As the clouds of illiberalism thicken overhead, the future of liberalism becomes much harder to articulate, much less prognosticate. In a recent panel discussion moderated by Bruce Caldwell and co-sponsored by the Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, distinguished scholars Emily Chamlee-Wright, Chandran Kukathas, Stephen Davies, and the late Steve Horwitz explore the meaning and importance of liberalism in the modern age.
Each scholar offers a similar, but slightly different definition of liberalism. For example, Kukathas classifies liberalism as a deep suspicion of power in all its manifested forms, including those entities of religion, the state, and private-public monopoly. Chamlee-Wright emphasizes the liberal sensibility as the “baseline default of tolerance and an openness to the whirlwinds of change and disruption.” Likewise, Steve Horwitz asserts that liberalism has always been a doctrine in direct opposition to state-sponsored privilege.
Despite the varying definitions, liberalism has contributed to the explosion in human wealth and knowledge over the last few centuries but continues to be challenged on many other fronts. One major theme of the discussion focuses on how we can uphold liberal values in the face of growing anti-liberalism, especially from the right.
“I think we’re moving back into a version of 19th century politics in which the major challenge to liberalism emerges from the right. This resurgence is something we must bear in mind if we are to defend the liberal tradition.“– Stephen Davies
To take an example, Kukathas addresses the recent impulse among certain natives to bar immigrants from entry into their country. He states that from a liberal point of view, there is no fundamental difference between native citizens voting to restrict immigration and native citizens voting to bar fellow natives from associating with each other. In other words, immigration restrictions serve to stamp out the same kinds of associations and relationships that exist among other natives.
In closing, each scholar points to the pressing need to reclaim the liberal agenda. This reclamation will require us to “revitalize a defense and articulation of fundamental liberal values,” as Stephen Davies is quick to add. These challenges are also an invitation and opportunity to clearly and confidently state why the core classical liberal principles are essential to the progression of human flourishing, but also where liberal ideas can seek to ameliorate the social pains that mark our current moment. For all these reasons, the future of liberalism is more sanguine than might commonly be perceived.
To watch the full panel discussion, you can visit Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics YouTube channel.