Among freedom-loving people in the West, fear of being conquered by tyrannical foreign enemies has long coexisted with another worry: the fact that many bygone eras of relative liberalism were not destinations at the end of history, but respites from tyrannies that societies imposed on themselves. If bygone peoples experienced relative freedom, then lost it, so might we.
What threatens liberal democracies from within?
In the 2005 book The Authoritarian Dynamic, social psychologist Karen Stenner describes what some have long regarded as the most significant threat to freedom within liberal societies: that roughly one third of humans have a latent predisposition to be so uncomfortable with diversity and difference and to value oneness and sameness so highly as to be willing to coerce it from others.
In field experiments, Stenner finds that while these people often behave in ways that are indistinguishable from everyone else, certain triggers activate their predisposition to authoritarianism. Alas, those triggers, which include loss of respect or confidence in leaders and the perception of value differences among citizens, are inescapable features of life in liberal democracies. As Stenner puts it, “Disagreement, dissent, and disobedience; determination of the 'common good' by debate and negotiation between partisans of competing worldviews: none of this is comprehensible, let alone palatable from the authoritarian perspective." So liberal societies regularly experience polarizing fights between authoritarians, who demand conformity and seek to impinge on freedom to coerce it, and those who fight back to protect diversity and difference.
As I see it, America is presently embroiled in just that dynamic. In fact, those of us who value freedom are fighting to conserve it on two fronts against authoritarian factions on the right and left, factions that loath one another even as they deploy similarly illiberal tactics like ad hominem attacks, appeals to identitarian traits rather than arguments, and campaigns to “cancel” political foes. These are the people who turn too many conversations into unconstructive culture war battles. And both factions are now so riled up by those battles that they’re less able or willing to compromise than before. They increasingly claim that to counter the illiberal excesses of their ideological opponents, they must transgress against or even abandon liberal norms themselves––witness, e.g., the Trumpists who stormed the Capitol and the progressives who talk as if the administrative state should have the power to police “misinformation” as they define it.
The individual rights that liberalism confers and the limits it imposes on state coercion are among the most powerful bulwarks we have against tyranny. Conserving them should be among the highest priorities of everyone who values freedom. Of course, liberals differ about how best to do that.
This disagreement should not be mistaken for inherent weLiberals can and do prevail in fights against authoritarianism. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union fell. America thrived on the world stage even as it became much more free for many of its citizens. Alas, no outcome is guaranteed and no liberal victory is ever final. Stenner understands her work as an account of the limits of liberal democracy written by someone who wants to save it in spite of those difficulties. In a paper co-authored with Jonathan Haidt, she wrote, "The things that multiculturalists believe will help people appreciate and thrive in democracy—appreciating difference, talking about difference, displaying and applauding difference—are the very conditions that encourage authoritarians not to heights of tolerance, but to their intolerant extremes."
In contrast, “Democracy is most secure, and tolerance is maximized, when we design systems to accommodate how people actually are," she counsels, because some people will never live comfortably in a liberal democracy. Nevertheless, they will remain our neighbors and fellow citizens.
It follows from Stenner’s work that freedom-loving people should resist the impulse to maximize their preferences in a given moment if doing so risks a backlash that will reduce freedom overall––and that there will never be an end of history when freedom is finally secured. In every society, lovers of freedom can work to conserve it, it by taking care not to go too far or too fast as to trigger a backlash, but the authoritarian dynamic will always be there as an ongoing and formidable challenge. One of the dilemmas of freedom is that, expanded too quickly or extremely, liberty can upend people’s comfort or expectations in ways that trigger a backlash.
While that may sound depressing, the many times and places when relative freedom has prevailed suggests that freedom-loving people can and will triumph again and again in the future—if they cultivate the necessary prudence. In fact, I wish the authoritarian dynamic were the most formidable challenge freedom-loving people were likely to face in the next several generations. But I see another challenge to freedom before us, one even more formidable in part because it is something new under the sun. And we had better step back from the culture war long enough to grapple with it intelligently.
Our future may depend on it.
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In perhaps the finest column that the late Charles Krauthammer ever published, he reflected on Fermi's paradox, the discrepancy between the theory that there is a high likelihood of intelligent life somewhere out there in the universe and the fact that, as far as we know, we are alone. The most depressing attempt to explain that paradox: perhaps every time a civilization gets technologically advanced enough to travel in space or even to communicate via radio waves with faraway places, its technology leads, soon after, to the civilization destroying itself.
