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Liberalism’s Failure by Fun


Liberalism can’t cope with the times. That’s the surprising position of a thinker who is not in any sense an opponent, rather he’s one of liberalism’s most passionate promoters. Political philosopher Alexandre Lefebvre in his valuable new book, Liberalism as a Way of Life, preaches it as a religion substitute for the “unchurched,” a source of secular values and a spiritual center. But in an online dialogue (cued here) he admits that liberalism is an “obstacle” to “saving the world from climate change.” To explain, Lefebvre channels typical liberal thinking as: “If you take your vacation to Hawaii, f**k it, I’m going to take my vacation to Hawaii. If you drive an SUV, f**k it, I’m going to buy an SUV.”

We should pay attention to this kind of off-the-cuff candor because it can expose norms and priorities that are kept out of official doctrine and polite conversatio. I recently covered another case where leading climate guru David Wallace-Wells said the quiet part out loud about certain rich westerners being “gratified” by the climate suffering of poor nations. We’ll return to Wallace-Wells’s comments below, to map more of the weaknesses and limits to liberalism’s conceptual toolkit. Especially as they relate to a towering task of our times, which is to figure out how to fairly use limited ecological resources, like the “carbon budget.” Consider the carbon cost of Lefebvre’s “f**k it” fun, a return flight from his location, Sydney to Hawaii is 800 percent of the annual emissions of a citizen of a poor nation1. And if they were a nation, SUVs would be the fifth-highest carbon polluter. And electric SUVs aren’t much better (they’re so heavy and need such massive batteries that they can “worsen climate change by consuming scarce materials that could otherwise electrify a greater number of smaller cars”). Yet in Lefebvre’s view, the liberal sensibility inclines towards FOMO fun-seeking that often easily outweighs climate responsibilities. Forget the crisis, there’s fun to be had!

Lefebvre’s book is a rare treat, philosophy that’s productive, richly insightful, eloquent, and fun. It is superb on the huge role liberal ideas play in our lives, but it mostly hides the harms of its “f**k it let’s have fun” dark side. He prefers to preach that “liberalism is as serious and storied a moral doctrine as any religion1. He says “liberal ideals and sensibilities are omnipresent in the broad background culture of Western democratic societies.” They form a kind of “public morality” that is constantly preached by capitalist ads and pop culture, for instance, in dozens of Disney or Pixar role-model princesses. Or in TV shows like Parks and Recreation, which serve as secular sitcom sermons on liberal norms and doctrine. Lefebvre calls its main character, deputy director of public parks, Leslie Knope, the GOAT of liberalism, “a singularly compelling representation of the liberal spirit.”

Lefebvre’s one-liner distillation of liberalism is that it seeks a free and “fair system of cooperation from one generation to the next.” In his view “far from living in a moral vacuum … [liberals] inhabit a culture where ideals of freedom, fairness, tolerance, reciprocity, and irony follow us from cradle to grave.” This “liberal package” of values and vibes can inspire people to be decent, kind souls, and the book offers self-help on how to lead a liberal good life3. Thankfully, he isn’t dazzled enough to ignore liberalism’s copious lapses in practice (he coins the term “liberaldom” by way of analogy to Søren Kierkegaard’s “Christendom,” for the wafer-thin Christian veneer over the bourgeois values evident in 19th century Denmark). Confessing a personal compromise, Lefebvre has chosen not to “forgo the advantages” of private school for his kid. Fairness and equality of opportunity are great, but not when it’s your kid’s life chances on the line. If only “f**k it” liberals were equally mindful of how their fun but ecologically harmful lifestyle choices will unfairly injure the life prospects of the next generation (precious privately-schooled offspring included).

