In this first installment of an interview series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of academic outreach at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, speaks with Alan Charles Kors about the history of liberalism, the proper purpose of education, and the core liberal value of mutual forbearance. Kors is the Henry Charles Lea Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in European intellectual history of the 17th and 18th centuries. He has published several books and many articles on early-modern French intellectual history and was editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Hi, Professor Kors. Thank you for joining us.
ALAN CHARLES KORS: Alan will do just fine.
KLUTSEY: This is the first of a series of conversations that we’ll be having with academics and public intellectuals about liberalism, and particularly how to highlight and elevate liberal values that are important to the preservation of our society and way of life. We’re really glad to have you here. It is a real honor to be speaking with you. Your background, your résumé, CV, is so extensive, I think it would take me about a whole hour or more to go through it.
KORS: That’s just because I’m old.
KLUTSEY: I’m just going to give folks a snippet of your background. We have, of course, Alan Kors, the Henry Charles Professor Emeritus of History at University of Pennsylvania. Your specializations involve European intellectual history of the 17th and 18th centuries, and you were editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Enlightenment. You also served for six years, after confirmation by the US Senate, on the National Council for the Humanities, and I can go on and on and on. You are a champion of academic freedom, and that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to talk to you as our first guest today.
We wanted to kick things off with a brief history of liberalism, thinking through the inception, triumphs, and some of the setbacks. Can you walk us through the foundations of liberalism? A lot of people use the term quite a bit. Can you tell us what it is, looking at it from the Enlightenment Era and how those ideas informed what we think of as liberalism?
KORS: Classical liberalism has roots, of course, back in the ancient world as well, in terms of thought, but the dramatic moment is when Europe is increasingly committed to a rejection of the presumptive authority of the past—not against authority but against the presumptive authority of the past. In a traditionalist society, the fear is that things will always get worse. If you change things that have allowed you to survive until the present, then why in the world would you change those? Crop rotations, methods of childbirth.
As a result of both intellectual and scientific developments but also a growing sense of the possibility of change and progress, you see Europeans engaged in changes in trade, navigation, changes in crop rotation and crop planting, and indeed in child rearing. These are very dramatic, along with this sense of a culture that can break out of inherited, traditional ways of doing things, which means now a culture that believes that the future can be better than the past. And there have not been many cultures that have believed that.
Intellectually, what we see are intellectual arguments against the presumptive authority of the past, arising quite predictably out of scientific breakthroughs that prove Aristotelian physics wrong, that prove the old mathematics something that can be improved upon—Descartes, Newton. Once that genie is out of the bottle—a rejection of the presumptive authority of the past—then all things are open to question: political structure, economic practices, the organization of society. All of these become part of the most extraordinary debates in the 17th and in the 18th century.
There’s a place where they converge, I think, in the thought of Voltaire, who early on—in the 1730s—publishes a book, Philosophical Letters, from England back to France, in which he argues: “Here is a nation that has learned from the Turks, from the Chinese, about inoculation. We don’t have to be fatalistic in the face of smallpox. We in France can learn from the English.” They also, in all of their civil strife, have limited royal authority and increased the freedom of citizens with every major transformation in English history, unlike the French, he argues, who have simply increased tyranny and the arbitrary with every new civil war in France.
Above all, he broaches the issue of religious toleration. Europe has rent itself through religious wars in the 16th and the 17th century, killing so much commerce and taking so many human lives and leaving society in states of despair. Voltaire looks at England, and he says the most peaceful assembly in England is the stock and commodities exchange, where the Episcopalian takes the word of the Presbyterian, the Presbyterian takes the word of the Jew, the Jew takes the word of the Muslim, and when they leave these peaceable and free assemblies, they go back to their own houses of worship in peace.
If there were one religion in England, he says, there would be tyranny. If there were two, they would cut each other’s throats. But there are 30, so they live happily together in peace. That celebration of commerce, of the market, as something that brings human beings, who otherwise are slaughtering each other on religious grounds, together in peace, as Voltaire writes, without intending it as such, for the benefit of mankind—it’s a very dramatic moment in the evolution of Western consciousness.
