Books for Our Times: “Liberalism and Its Discontents,” by Francis Fukuyama

Carla Seaquist
9 min readMay 29, 2024


Seventh in an ongoing series, Books for Our Times

It’s always good to get more than you bargained for.

I came to this book — “Liberalism and Its Discontents” — looking for argument: As a center-left liberal, I expected the author’s “discontents” with liberalism to target the worrying extremes of today’s far-left (“Enough with the pronouns!”). Instead, it is an overview, a useful one, about classical liberalism — the doctrine that emerged in the second half of the 17th century, after much war and revolution, that limits the powers of government in service of the “rights-bearing” citizen.

This liberalism — broadly speaking, freedom — is embraced across our political spectrum. Everyone, left and right, loves freedom. Yet left and right interpret freedom very differently.

Classical liberalism, which “became the dominant organizing principle of much of world politics by the end of the 20th century” — has been in retreat in recent years, in a “democratic recession or even depression.” Here in the U.S., author Francis Fukuyama contends, the threat comes from both right and left. Populists on the right “flirt with the use of violence and authoritarianism” (e.g., manipulating the electoral system), while progressives of the left demand massive redistribution to allay massive income inequality and tout group identity to the detriment of liberalism’s original focus, the individual.

“The answer to these discontents,” Fukuyama says, “is not to abandon liberalism as such, but to moderate it.” Thus the book’s value-added: It operates at the level of principle (policy is left to others) and moderation (versus extremism). As a system, liberalism is eminently worth saving: “Its durability reflects the fact that it has practical, moral, and economic justifications that appeal to many people, especially after they have been exhausted by the violent struggles engendered by alternative political systems. It is not, as Vladimir Putin suggested, an ‘obsolete’ doctrine.” (Published in 2022 after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the book does not address Putin’s own obsolete imperial aims.)

Fukuyama lays out his thesis in ten chapters. Here are the essential elements:

“What is Classical Liberalism?” This mission review elaborates on liberalism’s aims: individualist, egalitarian, universalist, and meliorist (affirming the world’s improvability). While liberalism contrasts sharply with nationalist and religious doctrines favoring their own group, “early liberals had a restricted understanding of who qualified as a rights-bearing human being”: In the U.S. initially, they were white, property-owning men. Our history since is a struggle of restricted groups, notably African Americans out of slavery and women, to force America to its stated ideals. Liberalism’s three justifications are: the pragmatic (regulating violence); the moral (protecting individual dignity and autonomy); and economic (protecting property rights). Then the theme: “Most doctrines or ideologies begin with a core insight that is true or even revelatory, but they go wrong when that insight is carried to extremes — when the doctrine becomes, so to speak, doctrinaire.”

“From Liberalism to Neoliberalism.” A domain evincing extremism is the economic, where liberalism evolved into neoliberalism, used today “as a pejorative for capitalism.” Espoused by Chicago School economist Milton Friedman and put into practice by RonaldReagan and Margaret Thatcher, neoliberalism is anti-statist, anti-regulation, anti-welfare state, and extremely pro-free market. Wherein lay the problem: While aggregate income grew, so did income inequality, fueled by multibillionaires and oligarchs. “A valid insight into the superior efficiency of markets evolved into something of a religion,” something “irrational.” Neoliberalism’s extreme anti-state/pro-market view can morph into cruelty, echoing Charles Trevelyan of the British Treasury who in the 1840s blamed the Irish famine on “the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”

“The Selfish Individual.” Individualism — the rational and irrational behavior of the individual in the market and society — is the focus. Are human beings more consuming or producing animals? (Happiness lies in a balance.) Extreme individualism is alienating and is offset by our need for community and respect. Property rights are central to liberal doctrine, but “what if that property was initially acquired by violence or theft?” The doctrine of individualism comes a cropper when “property rights and consumer welfare [are] worshipped and all aspects of state action and social solidarity denigrated.”

“The Sovereign Self.” This chapter’s point comes at the top: “Individual autonomy was carried to an extreme by liberals on the right who thought primarily about economic freedom. But it was also carried to extremes by liberals on the left, who valued a different type of autonomy centered around individual self-actualization.” The philosophical bases of these two interpretations are traced, with discussion of Martin Luther, Kant, Rousseau, Hobbes. Fukuyama is especially insightful on the far-left’s valorization of autonomy, as enunciated by John Rawls, which taken to extremes, “ultimately empties us of meaning.” He writes, “[A]n autonomous self that has been detached from all prior loyalties and commitments is” (quoting Michael Sandel) ‘not to conceive of an ideally free and rational agent, but to imagine a person wholly without character, without moral depth.’”

“Liberalism Turns on Itself.” Identity politics, a bane in Fukuyama’s view, is this chapter’s focus. Of course, excluded groups like African Americans and women had to secure, through political action, their rights and recognition. Problems arise when racial or sexual identity occlude identification with the larger community. Also, insisting that “the wrong kind of speech should not be tolerated when exercised by repressive forces defending the status quo” — i.e., cancellation — undermines absolute freedom of speech itself, key to classical liberalism. Because classical liberalism was imperfectly implemented, unpacking its imperfections becomes extremely difficult between invested parties — see: the “noisy fight” over Critical Race Theory (CRT). Liberal powers that were also colonial powers (Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium) similarly resist unpacking.

