Western civilization is liberalism, not tribalism. And Western civilization is worth saving.

What is Western Civilization?

“The rise of the alt-right represents the beginning of a war within Western civilization between those who believe in modern liberal democracy—free markets, free trade, freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of speech—and those who don’t.”

John Aziz argues (hat tip @Noahpinion) that Western civilization IS liberal democracy. That is, free expression, freedom of association, freedom of religion, free trade, etc. are Western civilization and Western civilization is free expression, freedom of association, freedom of religion, free trade, etc.

To an extent, Leon Hadar at the American Conservative agrees with Aziz.

Western civilization is under attack.

Hadar wants to maintain the Enlightenment norms separating church and state that “evolved in the Christian West in the aftermath of devastating religious wars (completing our so-called Judeo-Christian civilization).”

Economist Deirdre McCloskey agrees. “The liberal idea was spawned by some happy accidents in northwestern Europe from 1517 to 1789 — namely, the four R’s: the Reformation, the Dutch Revolt, the revolutions of England and France, and the proliferation of reading.”


Hadar is worried about the French. Too many Muslims, he says. They’re going to remake French culture in their (non-Western) image.


A nation that absorbs a large number of immigrants from societies whose core cultural values and beliefs run contrary to its dominant norms cannot expect to maintain its common traditions in the long run, as members of a group that rejects them increase in numbers and gain more influence.

It would be easy to dismiss Hadar as just another immigration catastrophist. Since people started moving across borders people have been accusing recent arrivals of bringing the downfall of civilization with them. But Hadar’s piece isn’t just another anti-Muslim screed. It’s mostly a subtle, and effective, argument against so-called religious freedom.

But Aziz, who is vehemently anti-racism, agrees with him. Though he sees the alt-right as a bigger, more pressing threat than Muslim immigrants. “The alt-right, ironically, seems determined to throw [liberal] values under the bus in the pursuit of some illusory superficial whiteness, and replace them instead with tribal unity, religious and racial purity and cultural homogeneity,” Aziz writes. “Ironically, it is these very values (albeit from an Islamic perspective) that also characterize the values of the reactionary Islam of the Islamic state.”


I am also anti-racism, and/but I agree with both of them. It isn’t just, or even mostly, uneducated tent-dwelling Muslims who don’t support liberal values, especially separating church and state. Shadi Hamid is an Atlantic contributor, a scholar at Brookings, and a self-identified liberal. He argues in his book Islamic Exceptionalism, that the secularism and liberalism of Western democracies may be on the decline. Not only is it a myth that all countries inevitably progress to rational Enlightenment and non-theocratic government, but it’s a myth that they should.

What’s the cost?

“It is an objective fact that liberal civilization—free trade, freedom of movement and freedom of speech, etc—results in greater economic growth, which is correlated with higher quality of life across a spectrum of factors including higher quality medical care, longer lifespans, poverty reduction, etc.,” Aziz writes.

The cost of illiberalism is too high, according to Aziz:

The last time European ethnonationalism was ascendant, Hitler and Mussolini and their allies wasted tens of trillions of dollars of time, life and productive capital destroying Europe and the world in their delusional quest for lebensraum and Aryan purity. Similarly, as I noted earlier, the Islamic civilization has been wasting its time fighting itself over ideological matters in much this manner for most of its history. One of liberal civilization’s great innovations is in skirting all of this nonsense by agreeing to disagree and tolerate each other’s differences. Then, of course, there lies the opportunity costs of alienating productive members of society. Hitler’s reich chose a program of expulsion and extermination against the Jews, and lost many great physicists—such as Albert Einstein—to Britain, America, and the Soviet Union. Ethnonationalism today promises to do much the same thing.

Further, liberalism doesn’t advocate freedom from government interference for some. It advocates for freedom from all arbitrary coercive forces for all. Liberalism has as one of its goals that everyone can be free to participate in trade, movement, speech, work, and so on. To McCloskey, “liberalism, in the free-market European sense” is, among other things, “equality before the law and equality of social dignity.”

And the result? McCloskey:

Look at the astonishing improvements in China since 1978 and in India since 1991. Between them, the countries are home to about four out of every 10 humans. Even in the United States, real wages have continued to grow — if slowly — in recent decades, contrary to what you might have heard. Donald Boudreaux, an economist at George Mason University, and others who have looked beyond the superficial have shown that real wages are continuing to rise, thanks largely to major improvements in the quality of goods and services, and to nonwage benefits. Real purchasing power is double what it was in the fondly remembered 1950s — when many American children went to bed hungry.

Researchers have actually put a dollar value on the cost of discrimination on the basis of gender and race. If discrimination fell to zero, output per worker, according to their model, would rise a further 10-15%.

What do you value? 

“We like to imagine that debates over core political issues are conducted by great philosophers who are committed to our sacred values,” Hadar writes.

The problem with democracy is that we don’t all value the same things. The other problem is that people are ignorant. But ignorance an easier to fix and less pressing problem.

Liberalism is “equality before the law and equality of social dignity,” along with “free trade, freedom of movement and freedom of speech.” On this I believe Hadar, McCloskey, and Aziz all agree. Competing values impede liberalism, among the most challenging are “tribal unity, religious and racial purity and cultural homogeneity,” as Aziz put it.

The biggest problem facing liberalism is that some people value tribal unity, religious and racial purity and cultural homogeneity more than they value quality medical care, longer lifespans, and poverty reduction. A lot of people. A lot, lot, lot of people.