KLUTSEY: You had mentioned that some of these ideas existed in the ancient world. Is there a reason why they didn’t take root then?
KORS: That question, of course, would be best addressed to a classicist rather than to me.
KLUTSEY: That’s fair.
KORS: I think that material changes can alter a civilization’s sense of its possibilities, and once that sense of possibility is altered— But the ancient world is rejecting in Aristotle almost everything that preceded him and is itself beginning— But that hardens into a new orthodoxy itself, intellectually. Of course the dramatic changes in science applied to the human condition, that is going to wait until the 17th century. Human life is not terribly different in the Roman countryside than it is in the European countryside, 13th, 14th, 15th centuries. It is when one has a sense of progress and its possibilities that those deep changes occur in civilization.
KLUTSEY: I see. You talked about Voltaire and you mentioned toleration, the idea that you have two religions, they might be going after each other, but you have 30, so everyone learns to live with one another. That idea, it grew. Now, would you think of liberalism as a pre-political notion or in some sense meta-politics?
KORS: It is in the modern sense, I suppose, a pre-political position with the most dramatic political implications. I should think of it that way. But I think you do right to focus on toleration as lying at the heart of it. If people are willing to slaughter each other over religious beliefs, in fact over beliefs in general, if people are not willing to argue, to debate, their recourse then, if they think matters are important, is to force and to coercion.
So at the heart of the classical liberal tradition lies the notion of, in John Stuart Mill’s terms, mutual forbearance, in which we allow each other to think, to choose a lifestyle, to seek to satisfy ourselves on the deepest or on the shallowest questions with mutual forbearance, which has the advantage, as John Stuart Mill saw, of also producing experiments in living, experiments in lifestyles, experiments in life choices from which a whole society of individuals can learn negative or positive lessons.
KLUTSEY: You had mentioned in a recent talk when you were talking about Voltaire—I think this was a quote—that “mutual forbearance, legal equality, peace, and prosperity go hand in hand, and if you lose the first, the rest are in peril.”
KORS: Yeah. That’s exactly right. Again, in Voltaire’s seminal Philosophical Letters, a work of extraordinary influence all throughout the Western world, what Voltaire is essentially arguing is that religious liberty, free trade and commerce, the end of aristocratic privilege by birth, restraint upon central power, and balance of powers and separation of powers, which he sees in the English model, that all of these are part of the same general picture that has made progress possible and can make yet extraordinary progress possible in the future.
KLUTSEY: It’s almost as though it would be difficult to separate the civil freedoms from the economic freedoms. They almost go hand in hand.
KORS: Yeah. I think this is true. I can recall having a large number of arguments with some very brilliant people in the earlier part of the 20th century, in which they were convinced that economic freedom alone in China, increased economic freedom, would lead to increased tolerance of diverse beliefs, would lead to political liberalization and opening. But in fact, it is the case that these things go hand in hand. If you have a monopoly of power such as the Chinese Communist party exercises, for example, economic liberalization will be sacrificed the first time that power and orthodoxy are threatened.
KLUTSEY: I see. What were some of the setbacks from the era that Voltaire and Montesquieu and others were writing in when they were kind of wanting to move in this direction? What were some of the challenges to their ideas at the time?
KORS: The challenges of course came from two very different sides, one from conservative traditionalism that thought that any fraying of what held society together would unleash anarchy and that still thought that uniformity of religious belief would lead to peace; diversity of belief would lead to the disintegration of society and the war of all against all on religious terms. And the threats came from the newly emerging socialist left in the 19th century, that believed that the way to raise people out of unequal access to society’s possibilities lay in the centralization of power and in affirming group over individual identity, in this case in terms of economic class.
I think one of the other hearts—if you think about it, it lies right at the center of religious toleration—is individual freedom, individual rights. For the person who believes in liberty, there are decisions that can get made by one person, one ruler, one tyrant, or there are decisions that can get made by 51 percent of your neighbors on this or that mission. And then there are decisions that you yourself should make for yourself. Those tend to get subsumed under the tyrant or under collective democracy, and that has been a peril throughout the 19th and 20th and into the 21st century.
