The Liberalism of Refuge

Issue Date April 2024
Volume 35
Issue 2
Page Numbers 136–151
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Frustrated by persisting inequality, oppression, and corruption in liberal societies, and disillusioned with liberalism’s failures, many are stepping away. Yet liberal societies are still admirable because they offer refuge from the very people they empower. They require rulers to accept limitations on their power and provide escape hatches from the worst parts of political life. Offers of refuge may be found in opposition political parties, independent institutions, reasonably autonomous local communities, powerful civil society organizations, and the market economy. There is a nobility in offering refuge, in the safety and opportunity it presents for building something new.

Autopsy and demonology — these are the two genres of writing on liberalism with the most sway in public discussion today. Autopsies propose to explain “why liberalism failed” or how it decayed into neoliberalism. Demonologies claim to show that the inequalities, oppressions, and corruptions of contemporary society are the work of a single vaguely defined yet immensely powerful force, “liberalism,” haunting our era. There are, to be sure, recent writings that try to rescue or even glorify liberal thinkers or ideas, but their tone is plaintive or desperate. The moment belongs to liberalism’s critics on the left and the right.

In times of liberal dominance — in the glow of 1989 — such critics could be welcomed as gadflies to startle us, to interrupt our sometimes dangerously complacent satisfaction with the fruits of success. Today, however, we run the risk of overcorrecting. Coasting with momentum produced by generations of liberal politics, we imagine we no longer need its help. We suppose that the problems liberals responded to should no longer trouble us or, at least, that they no longer require liberal remedies. Frustrated by the injustices that seem to flourish in some of the spaces liberal pluralism protects, we are tempted to step back from pluralism. Indignant that the leaders we favor do not have more power to defeat our opponents, we become skeptical about constitutional checks on their authority. Liberal institutions and norms come to feel like constraints on our ability to pursue the good rather than safeguards against the bad. In this context, many of us have lost track of the motivating spirit of liberal societies and, perhaps even more significantly, we have almost forgotten what can be admirable and adventurous in them. Here, I offer one way of understanding that motivating spirit and recalling why we might admire it.

About the Author

Bryan Garsten is professor of political science and humanities at Yale University. He is author of Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment (2006) and editor of Rousseau, the Age of Enlightenment, and Their Legacies (2012).

View all work by Bryan Garsten

The crucial starting point for liberals is a set of fundamental, recurring problems that often arise in political life. Human beings living together tend to fall into relatively closed tribal groups and to enforce their norms in quiet but unforgiving ways. We are mostly docile but we can be brought, occasionally, to erupt into furious, fanatical violence against anyone who strays from our conventions. We are usually brought to that boiling point by the incitement of some politician, preacher, or military man as a part of the more or less constant jousting that takes place among the most ambitious individuals, those whom Machiavelli would have called “princes” or aspiring princes. The rest of us tend to be at their mercy. Liberals at their best focus on trying to reduce our vulnerability to these political entrepreneurs. The liberal values of individual choice and consent, mobility, and the possibility of exit — the values that support institutional pluralism and commercial society — are meant to respond to and mitigate this vulnerability.

Liberal societies, I want to suggest, are those that offer refuge from the very people they empower. The reach of this formulation will become evident when we allow ourselves to use “refuge” in both a literal and a metaphorical sense, so that institutions and practices can offer refuge from a powerful person as much as a fortress can.

Historically, a monarchy empowered a king or queen, or a family. It was only a liberal monarchy if it also included a parliament or a class of nobles who had real power of some kind, so that a citizen who fell out of the king’s good graces could take refuge under the protection of this or that aristocrat or constituency. The eighteenth-century French writer Montesquieu emphasized this idea when distinguishing monarchy from despotism.1

Analogously, a democracy empowers the people or — more precisely — the particular people who can persuasively claim to speak for the majority. It is only a liberal democracy if it also offers refuge from those same leaders and their partisans. There may be no resisting the majority in the long term, as Alexis de Tocqueville seems to have thought, but in a liberal democracy one should be able to find a host of power centers outside the centralized state authority that will offer significant shelter from whatever version of popular sovereignty is reigning at any particular moment.

A religion empowers people too — priests, most obviously. A religion is liberal if it also offers refuge from its leaders. Clergy may still serve, for most religious people, as authoritative guides through life’s key moments. But abuses by priests are not unknown. A liberal religion allows for other sects, denominations, or congregations; or for direct access to the sacred books themselves; or, ultimately, for deference to one’s own conscience — all of which might be considered as metaphorical places of refuge from the very people a religion empowers.

