more pressing task of conserving the legacy of Western liberty.

Perhaps, however, even this will fail. Perhaps the challenges that confront liberalism are insoluble. Or perhaps we simply lack the political skills to solve them. And perhaps we are, indeed, watching the last glimmering light of liberalism disappear into darkness. If so, let us hope that respect for freedom, for individualism, for representative government, and for the other gifts of the Enlightenment are not enveloped by the gloom.

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