Why An Economics-Focused Research Center Is Taking on Illiberalism
A Q&A on the Mercatus Center’s Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange with Program Director Ben Klutsey.
Founded the year Ronald Reagan was first elected president, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University (Mercatus is Latin for “market”) endeavors to span the sometimes yawning gap between academia and real life (the “M” in its logo is a bridge), facilitating research into market-oriented ideas to bring the Declaration of Independence’s promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all Americans.
If you take a cursory look at their website, Mercatus’ research areas include a variety of economics and policy-based topics: Antitrust & Competition, Corporate Welfare, Housing, Monetary Policy, Financial Markets, Regulation, Government Spending, and Trade & Immigration.
But in June 2021, Mercatus introduced the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange in response to the recent rise in “illiberal ideologies such as authoritarianism, socialism, and nativism” plaguing our societies and threatening centuries of progress. The program will include visiting fellows, a Pluralist Lab and various partnerships with similar programs at other educational institutions.
I recently interviewed program director Benjamin Klutsey about his vision for the program and how it meshes with the broader goals and principles of the Mercatus Center.
April 11, 2022
Jeryl Bier (JB): You wrote, “[I]lliberal ideologies such as authoritarianism, socialism, and nativism have gained traction around the world, while civic habits and practices such as open inquiry and civil debate have simultaneously diminished.” What do you think the main causes of this trend are in this most recent pendulum swing?
Ben Klutsey (BK): I think there are a plethora of reasons, and I may be blind to some. However, my hunch is that the rise of illiberal ideologies from both the left and the right stem from our desires to fix the economic, political, sociological, and other challenges of our time and our waning patience with the seeming inaction that prevents change.
When people look at healthcare access, economic disparities, immigration, policing, and other challenges we confront, they seek solutions that they believe can readily solve these problems. This passion to find THE solution(s) can lead some to latch on to problematic ideologies, especially when they feel disconnected, and they feel as though the current institutions have not sought to address some of these perennial problems. Then, once attached to some tribe's solution, it can become increasingly difficult to engage in a process of rethinking and self-reflection to question the tenants of that collective belief.
Further, some of these solutions create us vs. them thinking, pitting various groups in society against each other and fostering polarization. And when we’re so deeply polarized, especially along political lines, where we dislike, distrust, and think the worst of those from opposing political parties, we are prone to the illiberal practices I mentioned: canceling, trolling, de-platforming, and dehumanizing each other. Such practices make it difficult for us to have civil discourse and engage with one another peacefully.
Adam Grant provides a useful framework for further understanding how we get trapped in illiberal practices in his recent book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. Given our sincere desire to fix these problems, and our strong adherence to certain ideologies, we fall into patterns of thinking and acting that make us prone to becoming preachers, prosecutors, and politicians, according to Grant.
When you're preaching, you believe you've already found the truth, you're trying to proselytize it. When you're prosecuting, you're trying to win an argument and prove your case. And when you're politicking, you are trying to win the approval of an audience through lobbying and campaigning. These 3 mindsets prevent us from taking a step back to think again and reevaluate why we believe something about the world or act the way we do. When we're preaching or prosecuting, we've already decided that we're right and somebody else is wrong. And when we're politicking, we're motivated to tell the audience what we think they want to hear, but we usually don't adjust our internal views.
Additionally, our institutions (academic, political, media, etc.) have failed to help shape us to become more tolerant and empathetic towards our fellow citizens and have at times moved many in the opposite direction. Essentially, the sensibilities that are fundamental to a democratic society, particularly the principle that we are one another’s dignified equals, have not been effectively inculcated in today’s citizens. Rather, illiberal trends have led us to limit the circle of people perceived to be worthy of equal moral worth, placing growing numbers beyond the pale, worth only of distrust, trolling, canceling, and scorn.
I’ll hasten to point out that our liberal democracy hasn’t always lived up to the ideals and sensibilities of equality. However, liberalism contains the principles and aspirations that can help get us there.
JB: The Mercatus Center’s research areas seem primarily focused on economic/fiscal public policy. What has prompted the center’s interest in the topic of pluralism and civil debate, and what do you believe Mercatus can bring to the table in this ongoing discussion?
BK: While we’ve often looked at issues related to economic liberalism, we have always been interested in the four corners of liberalism: economic, political, cultural, and epistemic. Our mission has always been to generate the knowledge and understanding of the institutions and ideas that are relevant for advancing freedom, prosperity, and human flourishing. And to pursue and generate the knowledge and understanding of these important institutions, we need to contest ideas, challenge orthodox thinking, and engage in peaceful debates.