Because liberal societies offer within them different sorts of refuge, they should not produce many refugees fleeing elsewhere. The United States does not generally produce large refugee flows, but those it has at times produced — as when enslaved Americans fled to Canada before the American Civil War — have offered good indices of weaknesses in its liberal credentials. Liberal societies themselves should by their nature appreciate the plight of foreign refugees and err on the side of welcoming them, but the facts do not allow us to say that liberal societies are always more welcoming than nonliberal societies. The crucial indicator of liberalism is whether a society produces refugees. A society becomes more liberal when it reduces the reasons that people have to flee — not by converting all people to one outlook or identity, but by offering them the chance to find refuge internally. Liberal societies aim to generate no exodus.

The notion of refuge has been left out of most recent debates about liberalism, but it deserves more attention. The other concepts usually highlighted, such as rights, private property, trade, and pluralism, lose their moral and political purpose if we forget their links to refuge. Refuge is the form of liberty that liberals should care most about, and the one that most obviously ennobles the liberal project. Furthermore, refuge is a political value that today’s populists should appreciate. Populists are sometimes right to worry about the dominance of meritocratic elites in the West — but that concern should lead populists to double down on liberal strategies to manage elites and ensure that no one group of them can dominate.

Refuge as Remedy

To focus on the ways that liberal societies offer refuge to their own members is to insist that their liberal character is best understood as a set of remedies for political pathologies — rather than as a comprehensive replacement for ethical or religious traditions. Many discussions of liberal ideas set them up to fail by assuming they are meant to offer such a replacement. “What are the theoretical foundations of liberalism, and are they sturdy enough to support the edifice of liberalism?” asked a typical conference on the topic.2 Even in this apparently neutral framing, the question suggests that liberals mean to offer a self-sufficient way of life, a philosophy or ideology (an “edifice”) meant to stand on its own, and therefore that we face a fundamental choice between what liberals offer and alternatives such as an integrated religious way of life or a solidaristic Marxism.3 In that sort of comparison, liberalism will only fare well for people who love freedom too much — at the expense of other human goods.

The word “liberalism,” as the intellectual historian Helena Rosenblatt revealed, was coined by antiliberals to create precisely the impression of an all-or-nothing choice between moral-religious decency and liberal freedoms. The word “liberalism” — with the ism attached — seems to have been invented as an accusation by the Spanish supporters of King Ferdinand who were fighting to protect the Catholic throne against revolutionary forces early in the nineteenth century.4 Both political and papal pronouncements against liberals identified them as belonging to a new and dangerous sect. In naming a set of positions “liberalism,” the critics meant to place it alongside religious errors such as Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Anabaptism.5 Isms were, in general, the names of heresies. Recently, political theorists and at least one politician have suggested that liberal theories, because they allow us to hope we can improve ourselves and our societies, fall into the ancient heresy of Pelagianism, which rejects the concept of original sin.6

Often, our way of speaking goes further, characterizing liberalism not merely as heretical but as demonic, in a precise sense: Demons, as they appeared in the thought of earlier ages, were shadowy forces that could not be brought into sharp focus but had a dangerous vitality and agency and explained the bad in the world. This is how “liberalism” functions in the discourse of many who are writing today — alongside racism, imperialism, and capitalism for those on the left, or alongside individualism, secularism, and (increasingly) capitalism again for those on the right. The current analysis of liberalism takes on the character of demonology insofar as it attributes to the phenomenon the characteristics of occult forces — a pernicious agency that is located everywhere and yet nowhere in particular, shapeshifting in its form and definition.7

In responding to these caricatures, Michael Walzer has recently proposed that the word “liberal” functions best as an adjective, not a noun (or ism).8 I agree, but I want to offer a sharper and more political sense of what that adjective might mean than Walzer does. In his telling, the adjective “liberal” refers to a certain manner of putting our opinions into practice, “how we enact our ideological commitments.”9 Liberals, in his view, are not fanatics. They do not expect to win every argument or every election, and they can recognize the sincerity of their rivals even when they do not agree with them. Certainly, these observations capture some recognizable features of liberal society. But this way of speaking can also convey the impression that liberals are fundamentally moralists who prefer a genteel style of politics in which we agree to refrain from pressing our case too far. The attraction of liberal politics understood in this way will not be apparent to people who do not identify with, or feel respect for, the gentility of their day, people who feel instead that they do need to press their case uncompromisingly to make headway against an intransigent liberal elite.

