Professor of Politics Alan Ryan began teaching political theory at Oxford in 1969. Hearrived at Princeton in 1987, but returned to Oxford in 1996 to serve as the warden of New College. In 2009, he rejoined the Princeton faculty. Professor Ryan graduated from Oxford in 1962 and attended graduate school at University College London . In recognition of his contributions to political theory, Oxford honored Ryan with a Doctor of Letters in 1993. Ryan is an elected fellow of the British Academy and has served as a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study. Professor Ryan recently sat down with the Tory’s Josh Zuckerman to discuss liberalism, freedom, and Princeton, among other things.
JZ: Your latest book, The Making of Modern Liberalism, discusses the origin of liberalism
and its modern development. Why did you choose to write about liberalism, and what do
you find interesting about it?
AR: Well it isn’t one book. It’s very much snapshots from a career. The consistent thread, I
think, is an interest in broad issues of freedom. My natural inclinations are pretty much anarchic
in the sense that I am skeptical about the competence of government. I don’t, on the whole,
think that most claims to authority have a great deal of intellectual substance. I don’t, on the
whole, think that we very often have much reason to push other people about in ways they don’t
wish to be pushed about, and so from the moment I began to think about politics, I was thinking
under the broadly liberal umbrella. The general theme, minimum of authority and maximum of
individual freedom, gets one into the liberal tradition.
JZ: Within this liberal tradition lie classical liberalism and modern liberalism. What are
the differences between these two schools of thought?
AR: I don’t think the distinction really does hold up that well. It all goes back to Hayek’s book,
The Road to Serfdom. Hayek wanted to say that classical liberalism consisted of a state
guarantee to the rights that individuals need to function in the marketplace. Above all, property
rights, forms of contracts, meticulous rule of law, and things that went along with this, like not
too much discretion for public officials. If people had these rights, then they could look after
themselves, and become self-sustaining, free individuals. There would be no tendency for the
state to engross itself on everybody’s lives, no tendency for the state to start telling everybody
Modern liberalism is a rather difficult beast to lay hands on. It’s a sort of mixture of the ideas of
John Stuart Mill when he was looking for a form of market socialism and New Deal liberalism,
which Roosevelt put into place. So basically classical liberalism is Lockean, and modern is
JZ: You write that “modern liberalism has a basis in freedom because it seeks to
emancipate individuals from the fears of unemployment, hunger, [and] ill health,” but it is
also “exemplified by the assault on freedom of contract and on the sanctity of property
rights.” How does modern liberalism reconcile this assault with the goal of increasing
AR: Modern liberals tend to draw a line between what they think of as the legitimate use of
property rights (i.e. not reducing the workforce to beggary, starvation, excessively long hours,
ruining their health, and all the other things) and what they regard as the coercive or freedom-
limiting force use of property rights. It is a very, very tricky line to draw. The heart of the
argument that underpins modern liberalism and various kinds of socialism is the notion that
property rights can be coercive. Unless one sees that, then one can’t see why it is that it’s also
an argument about freedom. Freedom to use property stops at point where it becomes coercive.
Liberals tend to have anxiety about property rights and the means of production, where they
begin to hold hands with socialists.
JZ: What is the relationship between socialism and freedom?
AR: I think that’s a difficult question, and I have never been entirely convinced by anything. I
think that there are two versions of socialism that focus on freedom. The Marxist notion is quite
difficult to get a really clear grip on. It says human freedom is the productive, creative fashioning
of social life—interesting cultural objects: art, literature, music. Property rights get in the way of
this kind of freedom, and its feasibility of running an economy seems to be pretty dubious. That
kind of socialist ambition is emotionally and intellectually very attractive but pretty unpersuasive.
The other kind simply says that it’s absurd to talk about people having a choice, which is the
basis of freedom, if they really are in a work-or-starve situation. To believe this, you just have
to think that property rights aren’t sacred. People have lost some of their freedom to dispose of
their property as they choose. Nonetheless, the right they have lost isn’t enshrined in nature. It’s
a social convention, and nibbling into property rights for the sake of other kinds of freedom is all
right if the trade-off is a good trade-off.
JZ: What are the biggest differences between Princeton and Oxford in terms of the
overall academic culture?
