Americans are living through turbulent times. From 9/11 to the Great Recession to the recent pandemic, not to mention the rise of populist political movements on the right and left, norms and institutions are being challenged by events—and from within.
Many aspects of American life have been changing rapidly. Particularly in the last two decades, everything from ideas about gender and race to the role of religion in people’s lives has been evolving, at times with great speed. These and other trends have been amplified by new technologies, especially social media.
Perhaps most significantly, many of the liberal ideas and institutions that defined American life in the 20th century and drove beneficial economic and social change—if unevenly—increasingly have less currency. Young Americans in particular are more skeptical of core liberal values, including capitalism and even democracy.
Meanwhile, many people, while unhappy with aspects of the status quo, are scared by much of the turbulence that seems to threaten it. This raises a host of questions. Do our institutions need to be not just reformed but fundamentally changed? Are the ideas and values that have traditionally underpinned these institutions no longer suitable as a foundation for ordering our society? Has the liberal ethos simply run its natural course, to be overtaken now by something else?
It’s important to ask these questions—but it’s even more important to show why we must answer each in the negative. Our institutions and our values are more than adequate to the task of effective self-governance, if we are willing to take on the hard work that protecting and renewing them requires.
This is not to say that liberal values and institutions are perfect or, as our long history demonstrates, that they always have adequately served all Americans. But, to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s defense of democracy, they are the worst except for all the others. They are worth not only preserving and defending, but strengthening.
And yet, just saying so is inadequate. Many people perceive something to be deeply wrong, and telling them to keep quiet and accept the status quo will only make the problem worse. So, what should we do?
A Commitment to Discourse
Today’s turbulence is accompanied by many thousands of voices, both within and outside the established media. So why, in such a crowded media landscape, should the Mercatus Center invest time and resources in creating yet another magazine? Maybe a better question is, can we make a real and positive difference? Can we have an impact, not just on public policy, academia, and the national media, but on the small business owners, nurses, factory workers, clergy, parents, civic leaders, and others who do the bulk of the day-to-day work that moves our society and economy forward?
We believe so. We are launching Discourse, an online magazine, with the aim of providing (with apologies to Maimonides) a guide for the perplexed, a place where readers with different perspectives and from various walks of life can make better sense of our confused and restless times and find new ways to think about the problems they see threatening our freedoms and our prosperity. In other words, Discourse is first and foremost about discourse: the free exchange of ideas in the hope of getting to a productive truth.
To do this, we are committed to looking at society’s problems and challenges with great clarity and intellectual honesty and without the cant that characterizes so much of today’s public conversation. We will approach this task with humility, understanding that we don’t have all the answers. This means being open to a diverse range of thought, knowing that good ideas incubate best in a competitive environment where writers and readers feel free to question or challenge any assumption without fear of opprobrium or insult. After all, no one is ever insulted into changing their mind.
At the same time, our editorial policy will always be to defend and promote the liberal ideas and values that have helped create the most free and prosperous societies on earth. These include freedom of thought, speech, and worship; respect and tolerance for different kinds of people and different views; free markets and open trade; a belief in the importance of civil society and the role it plays in creating communities where people can prosper and flourish; a commitment to the importance of open inquiry and intellectual integrity; and the view that government works best when it is limited, respects and promotes the rule of law, and operates close to the governed.
Many of these liberal values are under assault from different ideological corners. Fortunately, people of different political stripes are working together to defend these time-tested truths—to reform our institutions, not reject them. Defending classical liberal values is not a progressive, conservative, or libertarian project; it is an American project, and we look forward to publishing work by people of different ideological strains who share a commitment to the liberal order.
That said, not everything you read in Discourse will directly concern the defense of liberal values. We will publish pieces on a wide variety of different topics, from culture and society to economics and politics. In addition, we will be open to writers who seek to deeply examine and even question aspects of liberal thinking, so long as it is done in the spirit of respect and free inquiry. However, the classical liberal ideas that we see as the cornerstone of a healthy and prosperous society will ultimately be this magazine’s North Star.
We hope you become a regular reader of Discourse because the magazine embodies the meaning of its name and offers a rich interchange of ideas. We also hope that you join the discourse, letting us know what you think about anything we publish . . . or anything at all.