“Liberal” as an adjective in political life must not be identified with a demand that the people being ruled compromise when it comes to matters of justice. Rather, it is the rulers who must accept limitations on their power. The early nineteenth-century French writer Benjamin Constant made the key point in his Principles of Politics, which urged readers to focus less on the form of government (monarchy or republic) and more on the amount of authority given to the ruler: “Entrust [unlimited authority] to one man, to several, to all, and you will still find that is equally an evil.” Constant himself worked to liberalize both the postrevolutionary French republic and Napoleon’s revived monarchy. The problem Constant identified with illiberal rule in both regimes was that “there is no means of sheltering individuals from governments.”10 In trying to understand the essential character of the liberal modification of rule, we would do well to focus on this notion of sheltering — though it is not only governments we need to shelter from; liberal governments can also provide shelter from private rulers.

Rule or Governance?

That refuge can be found from the domination of a ruler or authority does not imply, as both liberals and their critics are often tempted to say, that the rulers in liberal societies do not rule; they do. Perhaps sometimes the countervailing powers that liberals prize might successfully challenge the reigning administration or government, but it is an overstatement to suggest that the back and forth of political controversy among power centers in civil society eliminates or diffuses rule so much that it becomes mere “governance.” In liberal societies, as in any other, we are ruled by the people who hold key positions in the state and in private life. Liberals should not pretend that they can satisfy a general desire not to be ruled. That desire, which slides toward libertarianism or anarchism, will never find satisfaction in political life. But the desire to be free of rule altogether should be distinguished from the desire to escape particular abuses, which surges with special legitimacy at certain moments in political life, when we find ourselves in danger of being crushed by the battles for glory or influence among the ambitious people who tend to cause the most damage.

In modern democracies, rulers often justify their rule with claims to represent the majority. Democracy through representatives or assemblies of active citizens brings many benefits, but it does not protect against the dangers that liberals emphasize. We should not mistake even the cleanest elections or the most participatory assemblies, which assuage our general discomfort with the idea of being ruled, for meaningful offers of refuge backed by institutional design and political power. Ruling is done in a liberal way not when it is cloaked in the language of popular sovereignty but when it is offset by real offers of refuge. Those offers may be found in rival political parties, in separated powers such as courts and executive agencies, in a reasonable degree of autonomy for local communities, and in powerful civil society organizations such as churches, mosques, and synagogues, universities and media companies, labor unions and corporations.

Tocqueville told a story, in a footnote to his discussion of tyranny of the majority in the United States, of journalists in Baltimore who opposed the War of 1812 when it was very popular there. A mob attacked the offices of the Federal Republican newspaper, breaking the paper’s presses, forcing the newspapermen into jail cells and killing one of them. The murderers were brought to trial but acquitted by a jury. Tocqueville’s point was that American politics in that moment was democratic but not liberal, because it offered no refuge from the power of the people claiming to act for the majority. Public opinion, the legislatures, the executive power, the armed forces and police, jury trials — ultimately, all found their authority in the same power, the majority, and so none could offer effective protection from that power. Tocqueville saw in that situation “the lack of a guarantee against tyranny.” By “guarantee,” he meant some institution or authority with the power to protect against the sovereign majority.11

A “guarantee” of this kind was not an alternative ruler; it was someone to turn to for protection against the ruler. The pattern of thought comes from monarchic times: Montesquieu argued that the French nobles, clergy, and parliaments — “intermediary” and “subordinate” powers — were undoubtedly beneath the monarch in power and prestige but could still effectively play a sheltering role and prevent the king from becoming a despot. Tocqueville hoped that associations could play a functionally equivalent role in democratic settings.12 He thought that associations were the only forces powerful enough, and legitimate enough, to stand up against a central state authority ruling with the alibi of democratic elections. The distinctiveness of Tocqueville’s argument for associations lies partly in his idea that they could be politically crucial even if they did not claim any part of sovereignty.