Again, not just uneducated, basement-dwelling alt-right cretins. James Rogers is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University. In First Things Rogers writes explicitly that Western Christians must choose between equality before the law and equality of social dignity on the one hand and tribal unity, religious and racial purity and cultural homogeneity on the other. And that “progressing toward the abolition of arbitrary differences between people” (aka reducing discrimination on arbitrary bases) is a BAD THING.

Since its founding, America’s white men have toiled for personal economic improvement under (what they called) liberalism secure in the knowledge that women and black and brown people were toiling too, but would never catch up with or surpass them. We know white Americans valued tribal unity, religious and racial purity and cultural homogeneity above liberalism because they literally enshrined their racism and misogyny in law. Now that real liberalism is rearing its head, America’s white men are scared. This is the alt-right challenge to liberalism.

Challenges to liberalism don’t come just from Muslims or Christians or the alt-right or the alt-left. Challenges to liberalism come from everyone. The biggest threats to freedom of expression are coming from the left these days.

Liberalism’s greatest challenge is that while the Enlightenment made room for liberalism, it never made a case for it. The tiny little amount of liberalism we’ve implemented has lifted billions out of poverty, reduced discrimination, expanded human dignity, increased average education, lengthened average lifespans, increased average quality of life. But it’s like air. You don’t notice it until it’s gone.

A desire for liberalism didn’t replace people’s desire for tribal unity, religious and racial purity and cultural homogeneity. The liberalism we’ve implemented was enough to do good work, but not enough to stamp out tribalism. As long as the dominant tribe stayed dominant it tolerated enough liberalism to benefit it. But never enough to challenge the power structure.

That’s changing. Liberalism is finally challenging the power structure. And the dominant tribe has taken notice.

We will never convince people to become liberals by demonstrating that liberalism leads to economic prosperity. Illiberals KNOW the choice is between longer lifespans and higher quality of life on the one hand and tribal unity, religious and racial purity and cultural homogeneity on the other.

Selling liberalism requires that we identify liberalism and illiberalism correctly. Structures that work against equality before the law and equality of social dignity aren’t liberalism. Tribalism isn’t liberalism. Racism isn’t liberalism. Liberalism is equality before the law and equality of social dignity. Liberalism is freedom of association, freedom of expression, free trade, and freedom to move for all, not for some.

We have to show people that Western civilization is liberalism, not tribalism, and that Western civilization is worth saving.



  1. Nicholas Weininger

    So what this all boils down to, then, is that the security of liberal institutions must require strict limits on democracy, limits which are upheld by cosmopolitan and secular institutions that draw their power from something other than majority support. Otherwise you face the horrible choice of restricting the bedrock liberal value of freedom of movement, or accepting that tribalists moving into your country are going to undermine its liberal institutions by advocating and voting for tribalism.

    Right? I’d like to be convinced otherwise, because it’s so difficult to sustain cosmopolitan, secular, antidemocratic institutions. But I don’t see a better alternative. Persuading (or more realistically, continually re-persuading) the masses that they should mostly be cosmopolitan and secular seems even more difficult.

  2. Julian Michael

    Cathy, I appreciate your writing and unique perspective—before finding your site I had never read or heard the phrase “libertarian feminism” before. I want to touch briefly on this point:

    > “The biggest problem facing liberalism is that some people value tribal unity, religious and racial purity and cultural homogeneity more than they value quality medical care, longer lifespans, and poverty reduction. A lot of people. A lot, lot, lot of people.”

    I disagree about this being such a big problem. I understand the tendency to treat everyone just as utility-maximizers—and using their actions as evidence of different utility functions—but however we choose to abstract humans into “rational actors,” it’s really hard build this abstraction in such a way that it doesn’t leak. For example, the free market ideal is perfect information, and rational actors do rational belief update: neither of these are easy to translate to from actual human society and behavior.

    More specifically, I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that many people simply have different a perception of the facts. For example, listen to this NPR interview with Richard Spencer, a leading figure in the alt-right: http://www.npr.org/2016/11/17/502476139/were-not-going-away-alt-right-leader-on-voice-in-trump-administration

    Throughout the interview I think it’s clear that it’s more nuanced than valuing tribal unity over other measures of QOL. (Though clearly he does value this, evidenced by his comments about the NYC subway.) But more often he appeals to more objective benefits that he thinks *result* from tribal unity and cultural homogeneity: he seems to believe that from these things will come greater economic output, reduced crime, etc.

    This side of the alt-right perspective is even clearer, I think, if you read anything by Milo Yiannopoulos (for example, articles like this: http://www.breitbart.com/london/2015/06/01/theres-no-gender-pay-gap-but-here-are-11-reasons-why-there-should-be/). His arguments are usually phrased in terms of (what he claims to be) facts about education, crime, labor, etc., and couched in appeals to economic prosperity and fairness (both liberal values).

    Of course, I think there is a valuable point to be made here about how these people’s real utility functions lead them to believe things that are convenient for them—thinking of belief update in terms of instrumental (rather than inferential) rationality. Yes, you can choose to believe certain things that allow you to justify your viewpoints on the basis of liberal values, allowing you to fall closer to the Overton Window and gain the benefits that provides.

    But I have a feeling that this doesn’t fully describe most of the people who support these arguments. I honestly think that most of them, if exposed to the real facts and a good argument for the other side, and if they could interpret it rationally (overcoming whatever biases they have that would lead them to reject legitimate evidence), could be convinced. Just look at Glenn Beck. Wow, what a change he has made!

    I think at the end of the day this is an issue less about a clash in *values* and more about a clash in *information.* The left, liberals, the right and the alt-right pretty much all disagree with each other about objective reality.

    I don’t have scientific evidence to back up this claim, but it’s my perspective from personal experience. Again, thanks for sharing your point of view publicly online, and I enjoy reading your posts.

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