We have practiced these within our academic research and student programs, as well as our discussions of policy. That has been the Mercatus way. And as we see the marketplace of ideas become reoriented at times towards conflict and discord, we want to help improve our society’s discourse by incorporating this approach into our broader society. And we’re doing this by bringing experts from across academic disciplines to launch projects that help us address the fundamental question of how we can coexist and live peacefully together amidst deep divides.
In addition, we want to model and practice civil discourse by bringing students and experts from across the country together and participate in discussions that help us understand each other better, even though we may not agree on much.
JB: In what ways are you and the visiting fellows planning to attempt to promote these ideas in the public discourse? Is this program primarily focused on furthering academic literature in this area or are you planning any efforts in more popular/mainstream venues/outlets?
BK: This project goes beyond academic literature. Visiting fellows write for a broad audience, and will engage civil society, connecting with groups that are in the field seeking to bridge divides and foster pluralism. Their work cover four broad areas:
How institutions help foster or hinder the transmission of liberal and pluralistic values;
The emergence of illiberal trends (nativism, populist authoritarianism, etc.) and how we can help to reverse course;
The practice of pluralism and how to practically engage in civil discourse and disagreements with our fellow citizens; and
The trends in social psychology (loneliness, anxiety, fear, etc.) that may provide insights into how individuals in society are grappling with a changing world
We want those who engage with our research, commentary, and outputs to take away insights that can help them understand the current challenges posed by illiberalism and have the practical tools to foster a more pluralistic ethos in society. We want them to come away with a confidence and hope in the tools they have for engaging with others across a plurality of viewpoints.
JB: Besides the program’s visiting fellows of course, who are some current writers, thinkers, and/or public officials who appear most attuned to the threats of “authoritarianism, socialism, and nativism” and are worth listening to? Or, in other words, who would you love to see contribute to this project in some way?
BK: There are so many amazing thinkers I have learned from that I’ll continue to consult their work. They include Francis Fukuyama, Danielle Allen, Timur Kuran, Yuval Levin, Peter Boettke, John Inazu, Jonathan Rauch, Tara Burton, Adam Grant, Robert Talisse, Amartya Sen, Martin Gurri, and many more. In fact, there are too many to list here.
Each month I talk to a thinker with interesting insights I can learn from on Discourse magazine, our recently launched online journal of politics, economics, and culture. Readers can find these conversations here.
JB: Is humanity doomed to repeat these pendulum swings ad infinitum, or are we moving closer to figuring out ways to structure our societies and their institutions that can at least limit the frequency and breadth of these swings? What principles and related practices are most important in maintaining civil discourse?
BK: I do hope we’re not doomed to a spiral towards illiberalism. There are many organizations that are tuning in to the problem and seeking ways to help bridge divides and that gives me hope that if enough hands are on deck, we can turn the tide.
I often think of John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism, which is a great read, and the conversation I had with him is available here. In that book he offers some pertinent advice that I think will stand the test of time. He says that beyond the legal provisions that nudge us towards coexistence, we need the civic practices that are critical for sustaining a pluralistic society. But those practices hinge on the aspirations of tolerance, humility, and patience. While we have the right to free speech and have the ability to make moral judgements, we need to exercise these three aspirations and make an effort to avoid saying things to others that are unproductive or could be conversation stoppers. Essentially, in all our engagements, political activities, activism, we need to exercise tolerance, humility, and patience towards one another. These are the kinds of aspirations that sustain pluralism and if we can practice this daily and model it as leaders, we will perhaps reverse some of the illiberalism we see.
Indeed, it is only with these aspirational goals that we have been able to reach the level of material and moral progress as a society that we currently enjoy. It was not merely property rights, equality before the law, and technological advancement that allowed for the more than 3,000% increase in real income since 1800. It was the result of widening the circle of people to whom we accord equal dignity, and who are therefore worthy of our charity, goodwill, good faith, and honesty.
By engaging with an increasing variety of people from different backgrounds, classes, ethnicities, occupations, and viewpoints on an equal footing as dignified equals -- not simply because the law requires us to do so, but because we perceive others, no matter how different, as worthy of an equal degree of dignity as ourselves -- we increase the ability of the system to take in, process, and disseminate ideas widely and efficiently.
Without the virtuous cycle effects of further extending tolerance, humility, and patience in our dealings with others, or worse yet, a constriction of the circle of people to whom we accord equal moral worth, a vicious cycle could develop where we return to the barely subsistence level of existence that has been the natural state of mankind for 99% of our species' history on this planet.
This retribalization is not preordained, nor is the continued extension of equal dignity. It is up to each of us to decide what our aspirations are, and if we have the confidence to realize those aspirations in a spirit of tolerance, humility, and patience or if we will fall prey to the lures of intolerance, hubris, and impatience when we meet obstacles along the way.
Find more about Mercatus Center’s Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange here: