Alan Kahan

The book: In his latest book, Alan Kahan ’80 tackles the topic of liberalism. A historian and political theorist, Kahan unpacks the development of liberalism from the late 18th century to reveal how liberal arguments have morphed over time. Focusing on the three pillars of freedom, markets, and morals, Kahan examines how these ideals impact modern political battles. Freedom from Fear (Princeton University Press) highlights a clear path forward for liberals in today’s political landscape.


The author: Alan Kahan ’80 is a historian, political theorist, translator, travel writer, and resident of Paris. He earned his undergraduate degree in history and advanced degrees from the University of Chicago. Kahan is a professor of British Civilization at Université Paris-Saclay. His other books include Tocqueville, Democracy, and Religion; Liberalism in Nineteenth-Century Europe; and Aristocratic Liberalism.


The Four Fears of Liberalism

Liberalism is the search for a society in which no one need be afraid. Freedom from fear is the most basic freedom: if we are afraid, we are not free. This insight is the foundation of liberalism. To proclaim our inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is simply an eloquent way of stating the not-so-exalted wish to live without fear.

That no one should be afraid begs the question, “afraid of what?” Of course, some people will always fear spiders, and most people will fear death. Liberalism is powerless against these kinds of fear, which will always trouble our sense of security and limit our freedom. What liberals fear is arbitrary power, and liberalism is about building a society in which we need not fear other people, whether singly, in groups, or perhaps most of all, in uniform—that of the police officer, the soldier, the priest. At its most basic, liberalism derives from the fear of an all-powerful individual, a despot. The spirit of tyranny hovers over the cradle of liberalism and is never absent from liberal concerns. In any society, the greatest potential enemy of freedom is the sovereign, whether sovereignty is exercised in the name of God, a monarch, or the people, because the sovereign has the greatest opportunities for despotism. Whoever is sovereign is the greatest source of fear. Hence liberal attempts to limit the powers of the sovereign and its agents.

While from a liberal perspective, no one ought to be afraid, from illiberal perspectives, there are people who ought to be afraid: those who belong to the wrong religion, the wrong class, the wrong gender, the wrong ethnicity. This is not the case for liberals, or at least eventually not for liberals. Recognizing that freedom from fear ought to apply to atheists, or Black people, or women is something that takes place over time, and the progression is not linear. Nonetheless, securing the social and political conditions necessary to give people a feeling of security—the feeling that their person and their community are free—is the historical core of liberalism.

Recognition of the crucial role of fear in whether or not we are free goes back at least to Montesquieu, who argued that “political liberty … comes from the opinion each one has of his security.” Modern historians and political theorists largely ignore this insight until Judith Shklar’s brilliant 1989 essay “The Liberalism of Fear” stressed the fundamental role of fear in the creation and development of liberalism. Human beings have been afraid of each other since before civilization began, and the Bible transmits humanity’s longing for a time when “every man shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid.” But while despotism is as old as time, and the dream of escaping from it at least as old as the Bible, liberalism is not. People never wanted to be subject to cruelty, but for millennia they had no strategies for ending it. The choices available were fleeing from power, seizing it, or submitting to it. Most people chose submission. Despotism, the reign of fear, as Montesquieu notes, is the worst form of government, yet historically the most common.

It is our equal capacity to be afraid, and our equal need for liberalism to ward off our fears, that is at the root of liberalism’s historical relationship with equality. Many people have incorrectly identified liberalism with equality, and it is true that we have less reason to fear our equals than our superiors. But equality can also be a source of fear: a plebiscitary dictatorship is no less a despotism for being the will of the people, and fear of majority tyranny has a long history in liberalism: “unbridled majorities are as tyrannical and cruel as unlimited despots,” wrote John Adams in the 18th century. Equality is not constitutive of liberalism the way fear is.

Another, even more common error is to identify liberalism with some list of “rights,” whether human, natural, contractual, or constitutional. Claims that people had rights began long before liberalism and have been used by many people who were not liberals. Of course, liberals, too, have often talked about rights. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, even if written a few years before the word “liberalism” was invented, is a landmark of liberalism, as is the American Declaration of Independence. As liberals have always recognized, rights can be important bulwarks against fear and enablers of hope. They can be instruments of equality. They can even serve as a substitute for religion. But like equality, rights are not necessarily a panacea for liberals, and their relationship to liberalism has varied. As Robert Nozick put it, liberals have more often adopted a “utilitarianism of rights'' than a theory based on rights.  While natural rights or rights based on a social contract have served some liberals as the foundation of liberalism, other liberals rarely or never used “rights talk.” Mainstream liberals did not talk much about the social contract before World War II, and when they did talk about rights, these did not necessarily take priority over other claims. Isaiah Berlin grasped this well: “The philosophical foundations of … liberal beliefs in the mid-19th century were somewhat obscure. Rights described as ‘natural’ or ‘inherent,’ absolute standards of truth and justice, were not compatible with tentative empiricism and utilitarianism, yet liberals believed in both.”

Understanding the history of liberalism must begin with studying the problem it addresses: the problem of fear. What liberals feared, or feared most, has changed over time. A history of liberalism must relate the development of liberalism to particular historical fears and name the powers liberals sought to limit at a particular time. Each new form of liberalism is the result of a new fear that has called for a new response. Understanding this is essential to understanding why and how liberalism changes over time. People in the 21st century are not liberals for the same reasons Locke or Kant might have been. “Fear” is too abstract in the singular, and “despotism” is too broad a term to tell us much about the source of fear. We need to know just what it is that liberals in a given time and place fear the most.

Excerpted from Freedom from Fear by Alan S. Kahan. Copyright © 2023 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.


“A masterful examination of key liberal thinkers, Freedom from Fear is original, compelling, and important.” — Helena Rosenblatt, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

“A very valuable reconsideration of the history of liberal political thought, Freedom from Fear covers a lot of ground with insight and clarity.” — Bernard Yack, Brandeis University