The need for shelter is based partly on the idea that power corrupts. As Montesquieu put it, “constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.”13 We are accustomed to moving from that thought to the importance of limited government, which makes sense in the realm of theory. If we ask what “limited” means in political practice, however — thinking, for example, of rights violations by an officeholder — then we discover that it often means finding refuge from that government official in the authority of the courts. Institutional pluralism, constitutionally designed to renew itself rather than devolve into simpler forms of rule, is the closest we can come to a practical guarantee of refuge.

The need for refuge can arise even when rulers are not obviously corrupted by the experience of holding power. Popular leaders of a genuine democratic majority may aim only to enlighten a minority, to correct or leave behind its prejudices, to modernize its way of life or rationalize its use of resources for the common good, and, if the society is democratic, no force can legitimately stand in the way of these projects; the liberal modification of democratic rule is only a modification, not a reversal or an alternative to it. Refuge in these cases may consist in allowing communities particularly hard hit by the demanded changes to have more control over the manner and pace of change, or to receive compensating resources or opportunities. These allowances will come about from the work of this or that institution or party or leader — a state government, a crucial vote in the Senate, a powerful union. A person who finds himself in the minority on an issue is still a member of the polity. A democracy rules itself liberally when it offers some consideration to the losers of elections and to those who are most harmed by new policies. A modernizing democracy is liberal when it offers some degree of refuge from the experience of loss that always comes with progress, loss that is not equally shared. Even illiberal groups may find some reprieve in this pluralism; the extent and boundaries of refuge for them will be a matter of political negotiation and judgement, and individuals must be able to leave those groups and find refuge elsewhere in liberal societies.

Commerce as Refuge

Liberals are often criticized for their commitment to capitalism and the values of commercial society, such as free trade. This commitment, too — and its proper scope — can be better understood if we remind ourselves of its link to the project of offering refuge. We tend to think of the economy as a natural domain, perhaps even one that existed prior to politics. But the modern economy, which relies on a market for labor and on rights and contracts enforced by governments, was conceived in the eighteenth century as a political project with its own goals. Economic growth, the alleviation of poverty, the softening of cultural habits away from war, the reduction of religious violence — all these were among the ambitions of capitalism’s early defenders. Less often noted but equally important, however, was the objective of freeing wealth from its entrenchment in land and landed families — making value more mobile — to allow people to protect value from the depredations of the powerful.

Montesquieu highlighted this function when he explained how commerce had spread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Finance, he noted, had been condemned in medieval Christian societies; only people beneath contempt — the Jews, he meant — were permitted to handle banking. When European princes noticed that the bankers had become rich, however, they tried to seize the wealth. In response, recounted Montesquieu,

the Jews, proscribed by each country in turn, found the means for saving their effects. In that way, they managed to fix their refuges forever. . . .

They invented letters of exchange, and in this way commerce was able to avoid violence and maintain itself everywhere, for the richest trader had only invisible goods, which could be sent everywhere and leave no trace anywhere.14

The story reinforced an already familiar anti-Jewish association between that oppressed minority and money, but in Montesquieu’s version there was also plenty of admiration for the innovation. The key theoretical point was to understand commerce as flight from sovereigns and capital as refuge from despotic rule. In a short chapter titled “On Peoples Who Have Engaged in Economic Commerce,” he put forward a synecdoche for commercial society — a portrait of the coastal French city of Marseilles as “a necessary retreat in the midst of a stormy sea” whose “barrenness” forced the refugees who landed there to live by trading rather than farming. The example of Marseilles was meant to suggest a more general conclusion:

It has been seen everywhere that violence and harassment have brought forth economic commerce among men who are constrained to hide in marshes, on islands, on the shoals, and even among dangerous reefs. Thus were Tyre, Venice, and the Dutch towns founded; fugitives found security there. They had to live; they drew their livelihood from the whole universe.15

Some readers see in this argument an indictment of the liberal spirit. If the germ of commercial society is flight to safety, capitalism seems at its heart to be nothing but a frightened escape, the avoidance of evil but not a positive political vision of its own.16 But that reading of the passage fails to fully register Montesquieu’s observation that seeking refuge led to the founding of cities. To be sure, he noticed that those cities were different in character from cities based on victory in war or on a shared project of spiritual ascension. Nevertheless, “Tyre, Venice, and the Dutch towns” were not merely temporary settlements; they were meant to be new forms of political life. Their most distinctive trait was that they “drew their livelihood from the whole universe” — that they were, by necessity, open to the influx of goods and people from elsewhere. Once established, these cities were no longer in the process of escape, no longer seeking refuge. They were offering refuge. This offer is the moral core of liberal societies.

