Has liberalism ruined everything?

  • Cass R. SunsteinEmail author


There has been considerable recent discussion of the social effects of “liberalism,” which are said to include a growth in out-of-wedlock childbirth, repudiation of traditions (religious and otherwise), a rise in populism, increased reliance on technocracy, inequality, environmental degradation, sexual promiscuity, deterioration of civic associations, a diminution of civic virtue, political correctness on university campuses, and a general sense of alienation. There is good reason for skepticism about these claims. Liberalism is not a person, and it is not an agent in history. Claims about the supposedly adverse social effects of liberalism are best taken not as causal claims at all, but as normative objections that should be defended on their merits. These propositions are elaborated with reference to three subordinate propositions: (1) liberalism, as such, does not lack the resources to defend traditions; (2) liberalism, as such, hardly rejects the idea of “constraint,” though the domains in which liberals accept constraints differ from those of antiliberals, and vary over time; (3) liberalism, as such, does not dishonor the idea of “honor.” There is a general point here about the difficulty of demonstrating, and the potential recklessness of claiming, that one or another “ism” is causally associated with concrete social developments.


liberalism causal explanation freedom promiscuity 



This essay grows out of a commentary on the Vaughn Lecture at Harvard Law School, delivered in March 2019 by Yoram Hazony, titled “A Confederacy of Prodigies: On the Ascending of Reason and the Extinction of Conservatism in America,” and posted here: For their immense generosity and graciousness on the occasion, the author is grateful to Dr. Hazony, Jack Goldsmith, also a commenter at the event, and Mary Ann Glendon, the organizer of the event, with particular thanks to Hazony for his kindness. Special thanks, too, to Goldsmith, Martha Nussbaum, Lisa Disch, and two anonymous reviewers for superb comments on an earlier draft, and to Ethan Lowens for excellent research assistance. Readers are asked to make allowances for broad, brief, and somewhat informal remarks on some very large topics.


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© Springer Nature Limited 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Harvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

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