Humanity gained the capacity to destroy itself at the dawn of the nuclear age. And as Krauthammer pointed out in that 2011 column, nuclear weapons aren’t the only such threats. Bioweapons presumably have the capacity to wipe us out, too. And today, it seems just as likely that climate change or artificial intelligence could end in civilizational if not planetary catastrophe.
Krauthammer wasn’t counseling surrender to extinction. “Rather than despair,” he wrote, “let’s put the most hopeful face on the cosmic silence and on humanity’s own short, already baleful history with its new Promethean powers: Intelligence is a capacity so godlike, so protean that it must be contained and disciplined.” He saw this as the work of politics, “understood as the ordering of society and the regulation of power to permit human flourishing while simultaneously restraining the most Hobbesian human instincts.” In his telling, if we don’t get politics right, we risk extinction.
How does that bear on freedom?
After all, insofar as we’re talking about nukes, the restrictions necessary to slow proliferation have not reduced and need not meaningfully reduce personal freedom. But technological advances keep making it easier for actors less powerful than a state to acquire more and more dangerous technology of all sorts. A modestly funded terrorist group, or even an individual, can already kill on a scale that alters civilization. Soon an individual or a small group may possess the ability to destroy a civilization. What if a smarter than average 9th grader with a $1,000 lab kit and an enabling AI helper can soon create a biological agent that does more damage than did Covid-19? In that world, affording 9th graders the privacy to tinker in their bedrooms as they see fit––a rather modest freedom in today’s terms––might come to strike many as akin to a death wish.
I don’t know which technology, in particular, will first advance past the point that would put existential threats in individual hands, or what comparatively minor catastrophes will occur along the way. A biotechnology firm is already releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild in a bid to fight disease. Perhaps a future effort of that sort will inadvertently wipe out all of nature’s pollinators, leading to disastrous shortages of food and other ecological catastrophers.
Regardless, current trends suggest a growing number of technologies that will alter our conception of how much freedom can be extended to everyone without undue civilizational risk. What, for example, are the implications of truly convincing “deep fakes” that can not only falsify the historical record but effectively simulate interpersonal or even geopolitical interactions? I’d love to present a schema for reducing the likelihood of catastrophe without needlessly impinging on freedom. But the particulars of how technology evolves may do more to shape the right answer than any plans or values we embrace today.
If technological uncertainty more or less describes what’s ahead, how does our civilization best safeguard freedom and survive, imposing restrictions that are absolutely necessary while stopping short of authoritarian excesses? Many of the usual norms still apply: assure checks and balances on power, transparency that permits ongoing democratic oversight, an ethos of deploying the minimum necessary constraints on freedom to achieve a given end, and offering legal recourse to anyone who believes that their rights are being violated.
And the value of anticipating new risks should not be underrated. If the United States and other liberal democracies see potential threats coming, untenable risks can at least be mitigated through civic processes that were designed with built-in safeguards against authoritarian excesses. Excessive impingements on freedom are most likely if, as on 9/11, a massive loss of life is sudden and unexpected. In that case, you get shock among citizens and a state response characterized by a series of emergency orders rather than by deliberative democracy.
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Though the old problem of authoritarians and the new problem of proliferating technologies are different in kind, reflecting on them has changed my politics in a similar way. I remain as libertarian as ever in my sympathies and values. That is to say, my instinct is usually to favor more freedom. But the old threats to freedom––from foreign actors and authoritarians within liberal societies––and the new threats to freedom, born of technological advances that empower an increasing number of people to kill on a civilization-altering scale, challenge those of us keen on conserving and expanding freedom over the long run to think carefully about sustainability. The question is not, “How can we maximize freedom today?” but rather, “What approach affords the most freedom to the most people that can be sustained for years, or into the next generation?”
The nuclear age and the technological eras succeeding it may pose the most formidable challenge to sustaining freedom that humanity has yet confronted: as the tools to kill on a massive scale become easily available to more and more people, there will be constant temptations to restrict everyone’s freedom to prevent mass death––and specific restrictions may even be necessary to humanity’s survival. Muddling through as best we can, from the freedom lover’s perspective, will require countless unpleasant judgment calls. But to withdraw from those judgment calls is to cede them to those who value freedom too little.
“We grow justly weary of our politics,” Krauthammer wrote. “But politics — in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations — is sovereign in human affairs. Everything ultimately rests upon it. Fairly or not, politics is the driver of history. It will determine whether we will live long enough to be heard one day. Out there. By them, the few — the only—who got it right.” If freedom endures, it will be in part because its partisans retained the confidence to fight for it.
Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic and founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a weekly newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.