KLUTSEY: I see. You had mentioned that individual freedom, individual rights, toleration, pluralism, mutual forbearance, sort of a set of values that make it possible to have liberalism— This might be pre-political, but it has political implications. Which I guess is one of the major challenges for different groups to embrace a more liberal idea, or notion, of society.
KORS: Absolutely. Of course, you and I are using liberal in the same generic sense. To most of American political discourse, liberalism means something left of center that favors more, not less, government intrusion into the decisions that people ought to be free to make for themselves.
KLUTSEY: How did that change? Was there a time, a moment in history, where that shift occurred?
KORS: That’s a very interesting question because usually you’ll hear people in the States say the change occurred in the New Deal. Somehow [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt was both the liberal and he was the architect of government interventions. But in the 19th century, you’ll find Herbert Spencer decrying the loss of the term liberalism, which he associates with individual liberty, to what he labels as the socialists, those who believe that acting through government, people are free to do what they want to control other people’s lives and take the fruits of other people’s labor. So that cry is not just a 20th century one, that the meaning of liberalism has been lost. The root is “free” and “liberty.” If you attach liberty to the group, liberalism can have a very different meaning than if you attach the term liberty to the right of all individuals, irrespective of birth.
KLUTSEY: How do these ideas get introduced into America? I had a political science professor once who said Americans think of themselves as born Lockeans. It seems as though a lot of the ideas that John Locke was writing about in the “Second Treatise” and other works got into the Declaration of Independence, and some Founding Fathers like James Madison, Jefferson, and others were studying those ideas.
KORS: I think the Lockean template is very dramatic on the founding and on American political life, the belief that social organization exists for the benefit of the collection of individuals in a society and that there are inherent rights that government exists to defend, to secure and defend, not to grant but to defend. They preexist government. It’s not, I think, accidental that if you look at Southern slave-owning defenses of slavery—Cannibals All! is probably the most celebrated such work—it begins with an attack on Lockean political philosophy, with the argument that the basis of society is not the individual and the individual’s rights.
That Lockean template serves us very well, even though it’s hard to know at various moments in history how deeply people in fact believe in it. It’s difficult now to know if one talks to the products of our educational system, K-12 and universities, whether that sense of Americans born Lockean would still prevail. I must say, it often cheers me at my darkest moments to think that this is perhaps the only country in the world where if you tell a little kid irrationally not to do something, he looks up and says, “It’s a free country.”
KLUTSEY: That’s right. What would you say was the most appealing aspect of the Lockean template? Was it this rejection of the monarchy, given the challenges that they’d faced under the British?
KORS: I think at the heart of the Lockean political template is the notion that society is a human construction, a human choice; that the way we order a society is a choice that free individuals make; that the state is not something and authority is not something handed down from the heavens over human, social, organized, and political life.
The secularism—that the state is a secular concern not a theological concern—that lies at the heart, that rights preexist the existence of government and the state and cannot be taken away by the state. There’s a very, very simple way to show that, I think, to people that they believe it even if they don’t know that they believe that. If you just ask, “If society sought to repeal the 13th Amendment, do they have the right to do that?” Well, the Lockean answer would be “no,” that no one has the right to take away what are unalienable rights.
The remarkable drama of American history, it has always seemed to me, is that we were given a founding template, such intellectual and moral force, that the worst behavior of individuals in the long term fell to it, and indeed had to falter. American history has been one long, complex, difficult but ultimately succeeding effort to recognize the truth that all men are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights and that government exists to secure those rights. That is what underlay the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments. That is what underlay the Civil Rights Act and movement of the 1960s. There is a dynamic toward that. When Martin Luther King said, “Yes, American principles, but why don’t you apply them?”—that touched deeply and changed a society.
KLUTSEY: That seemed to me really, really powerful. But do Americans have these Lockean sensibilities that have had this increasing trajectory throughout history, or have there been challenges along the way, similar to the challenges that Voltaire and others were seeing during the French Enlightenment?
