top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe Convergence

Yale professor reframes Liberalism, urges Liberals to be less negative and more ambitious in Yale-NUS public lecture

By Varun (Editor)

Professor Moyn delivered the Yale-NUS lecture on Global Affairs on March 7. Source:

In the aftermath of World War II and in the throes of the Cold War in the middle of the 20th century, fearful Liberals reacting to a turbulent world around them lost the thread and often conflated Liberalism with Libertarianism.

But to defeat Trump in the polls this November, it would do Liberals good to return to Liberalism’s mid-19th century roots — preaching an idea that is more upbeat and ambitious and talked about Liberalism as a collective project, as opposed to one that is more doom and gloom and focused on individual liberties, argued American legal scholar and historian Samuel Moyn in a public lecture on March 7, 2024.

Moyn, the Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and History at Yale University and author of the 2023 book Liberalism Against Itself, was in town to deliver a lecture titled “Saving Liberalism from Crisis” as part of the Yale-NUS Lecture on Global Affairs series sponsored by the late professor Saw Swee Hock.

Another core argument Moyn made in his lecture was that instead of taking a binary “upvote or downvote”, “agree or disagree” view of Liberalism, one should appreciate that there is no single Liberal philosophy, and that there are different “Liberal tendencies” worth evaluating.

Moyn said that Brexit in the United Kingdom and Trump’s victory in 2016 prompted a slew of books that purported to answer the million-dollar question vexing anxious liberals then: Why was Liberalism failing? The most famous of these included Why Liberalism Failed by the conservative American political theorist Patrick Deneen (which found its way into Barack Obama’s reading list in 2018), The Retreat of Western Liberalism by the Financial Times journalist Edward Luce, and Liberalism and its Discontents by Stanford University political scientist Francis Fukuyama.

On a foundational level, all of these books — regardless of whether they critiqued Liberalism as a philosophy or, in Moyn’s words, were being “apologetic” for it — conceived of Liberalism as a five-hundred-year-old idea that rose as a “modern” response to then-prevalent ideas of traditional Christendoms, and was both accompanied and sustained by notions of individualism and secularity.

But the true history of Liberalism, Moyn argued, traces its origins to continental Europe in the early 1800s — particularly in post-revolutionary France, which was grappling with dramatic political and social upheaval. Only then, Moyn said, did groups and individuals start to self-identify as ‘Liberals’. While the key aim of the self-professed Liberals then was to launch a modern and stable political project that enshrined various freedoms and liberties into law, at its heart, Liberalism was “a collective project of creating a free community of equals through the setting up of a mix of public and private institutions”, as opposed to being more narrowly focused on the liberation of the individual from all that surrounded him, including the community and the state within which he existed, Moyn said.

In other words, while emancipation was a key theme for them — be it “dismantling feudal structures, breaking down barriers based on religion and tradition, or unlocking economic opportunity for the individual” — Liberals, Moyn said, also understood that emancipation had collective features and that a state needed to create some of the conditions that allowed people to be free and equal.

By the mid-20th century, however, reacting to events like the Cold War and the fall of the Weimar Republic, Liberals made freedom from and against the state a central plank of the agenda of Liberalism, thereby becoming Libertarians in all but name. Importantly, these conceptions of Liberalism continue to hover over Liberals today, Moyn argued.

They, however, should move away from what he derisively calls ‘Cold War Liberalism’, and instead, take it upon themselves to advocate for positions like more robust and comprehensive welfare programs, more economic redistribution, larger states, and more state intervention, in line with the collective project that Liberalism was at its inception, while making the positive case for why voters should believe in these ideas, instead of motivating them to support Liberals by merely doubling-down on the fears of illiberalism, Moyn said.

The lecture came right on the heels of Nikki Haley dropping out of the 2024 presidential election, making a Trump VS Biden re-match in November all but certain. Thus, the portions of the talk that centred around how Liberals could “sell” Liberalism to the public seemed both timely and pertinent.

Moyn, in response to an audience member’s question, said that Democrats and the Biden administration could not be excessively “celebratory” of all the achievements that the president has racked up during his first term in office, and instead needed to meet people where they were. Even as Biden has done more to forward a Liberal and Progressive agenda than any president in living memory, often drawing comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal economic programs pulled the US out of the Great Depression, Moyn noted that it might take some time for people to feel the largesse of the federal government positively touch their lives, and thereby shape their political preferences.

Yet, beyond the defense of Liberalist essentials, Liberals also need to offer their supporters something positive to believe in, Moyn said. One such positive vision he advocated for was a society where communities, emancipated, were freed to pursue originality, innovation and ingenuity, making Liberalism a “spiritual project of creativity and individuality”.


Varun is a Year 2 FASS student and an editor at The Convergence. His interests include civil-military relations and migration. In his free time, he likes visiting museums and reading.


bottom of page