At the end of the First World War the spiritual tradition of liberalism was all but dead. True, it was still uppermost in the thoughts of many a leading figure of public and business life, many of whom belonged to a generation which took liberal thought for granted. Their public pronouncements sometimes led the general public to believe that a return to a liberal economy was the ultimate goal desired by the majority of leading men. But the intellectual forces then at work had begun to point in quite a different direction. Anyone familiar, thirty years ago, with the thought of the coming generation and especially with the views propounded to the students in their universities, could foresee developments very different from those still hoped for by some of the public figures and the press of the time. There was no longer, at that time, a living world of liberal thought which could have fired the imagination of the young.
Nonetheless, the main body of liberal thought has been safeguarded through that eclipse in the intellectual history of liberalism which lasted throughout the fifteen or twenty years following the First World War; indeed, during that very period the foundations were laid for a new development.--F. Hayek (1951) "The Transmission of the Ideals of Economic Freedom" [HT Marleen Schliesser-Krieger]
Following Hayek, let's divide the history of liberalism into two unequal periods: first, the long nineteenth century, 1776-1918, which covers not just the development of political economy, the rule of law, representative democracy with increasing enfranchisement, the abolition of slavery, and the development of public opinion, but also what Hayek above calls "spiritual" liberalism.+ Then an "eclipse" which "lasted" about "twenty years following the First World War." Then the second phase between 1946-2009 (the 'neo-liberal' period), with its development of liberal welfare states, cultural emancipation, increased globalized legal and political structures, and, eventually, the financialization of the economy.
Right now, we're in a second eclipse signified by the election of the self-consciously anti-liberal Trump, Brexit, and a rising tide of intellectuals that promote nationalist, epistemocratic, and decisionist philosophies that justify the worst instincts of disgruntled electorates and elites as well as by increasingly assertive, emancipatory student movements -- confronted with staggering levels of inequality, racialized injustice, and hypocrisy over a looming environmental catastrophe --, that show contempt for the platitudes of previous generations. Mass surveillance, lack of privacy, mass incarceration, open ended warfare, indebtedness of the population, for profit media without commitment to truth (etc.) are the new normal. (All of which developed under a liberal cover.) What is most remarkable is that there has been no great war or hyper-inflation that has brought down the liberal edifice, but rather the all-to-predictable consequences of a badly botched response to the financial collapse which has undermined the sense of fairness and mutual trust that is the intangible cord of a generous liberal polity.
It is no surprise that illiberal intellectuals are the most exciting today. Their ideas are fresh and honed in long decades of opposition; they are animated by a justified sense that there are low hanging fruits to be tried for all kinds of experiments in living and policy solutions. Their embrace of what was once taboo is evidence of an enterprising spirit that acts like a magnet on donors and popular press. (The well meaning foolish demand that immoral ideas are engaged rather than ignored or vilified as if such engagement does not generate huge opportunity costs.) Where they propose the revival of once-discredited policies they can take advantage of the lack of living memory that would check any unwise adventurism. The underlying logic of most illiberal ideals is zero-sum. And because zero-sum frameworks (as exemplified by social hierarchies, national boundaries, competition over finite resources, rents extraction through patents/trademarks/monopolies, etc.) are self-reinforcing, we should not expect a spontaneous revival of liberal values and ideals. If anything, ambitious, smart, young people of good will find amply funded resources to explore illiberal solutions to the problems of our age; the bold thoughts they are encouraged to think -- [buzzwords:] bio-enhancement, complex systems, artificial intelligence, robotics, manipulating causal structures -- all tempt us to redesign the world.
In my view, most liberals in the broad sense of the terms have not come to terms yet with the collapse of faith in liberal commitments (equality, rule of law, mutual toleration, compromise, free markets, rising tide of expectations, education as a means toward emancipation, social security, free movement of people and ideas--how quaint these terms now seem) we're living through. Horror stories at border controls (not just denial of entry, but the intrusive inspection, even confiscation of notebooks and laptop) are still treated as incidents not as the creeping new normal. And so it will take time to see that doubling down on the old ideals (impartiality, civility, decency, forbearance) will not bring out about the revival of a humane polity, but just secure its further entrenchment into a smaller and smaller circle.
Let me come to a close. Hayek's piece was written just as the second liberal phase could be confident (thanks to Pax Americana) that it would get the space to grow. It is self-serving [because it ignores the constructive roles of social democracy, christian democracy, and [gasp] Keynesianism, etc.] and meant to honor, that is flatter, his own teacher(s). But even so, Hayek knew what it was like to be in intellectual exile, and for all his flaws also understood what it took to lay the foundations for a new liberal epoch. For those of us who cannot yet imagine a third liberal epoch, it may be instructive to reflect on his structural suggestions. In his piece Hayek identifies eight central components that went into the intellectual re-founding of the second epoch of liberalism: (i) the training of the next generation of pupils at institutions of higher education; (ii) the exploration of the "basic philosophical questions" in a foundational way, which form the bases of (iii) new textbooks; (iv) public dissemination; (v) ideology critique of others; (vi) involvement with practical policy questions; (vii) a willingness to tackle "the great problems of our time."
Each of these (i-vii) he associates with particular intellectuals (some of whom combined work on several of these), none of whom engaged in all seven of these functions (although Hayek himself covered many). As one would expect from Hayek, all these were done in a decentralized and ad hoc fashion based on somewhat contingent distribution of personal convictions, intellectual courage, and curiosity. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that Hayek and his friends were a club that over-emphasized, for understandable reasons, the (market) economy in a liberal political economy and paid too little attention to the many ways in which the profit motive without the right institutional framework can undermine indirectly the norms and values that sustain the liberal edifice.
I promised an eight component. This is a bit surprising because it involves considerable, centralized (non-governmental) coordination of the fruits of the intellectual division of labor: (viii) "An integrated structure of liberal thought is required and its application to the problems of different countries needs to be worked out. This will only be possible by a meeting of minds within a large group."*
Hayek was right to call attention to these 8 components of what we may call, ideological rebirth. The world has changed since the 1930s and 40s, and so the manner of their re-development will not be the same as then. (We are inclined to think in terms of networks rather than large groups; podcasts rather than periodicals, etc.) But, perhaps, a new world of liberal thought which can fire the imagination of the young is already being developed.
+I return to this idea some other time.