Lefebvre teaches “spiritual exercises” on “how to be free, fair, and fun.” The first comes from John Rawls, who rose to pope-like status in academic political philosophy when his Theory of Justice swept the field over 50 years ago (Lefebvre says Rawls is the heart and soul of his book). Rawls’s celebrated thought experiment of the “original position” or “veil of ignorance” asks us to organize society to be fair to everyone without knowing what social position, talents, or hardships they may have (as if making a blind choice). But why would liberals need the device of a veil? The premise seems to be that they would seek a fair setup only if there’s a risk that they might be in the worst position (i.e. only out of self-interest). Surely a more decent position would be to take the views and interests of the least well-off into account, even if you are at no risk of ending up in their shoes (as we’ll see this subtle distinction about the role of self-interest matters a great deal, it seemingly limits the moral imagination of card-carrying liberals). This is the Christian position: as ye do unto the least of these, ye do unto me (or leastism). It should rightly be the leftist/socialist mission: to use your political power to protect the weak (not primarily for self-interest). But it seems liberals don’t really trust themselves to be that kind. As we’ll see it’s unwise to ignore the warning implicit in this ignoble aspect of their veil of ignorance.   

The culprit here is that Rawls’s much-revered 560-page conceptual apparatus of justice uses the same “rational self-interest” view of human behavior that dominates and distorts economics and game theory (the “greed is good” and normal ethos that’s constantly drummed into “our deformed professional class” and that shapes the systemically sociopathic capitalist institutions we’re trapped in). This embeds a severely impoverished, ethically dubious, and empirically false model of human motives deep into the heart of the Rawlsian worldview (anthropologists call this sampling error and lack of diversity the W.E.I.R.D. bias: mistaking Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic people as sufficiently representative of humanity’s diverse and mostly sociocentric cultures). Liberalism’s entanglement with an economic mode of thinking has a long and horrid history before Rawls, but he in effect extended it. Under the surface niceness of liberalism lurks what can look like a ruthless religion of greed. As an Irish diplomat noted people in ex-colonies were often “sickened” by the word liberalism. They saw it as an “ingratiating moral mask which a toughly acquisitive society wears before the world it robs: ‘liberalism’ is the ideology of the rich, the elevation into universal values of the codes … of capitalist society” (for more on this here’s an essay on “liberal holocausts” that remain conveniently veiled in ignorance).

Rawls sought to temper liberal greed by pairing the “veil of ignorance” with his “difference principle,” under which inequalities were okay only if they benefitted the worst-off. But this often seems little more than the flimsiest philosophical fig leaf, a rhinestone rationalization. Consider that in the last half century America has been a circus of mass immiseration while elites, including many who call themselves Rawlsian, have made out like bandits (one measure of this political quagmire is that poor Americans live 15 fewer years than the rich). This immense immoral mess is often blamed on neoliberalism, the ruling perversion that has reduced liberalism’s aspirational niceness to nothing but individual rights and heartless hypercapitalist competition. But surely, it’s fair to ask what “real” liberals or Rawlsians have done to combat these very unveiled adverse effects? To me it looks like fun-loving liberals have largely been happy to reap the perverse rewards (to pay for fun eco-crime SUVs and YOLO trips). This has twisted the old form of free riding, where the bad guys benefit from the good work of others. Here “good” liberals benefit by the badness and cruelty they conveniently blame on others.

In the spirit of Lefebvre’s book (one of his chapters is called “What Liberals Don’t Get About Liberalism”), let’s make this cloaked pattern explicit. Liberals claim to hate cruelty and to want to live in a “free, fair and fun” way, but when there’s a risk of a trade-off, the priority is clear: gain or fun for me and mine comes first. Doing what’s right or decent becomes contingent on being profitable or entertaining enough (duties that aren’t risk being neglected). Justice slips to play second fiddle to self-interest.