It is important to notice that if commerce is a dominant activity within these new cities, and not just a brief facilitator of their founding, then the mobility-of-value characteristic of commerce will be an important feature in the social life they establish. Mobility means, first, the possibility of exit — not just from a country as a whole, but throughout one’s social existence. Leaving behind a particular job (as opposed to being stuck in a lifelong dependency or guild), or a particular inheritance (as opposed to relying on rents from family land), or a particular place or a particular house of worship — the possibility of exit from these and other social positions is a necessary condition of the spread of markets. The benefit of this possibility can be felt by acknowledging how common it is for each of these domains to fall under the despotic reign of local lords of one kind or another. In each domain, then, we can become refugees, leaving behind an inherited or previously chosen situation to see if we can find, or found, something better. Commercial society aims to be generally hospitable to these ventures, even with the uncertainties, risks, and dislocations they bring.

Emphasizing this political function of commerce might help to answer a challenge put to liberals from both left and right: Do liberals provide any criterion for judging how much accumulation, how much commodification or marketization, how much trade, is appropriate? The usual critical view is that liberals simply value liberty, an abstract freedom, and therefore that they easily fall into rationalizing unprincipled, unrestrained accumulation and inequality. But if a fundamental liberal purpose of commercial society, with its associated notions of private property, trade, and finance, is to offer refuge in these various ways — to prevent sovereigns, princes, and local despots of all kinds from having full control over human value — then we should be able to use that purpose to evaluate the proper extent of commercial activity in particular moments and situations.

This way of thinking may allow a significant amount of accumulation of private wealth in certain situations, since it takes substantial capital to offer meaningful refuge from the astonishing concentration of wealth and power in modern states. But this way of thinking should be equally concerned about the enormous corporations that have emerged in the modern economy, entities which have obviously become political “lions” (to use John Locke’s metaphor), at least as dangerous as states, from which we need refuge. A liberal modification of rule would look to produce some sort of dynamic balancing among these kinds of beasts, state and corporate, so that the rest of us have the best chance of finding shelter from any one of them under the protection of some other one. A liberal capitalism is suspicious of monopolies, both private and public.

The market economy, as we know it, was invented as a liberal modification of rule designed to make it easier for us to seek, find, and create refuges from the dominance of the most ambitious and imposing individuals, the aspiring princes of the modern world. The market’s liberal legitimacy disappears if it forgets that role and produces new princes from whom we can find no shelter.

Choice and Temptation

Critics may say: This talk of refuge is just slightly different language for the lust for emancipation that liberals always glorify and that tends to dissolve all the inherited goods of human life. What is to keep us from wanting “refuge” from ordinary moral obligations and communal responsibilities? Will the offer of refuge, just as much as the promise of liberation, not lure us away from the truest sources of meaning and happiness in life — our families, our coworkers, our hometowns, our churches, synagogues, and mosques? Will it not draw us, the critic might continue, into elite colleges and coastal cities where we are doomed to discover the moral and spiritual emptiness and frivolity of modern life? And, to take the critique even further, will this not risk leading modern individuals into the lonely “rootlessness” that makes us a part of “the masses” ripe for recruitment by a demagogue into some new totalitarian dream?17

The presumption in these worries is that the mere availability of refuges weakens all our attachments — that, for example, alternate forms and places of worship weaken our commitment to our own, or, in an example important in the history of liberal thought, that the legal option of divorce weakens our commitment to our marriages. The possibility of exit is presumed to encourage, as the political theorist Patrick Deneen puts it, “loose connections” — an open and superficial marketplace in every domain of social and political life, with no criteria to guide us in the choices about whether to exit or where to go except the empty formality of an autonomous will or the lure of an ideal of the “self-fashioning expressive individual” for whom there are “no truly hard choices” but only “different lifestyle options.18 The possibility of leaving, looming in our imagination, is said to remove from us any capacity for self-restraint, to lure us from any truly political forms of life into an “anti-culture” of merely transactional individualism, leaving us floating carelessly among fleeting alliances.

Foregrounding the offer of refuge in liberal thought helps to reveal a gap in this argument. It forces critics to move more slowly, to explain more precisely how the mere availability of shelter outside our inherited communities tends to dissolve those communities and turn us into our most selfish and superficial selves. Focusing on refuge reminds us that choice and consent are meant to be escape hatches rather than constitutive foundations. For it is an obvious fact that liberals do not actively steal people away from their marriages or their churches; liberals simply offer the chance to find or build a life outside of them. Why is that offer alone thought to be so corrosive?