KORS: Always and ever and into the future as well. One of the things that classical liberalism, in my view, simply has to acknowledge are the atavistic tendencies that always exist in human nature, the deep wiring toward tribalism, toward aversion to difference, toward domination of others, superstition and irrationality. There were those who thought in the late 19th century, Germany, France, England, they trade together, they’re trading nations, there will be no more wars. And of course, that’s not the case. Tribalism, nationalism, superstition, and atavistic behavior is always there, threatening the increasing peace of an extended order that a liberal order can bring about.
KLUTSEY: If you fast-forward maybe a century and a half later, Friedrich Hayek was writing about The Road to Serfdom and kind of pushing back against some of those challenges. You have your own story about Hayek as well, when the ideas were introduced to you when you were in college.
KORS: Yeah, it’s an interesting story personally. It also is a very sad story if one thinks of the current state of higher education. My sophomore year at Princeton, I took a course on 20th century European intellectual history with a very distinguished intellectual of the left, Arno Mayer, who gave us a wide range of readings but included some of his own work. When he gave back the midterm examinations, he said to us, “You have embarrassed me. You’ve shamed me as a teacher. You all wrote what you thought I wanted to hear. So for the final exam, and it will be one-third of the final exam, I am assigning to you the book I most disagree with about the 20th century. Your questions will be not to critique it in any way but to recreate its arguments with intellectual empathy so that I know that you know views categorically different from my own.”
At that moment, I knew how I wanted to teach intellectual history but also that exposure to Hayek changed my own political and moral life. I can’t think of more than one or two colleagues in my entire field who would do that today, and that is tragically sad. The surveys tell me that almost everyone who taught me in the early 1960s was on the left. I didn’t know that. You could not infer it from their syllabi, from their lectures, even from their asides during a class.
Today people want not what they wanted: open, critical minds. More and more of the professoriate—and it is the betrayal of higher education—would prefer disciples and acolytes to open, critical minds, let alone open, critical minds that reach conclusions categorically different from their own. The whole model of education embodied in that story about my professor on the left exposing, indeed insisting, that students be able to recreate arguments opposite of his own with intellectual empathy, that whole ethos has gone from higher education. Google, of course, now makes it difficult for students not to know where a professor sits or stands politically.
We have anonymous questionnaires at the University of Pennsylvania, and what pleased me was year after year students saying, “The frustrating thing about his courses is you don’t know if he’s conservative or radical. You don’t know if he’s an atheist or a religious believer.” To me, that was a mark of pride. I wanted them to consider the thinkers, their way of thinking, their presuppositions, their unspoken beliefs about ethics and society and human nature, not to be studying themselves and their own opinions but to be studying how other minds in other times and places contributed to the dialogue of the West.
KLUTSEY: It must have been quite transformational for you as a young man at the time, learning about all these ideas. You might have had a preexisting view of the world.
KORS: Oh, I did.
KLUTSEY: Did you? Tell us more.
KORS: Well, no, I grew up in a traditional New York area, FDR-worshiping, Nation-reading household. Fortunately, my parents had the same forbearance that Mill has urged upon the population.
KLUTSEY: That is interesting. Of course today one of the reasons why we’re having this forum, we see this trend towards nationalism and challenges to the notions of immigration and a more inward-looking society on the one hand versus socialism being very, very popular, more robust towards welfare redistribution, and so on. It seems like there’s a challenge in the different ideas that people have instead of talking to each other.
KORS: Yeah. I think there are extraordinary things contributing to the increasing popularity of socialism or near-socialism among college graduates the last 15, 20 years. But surely one of those things is that they do not know the history of socialism. They do not know the history of centrally planned economies because it is simply not taught.
One of the reasons I decided to offer a seminar on the history of classical liberal thought, which included the divisions and internal debates of classical liberal thought, is these authors were nowhere to be found on bookshelves. There were Edward Said in 25 courses and [Michel] Foucault in 50 courses and [Jacques] Derrida in 30 courses, and classical liberal authors were not even being taught. So I put together a seminar on classical liberalism that exposed students to these thinkers, and I said, “We leave our own politics at the door. We discuss these authors.”