But it hasn’t always been this way, as historian of ideas Helena Rosenblatt documents in The Lost History of Liberalism (she took part in the dialogue quoted above). Aiming to counter liberalism’s current self-centeredness, she writes, “From the very inception … liberals saw their cause as a moral one. They were fighting not just for their rights, but for the means to fulfill their moral duties.” She traces the tangled historical mutations of liberal traditions back to the two senses of the root Latin word liber, which means free and generous (as befitting an elite Roman). She reminds that liberals first feared democracy (deeming “the people” an ill-educated irrational mob). Rosenblatt recounts liberalism’s recent “turn to rights,” away from duties, as Cold War liberals “willingly adopted the argument traditionally used to malign them, that liberalism at its core is an individualist, if not selfish, philosophy.” She finds that after Rawls it had become “okay to be selfish.”

That would indeed explain the “f**k it” attitude Lefebvre speaks of, where self-focused fun-seeking has risen to rival or usurp moral obligations (and perhaps even parental duties of love and care to protect resources that will be needed by beloved youngsters). And it syncs well with uber-liberal pundit Ezra Klein’s climate position, which preaches the rightness of an optimistic and fun “politics of more.” He writes that “decarbonizing doesn’t mean accepting a future of less — it can mean a more awesome, humane, technologically rich, and socially inspiring future for us all.” But the scope of that “us all” is quickly narrowed by his liberal calculus of “political appeal.” What this boils down to is prioritizing thrilling visions of gains in abundance and fun for elites, above protecting the global vulnerable. This is “f**k it” let’s have fun liberaldom on steroids, where constraints on ecologically irresponsible consumption are unimaginable. This kind of toxic politics of fun leads to collective irrationalities, like liberals acting as if “free market choice is more important than the maintenance of a viable biosphere,” as Chris Shaw observed in Liberalism and the Challenge of Climate Change. But surely a self-interested my-fun-first ethos goes against the grain of real decency (as I’ve argued in Our Deformed Professional Class and Against Self-Centered Socialism).

This sort of liberal preference for or deference to greed insidiously inverts and perverts Rawls’s difference principle: improvements for the poor become contingent on gains for elites. But the relative gains are hideously unjust. For example, recent average US per capita income gains of the bottom half were 1/280th those of the top 1 percent (in Q1 2023). Globally the bottom decile secure only 1/220th of the gains of the top decile (0.16 percent of annual total income gains versus 36 percent). We could call this bottom vs top gain metric the Rawls ratio, it tracks vast violations of the spirit of the difference principle better than established metrics (like the “Gini coefficient”) which conveniently disguise outsized elite gains.

The temptations of what could be called liberalism’s “arguments from fun” lead to many deviations from decency. For instance, consider Wallace-Wells expressing a popular but rickety talking point that individual climate actions don’t make a difference since political and systems change are needed. Applying a little intellectual pressure to that logic reveals how it can work against liberalism’s claims to fairness. Let’s quickly run through 7 ways in which it can be used as an elite-fun-protecting evasion. First, are there many people considering personal action who aren’t also seeking political, and systems change? I’d suggest that’s very unlikely. Indeed, the impulse to seek the one or two most impactful things you can do (before getting back to more pressing business of fun) is a tell-tale sign of failure to grasp the scope of the biosphere crises. We’re not in Kansas anymore, and neither normal politics nor the wicked witch of Western capitalism are going to save us. Even the chief economics guy at The Financial Times can now see this, his latest piece addressing the situation in-toto is called “Market forces are not enough to halt climate change.”

Second, the idea that you don’t have to change personal behavior adds up to an astonishing attempt to defy arithmetic. To see why, imagine an old-fashioned two-pan weighing scale with a heavy mass on one side and grains of sand being dropped one by one to the other. At some point adding a single grain will tip the scale, but which grain is “responsible” for the final result? Clearly, every tiny grain contributes to the total, that’s how arithmetic works. And carbon pollution is no exception to arithmetic. Every kilo counts. That should weigh more heavily on our individual consciences because current political plans are not going to deliver the holy grail of a “net zero” world (in which Wallace-Welles foresees guilt free consumption). Here’s a useful illustration of where things stand (source here):

The main thing to notice is that even our best political action is nowhere near the “target” of safety (the chart makers note the likely gap is “more than the combined yearly total from the 140 lowest-emitting nations”). The takeaway for liberals who are serious about living in a “fair” way is to prepare for that off-target world awash in climate cruelty. For instance, by greatly increased political activity and ambition, by keeping personal consumption within ecologically prudent bounds, and by allocating vastly greater resources to protect the global poor.