The antiliberal worry seems to rest on a logic of temptation: The reason the critic doubts that we can be trusted to discern the difference between, on the one hand, escaping a particularly violent, oppressive, or stultifying situation, and, on the other, shirking responsibilities and pursuing every passing pleasure, must be that it is too tempting to use the specter of oppression as an excuse to indulge our least worthy impulses. The logic of temptation posits that, if offered the chance, we will not be able to resist the invitation to characterize every constraint on desire as an unjust one. Even ordinary parts of life — subjection to the authority of a parent, teacher, or minister, responsibility to spouse, children, or neighbor — will be dismissed as threats from which we could or should find refuge. The temptation will often be more powerful in us than the love of what we have and what we know. The idea seems to be that liberals amplify the voices inside our heads that we should least trust, those demons tempting us into dreams of unlimited freedom. We are naturally inclined to evil. The doctrine of original sin lurks in these worries.

The logic of temptation betrays a view about human sociability. It suggests that we stay in moral, religious, and political communities not by nature, but only if there is no other option calling to us. As soon as a window is opened, we tend to scatter into the air like sand in the wind. Notice that this is precisely the reverse of the usual view about the anthropological assumptions behind liberalism: The antiliberals seem to be the ones who think that humans are spontaneously, naturally individualistic; that is why we cannot be given the chance to choose. The liberals are the ones who think that individuals are naturally and spontaneously social — that we will mostly tend to stay in place in our communities and pursue our lives much as we always have, unless pressed by necessity. Even John Locke, the patron saint of liberals, presumed that revolution would be rare because “people are not so easily got out of their old forms, as some are apt to suggest.”19 And when, as the U.S. founders put it in the Declaration of Independence (1776), “a long train of abuses and usurpations” does press us to seek refuge, liberals are the ones who assume that we will, in relatively short order, start the work of producing new communities, new families, new associations, even new religious orders — as humans seem to have done at every time and place that we know of. Liberals are the ones who seem to think, with Aristotle, that we are political animals.

If forced to answer a question about the “theoretical foundations of liberalism,” I would therefore answer, at least for the sake of provocation, that those foundations include the belief that human beings are naturally political, in the sense that we naturally tend to live in communities and need them to flourish; that in most communities a small number of ambitious warriors, strongmen, prophets, and demagogues tend to rise up and compete with one another for rule, leaving the rest of us at their mercy and threatening us with despotism; and that if we are forced by these circumstances into exile, we are capable of building new communities that are capable of supporting us in the ways we need to live well. That last presumption or matter of faith — that communities of this kind can be ethically fulfilling and can satisfy our ambition for something high and noble — seems to be one that requires special defense today.

The Nobility in Offering Refuge

A strange notion has recently arisen, in decadent but influential pockets of online discussion, that tyrannical politics, clerical authority, and paramilitary battle offer the only real opportunities to display vitality and strength in a Western world overwhelmed by the boredom of bourgeois life and the superficiality of consumer culture. The notion is strange because people who have spent time in religious or military autocracies report that they tend to be places of subservience, duplicity, betrayal, lassitude, and selfishness. Where, then, does this nostalgia for illiberal societies come from? It arises partly as a moral protest, a sense of disgust with the supposed weakness and selfishness of liberal societies. Young men in particular, conscious of their strength and looking for a worthy use for it, can develop a contempt for liberal societies if they view them as merely protection for the weak and afraid.20

When the political theorist Judith Shklar wrote an essay called “The Liberalism of Fear,” shortly before the end of the Cold War, she meant to argue for the priority of working against obvious evils such as cruelty and torture.21 I have enormous respect for the hardened voice of historical experience in her essay, but she conceded too much to the idea that liberals had to be anti-utopians; she declined to take seriously the human need to devote ourselves to something high. She dismissed the critics of liberal society who worry that the scramble for safety and comfort alone can debase us. But those critics are not wrong to worry. Instead of dismissing them, liberals should put forward a different idea of what strength and nobility look like. Instead of focusing on flight and the seeking of refuge, they should highlight the particular sort of nobility that can be found in the work of offering refuge.