When they read The Road to Serfdom, the number of students who would say to me, “This is the first time I’ve ever been exposed to this kind of criticism of central planning”—it’s very striking. And the crimes in the history of socialism, the crimes of communism. When they discovered the death camps at Dachau, at Buchenwald, at Belsen, when they discovered those death camps, that was it for people able to say with pride, “I was a fascist. I was a Nazi.” Even antisemitism had to kind of lay low for a while.
But now, in the history of communism, we have 10, maybe 15, 20 times the death toll of the Nazi Holocaust, and our children do not know about them. They just don’t know. You would have thought that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the fall of East European communism, that course after course would have looked at the difference between what happened in actual centrally planned economies and in liberal, free enterprise economies, in terms of mutual toleration, in terms of environment, in terms of air quality, let alone in terms of incarceration and death camps and reducing people to slavery in the Gulag, which exists to this day of course in China. And our students do not know. There is an Everest of bodies out there.
KLUTSEY: Yeah, what’s the experience for them? I mean after they leave your class. They feel more enlightened? They want to go ahead and learn more, study more?
KORS: They want to learn more. The more they read debates and differing opinions, the better off their minds are and their possibilities for independent critical thought are. So I would always tell students, “Look, we read [Robert] Nozick here, and this may be the only course in which you read Nozick, but you have to read [John] Rawls. You cannot simply be persuaded by the last author whom you’ve read or someone on your professor’s syllabus. You’ve got to know the debates.”
What’s so frightening now about what’s happening in the academic world is the attempt to quash debate, cancel culture, and saying that being exposed to heterodox ideas that differ from the regnant academic orthodoxy is dangerous, is a menace to people’s liberty—and you will hear them even say, to people’s lives. It’s very sad what’s happening in higher education.
KLUTSEY: So what advice would you have for professors who want to get students to engage with genuine intellectual curiosity and humility and understand the ideas that have influenced societies over centuries?
KORS: One is, you have to expose students to differing points of view, and you have to encourage students to engage in honest debate and criticism. You have to stop punishing disagreement with a professor’s point of view. The only requirement a professor can make is that a student offer informed opinions and informed criticisms, informed by the materials and readings of a course and by readings related to what is assigned in a course. But it all starts in the heart of professors. Is your mission to demystify students of all those wrong things they believe that are different from your beliefs? Or is your mission to cultivate a critical, honest, open mind that can defend its views in open debate? That ethos is disappearing from higher education.
KLUTSEY: But I thought the term liberal arts was supposed to encourage this type of engagement on campuses, introduce students to all kinds of ideas. Maybe one plus is that, over the years, there were initially just a few colleges, universities in the US. Now we have multiple, multiple thousands of universities across the United States. Women, minorities have access to universities. That’s a plus. On the other hand, I guess there’s that question whether they’ve lived up to the principle of a liberal arts education.
KORS: Well, yes, I think that what we have now, rather than Schools of Arts and Sciences, SAS, are Schools of Oppression Studies and teaching the illiberal arts. Let’s start at a foundational level on this. It is the right of every free man and woman to decide for himself or herself the importance or the relative unimportance of his or her sex, gender, race, religion. What we have now are universities assigning official group identity to people, holding separate orientations, having an encouragement to just study one’s self, as seen by the alleged voices and spokesmen. Trading in one set of masters over your identity for another is not liberation in any way, shape, or form.
In the early 1970s, I co-founded a college house at the University of Pennsylvania—180 undergraduates, eight resident grad fellows, four resident faculty members. The way that we presented ourselves was, this is a place to be an individual; this is the place to come and be who you are—culturally, politically, intellectually—and to meet in this community that represents the whole university in terms of ideas and interests.
We attracted—all four classes—half men, half women. We had— With this invitation to come be a part of a community of individuals, we had the first wave of gay liberation. We had the Campus Crusade for Christ. We had feminists, radical feminists often, campaigning for full abortion rights. We had the central board of the Catholic Newman Society at Penn. We had Maoist revolutionaries. We had College Republicans, who were then virtually an underground group in the early ‘70s.
I was upset by Penn’s tendency to segregate people by interests and identities, so we very consciously recruited so that we could have applications from scientists and musicians, from finance majors in Wharton to people working on the early stages of artificial intelligence. With my contacts in the admissions office, I recruited applications from people they recommended, from backgrounds that typically were living in more isolation at Penn.
