Key Challenges within a Free Society

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Generous support from the John Templeton Foundation has allowed IHS to launch a three-year, $3-million project focusing on key challenges within a free society. This project seeks to support 300 unique research contributions and engage over 600 scholars from diverse disciplines to address critical questions central to a free society

Program Overview

Those sympathetic to ideas within the classical liberal tradition—champions of the open society, individual liberty, limited government, and free markets—will frequently point to the widespread social and economic benefits they attribute to such freedoms. Critics in the humanities and social sciences, on the other hand, have raised important challenges to liberal and classical liberal arguments that go to the very heart of what we understand the “good society” to be. These challenges should be given serious consideration, but unfortunately, such discourse is often ideologically siloed, making it difficult to reap the benefits that follow the productive collision of ideas.

In the belief that every intellectual tradition benefits when it encounters challenge and rigorously examines varying points of view, IHS has launched the Key Challenges Within a Free Society project.

This project offers support for research workshops and edited volumes that aim to invigorate the interdisciplinary study of classical liberal ideas through the examination of tensions between liberty and equality, dynamism and stability, and open inquiry and social cohesion. The project will address questions such as:

  1. What is our understanding of equality and its importance in a free society?
    • Liberalism has traditionally been committed to formal equality – equality before the law. Are there other forms of equality (“equality of opportunity,” “equality of outcome”) that should be taken as goals in a free society?
    • Is “equality of outcome” in tension with individual liberty? Do free markets necessarily generate material inequalities, and if so, to what extent do those inequalities have negative consequences? 
  2. Can human flourishing advance while social and economic change undercut stability in the lives of those who do not benefit directly from dynamism?
    • Are free markets responsible for rapid social change?
    • If so, to what extent should that change be controlled or managed to protect vulnerable people and communities?
  3. Can we maintain a commitment to open inquiry while preserving respectful exchange in a diverse world?
    • Are there limits to free speech, especially if that speech is perceived to undermine social cohesion?
    • Do the forms of speech we tolerate in the public square, including in some cases deeply offensive speech, also deserve to be respected in other contexts?
    • What role does higher education have to play in determining the range and limits of open inquiry?

Research Workshops

Research Workshops are weekend-long, roundtable discussions that bring together 10–14 junior and senior scholars to provide valuable feedback from a variety of perspectives on a work, or multiple works, in progress. Workshops are hosted virtually and in-person and offer academics the opportunity to advance inquiry on important topics within the classical liberal tradition, strengthen specific research contributions, and form interdisciplinary and inter-generational networks of scholars with whom they can collaborate in the future. Financial support is available to cover travel, accommodation, and associated administrative costs.

Publication Support

IHS offers significant financial support to select academics interested in publishing an edited volume (with 12-15 contributors) or contributing to a special journal issue. Funding is available for editors as well as authors. Eligible subject areas include free speech, civil exchange, liberty, equality, market dynamism, and social stability.

Publication support for edited volumes

Relevant Areas for Proposed Projects

In addressing central questions related to equality, market dynamism, and open inquiry, scholars can have a positive impact on some of today’s most pressing issues such as:

  • How do we understand and address chronic poverty? How are race, ethnicity, and geography related to questions about poverty and inequality?
  • Insofar as the market is functioning, is it “a tide that lifts all ships,” or do structural barriers significantly limit the power of markets to improve some people’s lives? If so, can those barriers be removed while still respecting individual liberty? To what extent does the market exacerbate material inequalities?
  • How should we think of equality of outcome in relation to formal equality? Is it a meaningful measure of well-being?
  • Free markets are necessarily dynamic, and “creative destruction” is generally perceived by economists to be a positive process that leads to better outcomes. But do better long-term outcomes from creative destruction justify the short-term collateral damage that may occur as the economy shifts?
  • Are there aspects of market processes that can be developed or modified that limit the negative consequences of economic change while also respecting the freedom of individual actors?
  • Do the principles that underpin free speech necessarily weigh against consensus and inclusion? How can social and political discourse become a process to achieve greater social cohesion, rather than a spiral of polarization and mutual distrust?
  • How do we foster pluralism and tolerance while also defending the legitimate rights those who want to speak against both?