Third, even implying that elites have the option to continue to consume largely as before suggests a failure to engage with the facts and conveys an incoherent meta-message. Everyone knows that actions speak louder than words, but the deeds of the relevant experts mostly don’t match their emergency language. As climate scientist Kevin Anderson has pointed out the expert community is mostly steeped in “mitigation denial,” especially about their own lifestyles and personal behavior changes (this “’mitigation denial’ stems from the ‘fundamental failure’ of the academic community to be honest about the implications of its research”). If this is truly a crisis, why aren’t more experts making dire and drastic changes? Some, like the members of Scientist Rebellion, are vociferously protesting and visibly living low-carbon lifestyles, but they’re a tiny minority of the relevant experts.

Fourth, an analogy with racism might help decent fun-loving liberals think more clearly and less self-centeredly. Commenting on Lefebvre’s book New York Times columnist David Brooks writes that “Racial slurs have become our form of blasphemy,” because they attack the idea of equal dignity and respect (while singing Lefebvre’s praises Brooks says although “liberalism … has expanded to fill the hole in people’s souls,” it isn’t a sufficiently “sacred” creed, and I’d add that it sure seems as if having fun is at times treated as more sacred than boring moral duties). Deflecting the ecological harms of lifestyle choices is like saying that since curbing individual slurs and microaggressions won’t end systemic racism, people needn’t change their own behaviors. Obviously, on race and climate, decency and justice demand both diligent personal and systemic political change. Perhaps the moral clarity of this racial analogy might also illuminate proper responses to the bad behavior of others: how should you deal with someone using racial slurs at a liberal gathering? Or with people bragging about fun lifestyle choices that are biosphere-harming? Our moral norms must rapidly shift such that it becomes reputationally damaging to be seen to live in a manner that harms poorer humans and the biosphere we all depend on. Liberals of all people should know that the history of political and moral progress is built on precisely such norm shifts (here’s an essay on how that history can apply to our ecological predicament).

Fifth, the personal imperative applies primarily to elites, since their “f**k it” lifestyles drive most of the damage. The global top 1 percent do twice as much harm as the entire bottom 50 percent. The global top decile spews half of all carbon pollution. For context, the global top decile begins at an income of $60,000, the top 5 percent at $96,000, the top 1 percent  at $200,000. I’d wager that the vast majority of Wallace-Wells’s New York Times readers are in this globally wealthy set and that many like to see themselves as decent liberals (even as their norms mean happily ignoring the ecological harms of their fun “f**k it” trips for spiritual renewal to swim with dolphins, which accelerate their extinction).

Sixth, self-serving evasions aside, we are on the hook for the harm we cause, however small or large or indirect or delayed. The attempted evasion of responsibility for personal climate impacts fails basic moral tests, like the Golden Rule or Kant’s “categorical imperative”: we must act in ways that could be considered rational if everyone did the same (liberals love to parade their Enlightenment cred but often selectively forget the rational basics). If enough elite liberals stepped up and curbed their ecologically harmful consumption, large carbon reductions could occur nearly instantly, with none of the delays entailed in political or systems changes. As Wallace-Wells himself wrote in The  Uninhabitable Earth, if the world’s top 10 percent cut their carbon to the average European level, “global emissions would fall by a third.” Rebuilding civilization-scale infrastructure, like energy delivery, transportation systems, agriculture, and industries galore will take decades. Curbing and managing demand can be done now. We’re repeatedly told that biosphere stability is a timed test, a race against the clock, and that this is the pivotal decade. Again, if experts who say such things don’t make personal and political changes befitting the speed and scale, why should anyone believe them? Moral leadership is needed, and this isn’t rocket science (per Greta Thunberg “the bigger your carbon footprint – the bigger your moral duty”).