After the first year, for the next seven that I lived there, at a time when Penn was maybe 3 or 4 percent Black, Van Pelt College House was never fewer than 20 percent Black. All of this by people’s choices of the kind of experience they wanted to have. People argued with each other all the time. They were uncivil in the beginning with each other all the time. But freedom is such a remarkable medium. They learned how to talk to each other. They learned how to humanize their relationships.
The notion that student bodies on today’s campuses are filled with vicious Klan members who are out there fighting for dormitory white supremacists is just absurd. Our colleges and universities have student bodies that are probably the most open to inclusive diversity of any group that has ever lived on American campuses. But now, alas, if that’s going to change, it’s changing in the opposite direction of being exclusive of anyone with a point of view that differs from their notion of diversity and inclusion and social justice.
But these were extraordinary times. We had speakers come in arguing the existence of God, followed by speakers coming in on the nonexistence of God.
KLUTSEY: It must have been a fun experience.
KORS: We had Black nationalists addressing the house. We had traditionalist conservatives addressing the house. It was glorious.
KLUTSEY: Going back to Voltaire, I guess they learned the core value of mutual forbearance of one another.
KORS: Oh, that is exactly right. The one rule there was you couldn’t get violent to anyone, right? You had to keep it verbal. In those circumstances, people learn to humanize their relationships, and they learn to talk to each other. We’re paying a terrible price not giving students that same freedom and opportunity today.
KLUTSEY: Moving toward the end here, are you optimistic about the future?
KORS: I’m not optimistic about the future, but then I’ll give you a reason not to take me as a prophet. But I am not optimistic at the future because it does seem to me that those who are illiberal, who reject all of these views of mutual forbearance of diversity of opinion and perspective, that these people are now in control of American education. K-12 and freshman year through Yale law degree, it is the same dreary orthodoxy. Absent a generational revolt—and I see no evidence of that happening—the pressures toward conformity, toward signing on to an institutional orthodoxy, toward accepting a group identity over an individual identity, these pressures are now so coercively great and the political litmus tests in hiring, or once those political litmus tests are in place, the self-selection of people—Dare I go into academic life? Dare I go into public school teaching?—that that now becomes a disincentive for an intellectual diversity of people to enter education.
And higher education is the gatekeeper to the rewards of society. Parents understandably say, “Let me get this kid the most prestigious degree he can get. Let me get her the degree that opens the most job opportunities, and the nonsense will roll off their backs like water off a duck.” But it doesn’t roll off their backs like water off a duck if that’s all they hear.
Now, in the early 1980s, some students said to me did I think that history could predict the future? I said, “Not at all, but I think it can tell you what can’t happen.” And students said to me, “What do you know, as a historian, can’t happen?” I said, “White South Africans will never give up political power without a blood bath. No Russian government ever will accept a unified Germany. No Russian government ever will accept a hostile Poland on its border.” I was 0/3 with my most self-confident predictions, so no one should take my pessimism as prophecy.
KLUTSEY: That’s right but I would say, and again this is not a left, a right thing, but it’s sort of principles and ideas that can inform discourse and debate and the way in which we conduct ourselves in a free society. I think your practical example of what happened in Van Pelt, I imagine that it did change the culture quite a bit. Perhaps we need more of those, going forward.
KORS: But to have that, you would need university administrators and professors who care about getting very different people talking to each other. These days when someone at a university says, we need to have a conversation about X, what that means is, “I talk until you listen and agree with me.”
KLUTSEY: So how do we change that?
KORS: I think we have got to end the subsidy of higher education. If they want to have closed shop political fiefdoms, being gatekeepers to society’s best offerings, they either do that pluralistically in a way that merits support or let the subsidies stop including nonprofit status of universities. If they wish to engage in the business of politics, not the business of open-minded and critical education, let them do that on their own dime, not ours.
KLUTSEY: Wonderful. With that insightful advice, I think we are at the end of our conversation. I really appreciate it, Alan, for taking the time to speak to us.
KORS: My privilege.