The vision of a society that would offer refuge from injustice and oppression elsewhere in the world was central to founding-era hopes for the United States. The American revolutionaries were inspired partly by Locke, who wrote of the “common refuge” from force and violence that could be found in dissolving the existing government in a revolution.22 Charles Lee, an English military officer who joined the American cause early, made the case for considering the country an “asylum” in 1774: “The generous and liberal of all nations turn their eyes to this continent as the last asylum of liberty, which . . . has been rooted out from the other hemisphere.” Thomas Paine picked up the idea a couple of years later in Common Sense, writing of his hope that a newly independent country would be “the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.” Paine and the French American writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, who in his Letters from an America Farmer (1782) described the United States as “the great American asylum” for the poor, helped to establish the vision in France. French expeditions named towns Asylum in Pennsylvania and Champ d’Asile in Texas.23

This vision took on new importance in the next century. It is too bad that the 1883 poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty has become a cliché, and too bad that the opening lines, prior to the most famous ones, are not often remembered. Those lines, together with the poem’s title, explicitly offer an alternative to the closed, warlike ancient city whose only heroism can be found in conquest:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Emma Lazarus’s poetry was influenced by the time she spent with Jewish refugees who had fled a wave of pogroms in Russia.24 She did not think that a safer location alone would be enough for the refugees; they needed a new mode of political life oriented around new sorts of heroes. The Statue of Liberty itself had been conceived by the French scholar Édouard de Laboulaye in France, a Collège de France expert on the United States and its Constitution.25 Laboulaye was also an expert on Benjamin Constant’s liberal thought and had put together a major new edition of his political writings for publication. Laboulaye seemed to hope that strengthening the sense of shared mission between France and a post–Civil War, post-slavery United States would help to revive Constant’s liberal approach to politics and to wean the French off the nostalgia for martial greatness that had led them to go along with Napoleon II’s Second Empire.

Both the Statue of Liberty and the poem at its base focus attention not on retreat, escape, or flight, but on arrival and on what can be built by those who arrive. They glorify “welcome” — the offer of refuge rather than the pursuit of it. Pursued, refuge can seem a matter of necessity rather than a good on its own account, an escape from fear, a goal of the weak and inferior. Offered, refuge appears in a different light — as evidence of generosity, hospitality, and magnanimity. Extending refuge is something one can only do from a position of strength, of relative superiority. This is not natural superiority, which is incompatible with democracy, but a superiority of situation, fortune, and inclination.

These examples focus on offering refuge to people from elsewhere, but as I have emphasized, liberal societies are marked even more clearly by their internal offers of refuge to their own members. This, too, was put forward as an ideal early in the history of the United States by its most iconic heroic figure. George Washington had improbably defeated the strongest empire of his time in war. He could have claimed his own status as a “brazen giant,” a colossus of the old sort, as his peer Napoleon would soon do. Instead, Washington self-consciously tried to strengthen a new form of heroism. He had raised an army and presided over the founding of a nation; he cannot be accused of having thought that isolated or “atomized” individuals suffice. But he was without doubt a liberal. Notice how Washington described the character of the nation he founded. He consistently prioritized the idea that people would find refuge from the depredations of politics there. If we keep in mind Montesquieu’s passage linking the plight of the Jews to the establishment of liberal societies, we can see the significance of a public letter that Washington wrote in 1790 to the Jews of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, often said to be the oldest Jewish congregation in America:

May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.26

Washington was quoting his favorite passage from the Bible (Micah 4.4), a passage he cited throughout his personal correspondence.27 The last half of the sentence describes as well as any passage the utopian goal of the liberalism of refuge, a goal that would remain far out of reach without the new sort of heroism Washington sought to exemplify. To want to make a political society more liberal is not to set its sights low but to change its sense of what would ennoble it.

I know well what ridicule I hold myself up for, daring to take seriously the Statue of Liberty and George Washington, those hoary heroes of the old American idealism. I do not deny what cannot be denied, their myriad failures in practice. But other frameworks too — Marxist and Catholic, Foucauldian and Fanonian — have also produced disappointment, or worse. In comparing guiding ideals, we should take care not to set the pearls of one against the empty shells of another. If we are to sort among utopias, then it must be pearls to pearls. The liberal modification of rule offers a vision of its own.

