Something strange has been happening all year in Western politics. Both in the United States and Europe, events dismissed as unthinkable have occurred again and again. In June, Britons voted to leave the European Union. In November, Americans elected Donald Trump to be President. In opinion polls throughout 2016, Euroskeptic parties like Lega Nord and the Five Star Movement in Italy and the National Front in France, once derided as fringe movements, have shown continuing appeal. In fact, in Italy, Lega Nord and the Five Star Movement just combined to defeat a constitutional referendum championed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, leading Renzi to resign.
I well remember being almost persuaded by Francis Fukuyama’s wonderfully argued The End of History and the Last Man. The book suggested that the West and perhaps the world had reached an endpoint where democracies constrained by the rule of law and powered by market economies would dominate. If so, the future looked happy. The synthesis of the principles of democracy and economic liberty would lead to a peaceful prosperity where the chief excitement might come from the relentless doubling of computer power.
At least so far, however, The End of History has collided with history. Much of the Islamic world has not gotten the message. To be sure, the fall of the Soviet Union has led to many ex-communist states with an admirable commitment to law and the kind of economics that gains long-term prosperity. But there remains Russia, where democracy seems incapable of sustaining a loyal opposition, the state looms as leviathan, and the economy has large elements of a kleptocracy. Readers of Russian history should not be surprised. Richard Pipes has long argued that since the 15th century, Russian culture has been marked by disdain for rights of property and an enthusiasm for a patrimonial regime with little separation between state and economic and civic society.
But nothing better represents the failure of Fukuyama’s thesis than plight of Euro and the Greek crisis. The Euro was the monetary representation of history’s end in the birthplace of the West.
Last week Francis Fukuyama revisited his justly famous article, “The End of History,” which in 1989 argued that history, in a Hegelian sense, was coming to an end. With the breakup of the Soviet bloc, liberal democracy had won, and there were no real ideological competitors. As Fukuyama himself recognizes, 2014 does not look like 1989, but he nevertheless argues that liberal democracy remains effectively the only plausible system for modernity.
Fukuyama’s defense of his own work is thoughtful, but his original thesis suffers from a problem that is playing out now all over the world. There are inherent tensions in liberal democracy that ensure that history continues. By protecting liberties, liberalism prioritizes individuals, while democracy necessarily prioritizes a collective right—the right of a people to govern themselves and impose obligations and indeed trench on the liberties of others.
In a constitutional republic such as ours, we try to resolve that tension by permitting democracy for ordinary politics while enshrining rights that are beyond majority control. But even here with a constitution that has lasted for two hundred years the mixture is unstable. Just consider current conflict between campaign finance regulation and the First Amendment. Around the world the conflict is truly combustible.
Fukuyama acknowledges that some nations that looked in the 1990s as if they were moving to liberal democracies are backsliding today, but he does not discuss how this problem reflects in large measure the basic tension within liberal democracy itself.
This month's Liberty Law Forum is a discussion of the Classical Liberal Constitution: Contributions from Richard Epstein and Frank Buckley, with upcoming responses from Gail Heriot and Joel Alicea. The current Liberty Law Talk is with Don Devine on his new book, America's Way Back. We have a very timely review essay this week from Naval War College professor Karl Walling: The Problem of Military Intervention. Did you know that when it comes to healthcare, individual choice is overrated? I'll let Ezekiel Emanuel tell you why. I wonder, though, why those with means are placing themselves and their families in concierge medical care? A…