AR: There are two crucial ones. Oxford very much still works on the tutorial basis, in which,
fundamentally, students teach themselves, and their alleged teachers interrogate them on how
well they’ve done it. So there’s much more face-to-face teaching and much less emphasis on
lectures. There really is a difference between the Oxford tutorial setup and Princeton, which
is still more in the American mode of lectures and class sections in which students try to work
out what on Earth the lectures were about. The other thing is that because people here do
four courses simultaneously, it’s much harder for them to focus for a continuous period on one
particular topic, like in the Oxford system. In an Oxford education, you drill holes deep, but not
with a great view to how the landscape connects. Here, on the whole, tends to be better at
connecting the landscape, but students do not tend to drive themselves mad by pursuing one’s
subject until right at the end, with the senior thesis. And that makes quite a lot of difference.
JZ: Why did you decide to leave Oxford and come teach at Princeton?
AR: I’ve done it twice. I did it in 1987, and that was because, by then, I had taught for nearly
twenty years in Oxford. I liked it very much. I had one of the nicest jobs the place had to offer,
but I thought I didn’t want to have the same job for forty years. Political theory was done
interestingly in this country, and I thought more interestingly in some ways than in Britain. I’ve
always liked America, and Princeton was a suitable place to be because I didn’t want to risk my
eleven-year-old daughter on the streets of New York at that point. I taught here for eight and
a half years perfectly happily. I was then offered the chance to be the head of my old college,
which is a job I’ve always rather hankered after, so in 1996, I went back and did that. But in
England, we have retiring ages, and in 2009, I’d run out of time. I thought it would be nice to do
a bit more teaching before I finally retired, so back I came.
JZ: You are teaching POL 321: American Political Thought for the first time. Why did you
decide to teach this course?
AR: The obvious reason why it’s absolutely fascinating is because the intellectual apparatus
with which the persons before 1776 and the founders are operating is essentially the apparatus
forged in all sorts of British political contexts, particularly the struggles between Parliament and
the Crown. It’s not so much just curiosity about the history, but curiosity about what happens
to ideas as well as people in this new, strange, wide open setting. Of course it’s always going
to be a story about slavery. Why do persons deeply committed to a liberal political conception
also keep slaves? So there’s all kinds of stuff like that which is absolutely impossible not to
get interested in. The old great question: why does socialism not take in America? Here is this
new industrial society, why do the ideas, which in Europe turn up in industrialization, just not
take? There’s a period in which they are about to take up socialism, but in the end do not. Why
did I decide to teach it for the first time? Well I retire properly in eighteen months, and I didn’t
want to go on teaching absolutely things I’d taught before, so I thought, give yourself some
exercise…perhaps too much.
JZ: What are your plans for retirement?
AR: I certainly want to travel. I used to sail small boats, and I’m now less agile at leaping
from one side to another on a sailing dinghy to stop it from capsizing than I was when I was
younger. But I wouldn’t mind having some more time to get back on the water. And there are
an enormous number of books I haven’t read. I’m not absolutely sure how much more I want to
write, but if people go on asking me to write, I daresay I shall. But certainly reading, travelling,
bit of sailing, and there after all is my grandson, my daughter, and her husband up in upstate
New York, so it’d be nice to see a bit more of them. The usual things that retired people do.
JZ: If you could assign one book to every student at Princeton, what would it be?
AR: That’s a dirty question because, of course, the obvious answer is going to be something
like John Stuart Mill’s Essay on Liberty, which is the book I read before I started quarrelling
with my teachers at my high school. But we need something that stirs people up. I think this
is something you may be surprised by. I think Primo Levi’s If This Be A Man [a Holocaust
survivor’s autobiography] is something that really throws people back on their heels. Once you
have the experience of something like that, then it becomes easier to see why people like John
Stuart Mill wrote on liberty. I think this is something that really gets into the soul. Once you read
it, you aren’t the same afterwards. Otherwise of course, I think people should all take long train
journeys and read War and Peace.
JZ: If you could give one piece of advice to an incoming freshman, what would it be?
AR: Be skeptical, but not cynical. PS – It takes some time to work out the difference.
By Josh Zuckerman ‘16