Seventh, many kinds of doing what’s right fail the fun-for-me priority that seems to govern too much “good” liberal behavior. You can see failure to grapple with this in how lifestyle constraints are often falsely framed as “sacrifice.” Many elite habits were not ever ecologically or ethically durable. Those resource-intensive lifestyles could only be continued by ignoring biosphere destabilization and by discounting the systematic exploitation of and harms heaped on the poor. The result of the prevailing happy talk of no-limits fun for the privileged is to cruelly add to the climate burdens of billions of the world’s most vulnerable people. How can “kind” liberals ignore this planet-scale cruelty? And let’s not forget that the entire edifice of liberal freedom is built on a “no harm principle.” The mind-bogglingly long duration of carbon harms isn’t widely known enough, it takes “400,000 years for nature to fully remove … [carbon] released today,” says climatologist Zeke Hausfather. That means our excess carbon will be a 10,000-generation thermotoxin. And putting your faith in the tech cavalry riding in over the hills is a far from sure bet that human-created carbon capture can quickly scale to beat all of nature’s planetary processes. Hausfather concludes that our legacy will be a gigantic carbon clean-up debt (over half a trillion tons of carbon will likely need to be recaptured before the end of the century, at a guesstimate price tag of at least “$22 trillion” per 0.1 ºC).

Further large flaws in liberal practice can be revealed by returning to their issue of racial injustice that many liberals say they are passionate about. Beyond microaggressions, consider that the macropolitics of liberal “no sacrifice” climate policy has gigantic racial biases built into it (it is in effect “Our Climate Apartheid Plan”). Though this isn’t discussed nearly openly enough, the ghastly scale of global racial disparities is among the greatest sins and evils of our times. On this far from small issue, Rawls was no shining moral exemplar. According to Katrina Forrester, author of In The Shadow of Justice, a monumental history of the impact of Rawls’s ideas, he didn’t address the bad luck of being born into a poor nation. She reports that at one point Rawls tried to block extending his principles globally, he deemed that “psychologically implausible.”

To my mind this is a plainly western supremacist and morally odious mindset (it amounts to a kind of Global Jim Crow under which white lives matter much more). Why is it assumed that Western standards of living can continue to command a disproportionate share of the world’s resources? That position willfully ignores the historic and ongoing global cruelties undergirding the supposedly fair system of cooperation Western liberals are supposed seek. One current example is the 40,000 Congolese kids in “modern-day slavery” mining Cobalt for our electronics. Forrester quotes a critic complaining that on the “really nasty problems” liberalism’s high priest of justice had “nothing to say.” Rawls simply presumed that the affluence of post-World-War-II America would continue and that it raised no pressing global ethical issues. But facing the facts of ecological limits now, how is excluding the interests of the bulk of humanity justifiable? Today, 83 percent of humans face the bad luck of being born outside rich nations, and in stark contrast to the cheerful narrative of progress on global poverty, liberal capitalism will take many centuries to mitigate the severely racially skewed suffering of global poverty (at the currently celebrated pace even in 8 generations the largely non-white global poor will only get to 1/8th of current rich-nation poverty). Lefebvre’s book in scanting such issues risks abetting these gigantic injustices.

Racial inequities can also stress-test two further cherished liberal pieties to show how iffy and flimsy they can be: neutrality and incrementalism. As Toni Morrison wrote in an essay called “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” the “status quo sees itself as not [political]—as though the term ‘apolitical’ were only its prefix and not the most obviously political stance imaginable since one of the functions of political ideology is to pass itself off as immutable, natural and ‘innocent.’” She’s correct, appeals to apolitical procedure and neutrality often “disguise” status quo interests. They often act as an armor of privilege.

