Patrick Deneen on the Strong Versus the Ordinary

by Ed Whelan

Over the weekend, I ran across this very interesting essay from a month ago by Notre Dame political theorist Patrick J. Deneen. Reflecting on my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin’s highly acclaimed new book The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, Deneen argues that the “ascendant intellectual figure of our time” is neither Burke nor Paine but John Stuart Mill.

Deneen explains in particular that Burke and Mill were fundamentally opposed on the matter of “Custom”—i.e., “ordinary everyday morality”—with Burke praising it as essential for society and Mill condemning it as the “enemy of human liberty.” A key excerpt:

Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that “everything is allowed.” It is a society organized for the benefit of the strong, as Mill recognized. By contrast, a Burkean society is organized for the benefit of the ordinary—most people who benefit from societal norms that the Great and the Ordinary alike are expected to follow. A society can be shaped for the benefit of most people by emphasizing mainly informal norms and customs that secures the path to flourishing for most human beings; or it can be shaped for the benefit of the extraordinary and powerful by liberating all from the constraint of Custom, mainly through the obliteration of Custom. Our society was once shaped on the basis of the benefit for the many Ordinary; today it is shaped largely for the benefit of the few Strong.

The results of this civilizational transformation are accumulating everywhere we look. The Strong are flourishing: congregating in the wealthy counties around Washington D.C., New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and the like, they participate merrily in a society that disassembles all the old Customs, while their growing wealth insulates them against the ravages of our new economy shorn of the old ways. Beyond their vision, in the “fly-over” country, their countrymen are sinking in the quicksand of their new liberties. Pre-marital sex, abortion, out of wedlock birth, an epidemic of fatherless children, the incapacity to hold down secure employment in a globalized and increasingly automated economy—these and a host of other social ills are the fruits of their liberty. Experiments in living will lead to a few successes and many failures; the latter are part of the price of success for the Strong.

Like Deneen (and Levin), I don’t see how a culture that undermines the lives of ordinary citizens can long survive.

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