In highlighting the notion of refuge, I aim to look at familiar aspects of liberal societies from a slightly different perspective. Individual choice and consent appear, from this angle, not as arbitrary or willful foundations for society but as escape hatches from the worst parts of political life. Commerce appears as a way to slip out of the hands of the powerful. Constitutional limits on elected legislatures come to light as assurance of temporary shelters from politicians’ latest gambles. Pluralistic civil society offers a set of refuges where one can camp out and build the beginnings of something new.

Some critics worry that if we are given the choice to flee evils in the many ways a liberalism of refuge protects, our mobility will turn us into “rootless” beings. This concern has been given too much weight since Heidegger and Arendt. We are not trees who flourish when deeply rooted in the soil. We are human beings with legs, meant to explore. What we need to flourish is not roots so much as refuges from which we can venture forth and to which we can retreat. Often, we end up returning to where we started with new insight or appreciation, like Odysseus gratefully coming home. Sometimes we do not, or cannot, return home, and so we begin again and find, in those beginnings, a distinctively liberal adventure — the noble work of building a new society that refugees know so well.


1. Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), book 2, ch. 4.

2. LeFrak Forum on Science, Reason, and Modern Democracy, Michigan State University, 29 April 2022.

3. For example, Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 19, describing liberalism as “the world’s first and last remaining ideology,” and Matthew Rose, A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 154.

4. Helena Rosenblatt, The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-first Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 63.

5. See Pope Gregory XVI’s 1832 encyclical Mirari vos for an example of the explicit arguments against liberal ideas.

6. Eric Nelson, The Theology of Liberalism: Political Philosophy and the Justice of God (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019). Joshua Hawley, “The Age of Pelagius,” in Christianity Today, 4 June 2019,

7. H.M. Hopfl, “Isms,” British Journal of Political Science 13 (January 1983): 1–17. Cited in Rosenblatt, Lost History.

8. Michael Walzer, “What It Means to Be Liberal,” Dissent (Spring 2020),

9. Walzer, “What It Means to Be Liberal.”

10. Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Representative Governments, in Biancamaria Fontana, ed., Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), quotes on 176 and 179.

11. “When a man or party suffers from an injustice in the United States, whom do you want him to address? Public opinion? That is what forms the majority; the legislative body? It represents the majority and obeys it blindly; the executive power? It is named by the majority and serves as its passive instrument; the public forces? The public forces are nothing other than the majority in arms; the jury? The jury is the majority vested with the right to pronounce decrees.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 241–42.

12. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 499.

13. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, book 11, ch. 4.

14. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, book 21, ch. 20.

15. Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, book 20, ch. 5.

16. Pierre Manent, The City of Man, trans. Marc A. LePain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 39–46.

17. For example, Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, 34: “Liberalism teaches a people to hedge commitments and adopt flexible relationships and bonds. Not only are all political and economic relationships seen as fungible and subject to constant redefinition, so are all relationships — to place, to neighborhood, to nation, to family, and to religion. Liberalism encourages loose connections.” See also Rose, A World After Liberalism, 154: “Liberalism aspired to order society around a vision of human beings, abstracted from all attachments.” For the link between rootlessness and totalitarianism, see Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1968), 239, 378, 459.

18. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, 40.

19. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690), section 223.

20. Rose, A World After Liberalism, 157.

21. Judith Shklar, “The Liberalism of Fear,” in Nancy Rosenblum, ed., Liberalism and the Moral Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).

22. Locke, Second Treatise, section 222.

23. These details, from Charles Lee to the French towns, from Cecil D. Eby, “America as ‘Asylum’: A Dual Image,” American Quarterly 14 (Autumn 1962): 483–84.

24. David R. Mesher, review of Zionism, American Style, by Emma Lazarus, Studies in American Jewish Literature (1981–), no. 2 (1982): 203–8; Anne Janowitz, “Torch Songs: The Poetry, Politics and Identity of Emma Lazarus,” Jewish Quarterly 43 (Spring 1996): 37–41; Max Cavitch, “Emma Lazarus and the Golem of Liberty,” American Literary History 18 (Spring 2006): 1–28.

25. Francesca Lidia Viano, Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).

26. “From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 18 August 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: Mark A. Mastromarino, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 6, 1 July 1790–30 November 1790 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 284–86.] Emphasis added.

27. Daniel L. Dreisbach, “The ‘Vine and Fig Tree’ in George Washington’s Letters: Reflections on a Biblical Motif in the Literature of the American Founding Era,” Anglican and Episcopal History 76 (September 2007): 299–326.


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