“The Critique of Rationality.” “From its earlier beginnings, modern liberalism was strongly associated with a distinctive cognitive mode, that of modern natural science. This mode assumes that there is an objective reality,” proved in empirical pioneering of Descartes and Bacon. But now: “Modern democracies are facing a deep cognitive crisis,” with rational discourse increasingly difficult. Liberal societies “cannot survive if they are unable to establish a hierarchy of factual truths.” Hard to do when fact is outweighed by value, Max Weber’s concern; is it the case that ultimate value is Nietzsche’s “will to power”? I wish Fukuyama had guidance pointing us back to Reason. I did enjoy his demolition of postmodernism’s “radical subjectivity,” which holds factual observation is impossible, whose practitioners “deliberately obscure their thought and shield it from accountability for contradictions and weak logic.” But what this means: We’re in “a cognitive wasteland where, in Peter Pomerantsev’s words, ‘nothing is true and everything is possible.’”

“Technology, Privacy, and Freedom of Speech.” The old axiom that good information drives out bad is no longer true. Inundated with so much information, from digital media combined with legacy media, we can’t make sense of it. People now follow a different cognitive model: Describing Jonathan Haidt’s work, Fukuyama writes, people “do not begin with any kind of neutral observation of empirical reality. Rather, they begin with strong preferences for the reality they prefer….a process labeled ‘motivated reasoning.’” This explains the “fantasy world” of Donald Trump’s base, also online gaming and the “fantasist world of Hollywood superheroes.” This “thinking” is prey for authoritarian regimes. The author concludes: “It remains the case that there is an objective world out there beyond our subjective minds.” But, if “alternative reality strays too far from it” — “it” being objective reality — ”it will be impossible to accomplish real-world goals.”

“Are There Alternatives?” Here Fukuyama treats the right’s main discontent with liberal order: that the disdain of religion, moral doctrine, or cultural tradition “leaves liberal orders with a spiritual vacuum” and a “moral laxity in which individuals worship themselves, rather than any transcendent God or moral principle.” Now add gender fluidity to this discontent. Writes Fukuyama, “The substantive conservative critique of liberalism — that liberal societies provide no strong common moral horizon around which community can be built — is true enough. This is indeed a feature and not a bug of liberalism.” (Being center-left, I resonate totally with this discontent.) Some matters demand moral judgment, something that progressives abjure. Race is one: Fukuyama cites the Lincoln-Douglas debates, taking place when the antebellum South overwhelmingly supported slavery. “Douglas argued for the primacy of democratic choice: he professed to not care whether the people voted slavery up or down…. Lincoln’s response was to say that there were more important principles at stake than democracy [italics mine], namely, the premise that ‘all men are created equal’ contained in the Declaration of Independence. Slavery contravened this principle; it was wrong whether or not democratic majorities supported it.” Answering the question, Are there alternatives?: Lincoln points the way.

“National Identity.” Another discontent generated by liberal societies: “their frequent inability to present a positive vision of national identity to their citizens.” We note this now, with Democrats unable to compellingly counter Republicans’ antidemocratic acts (i.e., their failure to support the peaceful transfer of power). Fukuyama posits why: Liberal theory is built atop a claim of universalism. Also, “many liberals dislike the particularistic attachments of nationalists and believe they are ‘citizens of the world.’” (Fukuyama claims “few people love humanity as a whole,” which I find odd and not true.) To compete with rising authoritarian powers, cohesion must be found. “Liberals have tended to shy away from appeals to patriotism and cultural tradition, but they should not [italics mine]. National identity as a liberal and open society is something of which liberals can be justly proud, and their tendency to downplay national identity has allowed the extreme right to claim this ground.” More: “Historically, liberal societies have been engines of economic growth, creators of new technologies, and producers of vibrant arts and culture. This has occurred precisely because [italics Fukuyama’s] they were liberal.” Per Pericles: In democracy, equality prevails, but man distinguishes himself according to his reputation and virtue, “as he can do good service to the commonwealth.”

“Principles for a Liberal Society.” “The U.S. has for long been the world’s leading liberal power, and in years past has been a ‘beacon of liberty’ for…the world,” but now, “American institutions have decayed…, becoming rigid and hard to reform.” To the cited principles, Fukuyama has final thoughts. The now-antidemocratic GOP must opt between violence or Disraeli’s playbook of embracing demographic change, “recognizing many voters could be enticed not by right-wing identity politics, but by conservative policies.” Progressives must embrace political and religious diversity. Both must reduce the “fear and loathing of the state,” with Republicans arming against state tyranny, while leftists decry a “corporatist” state and CIA or NSA surveilling. Instead, says Fukuyama, “The issue rather is the quality of government” and calls for “well-educated professionals with a strong sense of public purpose.” Finally, free speech needs to be responsible speech (I’ve long advocated this). Responsibility is a moderate’s hallmark. “Nothing in excess,” as the Greeks held. Fukuyama holds fulfillment comes from “acceptance of limits,” adding: “Recovering a sense of moderation, both individual and communal, is therefore key to the revival — indeed, to the survival — of liberalism itself.”

Thus ends the Scripture according to Fukuyama. The author leapt to fame in the early post-Cold War era with his book “The End of History and the Last Man,” which posited that with the demise of the Soviet Union, history ideologically had come to an end and liberalism would reign supreme. It hasn’t worked out that way for the “winner,” thus this book on its discontents.

At this hinge historical moment, this primer instructs — eventually. This reviewer has clarified Fukuyama’s considerable churn. Fukuyama also indulges in vocabulary that stumped this once-competitive speller (“cadastral” and “usufructuary” on the same page); and there’s economic jargon. But the nut — liberalism and its discontents — merits deep thought.

I will leave off with this thought that Fukuyama expresses early on: “At the heart of the liberal project is an assumption about human equality: that when you strip away….accumulated cultural baggage that each one of us carries, there is an underlying moral core that all human beings share and can recognize in one another.” Amen to that!



Carla Seaquist

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" (Vol. II). Playwright. Fmr. HuffPost.