Meanwhile incrementalism means liberals seek only a slow march to the fairness they care about. That can make sense only to those not suffering intolerably and unjustly under the status quo. Here’s how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put this:  “the Negro’s great stumbling block … is not … the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate … who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom … [and] advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

What is a fair timetable for ending global poverty? What would a just schedule be for making amends for the racial disparities and Western supremacy that is built into geopolitics and global markets? What constitutes a decent plan to protect the global vulnerable from the ravages of our resource-intensive lifestyles? As far as I can see, liberal leaders aren’t facing up to these basic forms of fairness (no doubt in part precisely because there likely aren’t any fun-only answers). These are the main moral tasks of our times. Liberalism’s leaders must face them squarely to have any credible claim to being committed to justice (even when that cuts into your privileged capacity to use resources for fun).

Must the world be run to always be more fun for the rich? That is the priority that seems to lurk behind the nice-guy façade of today’s liberalism and under the hood of what I’ve called the “political realism ruse.” The same malicious logic is latent in the mathematical innards of sold-as-neutral economics (e.g. economic “efficiency” sounds great but it can often mean harming the poor first, since that looks cheaper). We could call this set up a “joligarchy,” with fun as the priority, first and foremost for the few at the top.

We must learn to recognize and reject fancy philosophies clothed in fine words that mask foul games by which the rich gain unjustly. For its claim to be a fair and kind way of life is to be credible, liberalism’s fun-seeking cannot remain the main “obstacle” to climate—and general resource—justice.

Nor can liberal “arguments from fun” go on being as influential (Lefebvre frequently appeals to fun). They weaken the spiritual strength needed to live up to liberalism’s high moral aspirations and to discharge difficult duties. Liberalism’s critics can see this infirmity, for instance, Robert Huddleston wrote that Lefebvre elides the “profound sacrifices demanded of a nation at war” (in Compact Magazine a “post-liberal” outlet). Imagine what joy this spiritual weakness brings to liberalism’s enemies.

The gravitational pull of a politics of fun creates very bad incentives for courtiers on the climate and biosphere crises: anyone proposing profitable or fun easy techno-fixes is welcomed and lauded (even when their silver bullets involve sophisticated forms of science denial, that have been aptly called “climate Lysenkoism” and “techno-mysticism”). But reality-facing problem mappers and solvers who factor in the impacts of ecological limits get slurred as pessimists or doomers. This upbeat must-be-fun bias has blinded liberal elites to harsh realities that can’t be dealt with unless they are urgently faced. The chief tasks of our times demand difficult trade-offs. Doing what’s right often isn’t as profitable or as much “fun” as doing what isn’t. Ruling out elite consumer “sacrifices” and political solutions that would mean less resources for fun for the privileged, is a recipe for failure by fun (and it is rife with morally odious reasoning).

Lefebvre ends his book by saying liberalism is the “source of [his] soul,” it has the “moral depth and spiritual range to redeem everyday life.” But under the glossy brochure surface, especially in “f**k it” there’s fun to be had mode, liberalism can seem closer to a “religion” of greed and fun for the privileged. To redeem the better parts of their way of life liberals have a lot of hard work to do. Much of it won’t be so fun.

PS Many readers will no doubt have noticed that my arguments against Lefebvre are in a sense liberal, in that they are driven by disgust at unfairness and cruelty. But liberalism is not the only tradition that seeks decency and justice. And unless it puts its money where its mouth is, and updates its ideas to address the large deficiencies noted, it has little hope of living up to its rousing rhetoric.

  1. Long-haul flight 148 grams per km for 16,300 km = 2.4 tons. The average annual emission of a poor nation citizens are 0.3 tons.   
  2. Here Lefebvre nicely illustrates “the law of conservation of religious energies.”
  3. This is a tricky concept for liberals since their political doctrine requires that the state be neutral to many notions of the “good life” and not to promote any particular kind. Though in practice this amounts to leaving capitalism in the driving seat, using billions of dollars of ads to promote its vision of the good life of ever escalating consumption. This is one of the main ways in which liberalism is failing to face up to the climate test.