Let me begin with a trigger warning. If you appreciate the writings of John Locke, if you revere the United States Constitution, and if you view an essential role of government as securing and protecting the unalienable rights outlined in the Bill of Rights, prepare to be provoked by Patrick Deneen’s new book. Called “Why Liberalism Failed,” it makes the argument that the modern liberal order is failing precisely because it succeeded. The very success of liberalism has hollowed out modern American society, stripped it of virtue, and contributed to monstrous levels of economic and social inequality.
But first, let’s define our terms. When Deneen refers to liberalism, he’s not describing progressivism or leftism within our contemporary political debate. In short, he’s not referring simply to Democrats. He’s referring to Democrats and Republicans — what we’d call modern liberals and conservatives — to the extent that these liberals and conservatives support and foster the larger project of liberal democracy.
He describes this liberalism as a form of government that “conceived humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life.” According to liberalism, “opportunities for liberty were best afforded by a limited government devoted to ‘securing rights,’ along with a free-market economic system that gave space for individual initiative and ambition.”
Liberalism was, along with Communism and Fascism, one of the three great competing ideologies of the modern Western world. It predates them all and has survived them all. Yet, according to Deneen, it’s on the verge of collapse. And not because it has failed, but because its success is undermining the nations and cultures it controls. Here’s Deneen:
Nearly every one of the promises that were made by the architects and creators of liberalism has been shattered. The liberal state expands to control nearly every aspect of life while citizens regard government as a distant and uncontrollable power, one that only extends their sense of powerlessness by relentlessly advancing the project of “globalization.” The only rights that seem secure today belong to those with sufficient wealth and position to protect them, and their autonomy — including rights of property, the franchise, and its concomitant control over representative institutions, religious liberty, free speech, and security in one’s papers and abode — is increasingly compromised by legal intent or technological fait accompli.
The political philosophy designed to “foster greater equity,” defend pluralism, “protect human dignity,” and “expand liberty” in practice “generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.” This, he claims, is the natural result of a political and philosophical system that has redefined the “ideal of liberty” and reconceived human nature.
Deneen argues that the classical definition of liberty was inseparable from virtue. The “cultivation of virtue” and the ability to rule oneself were the “key correctives to tyrannical temptation.” Thus liberty was “thought to involve discipline and training in self-limitation of desires.” Training fallen human beings in these virtues required preserving institutions, such as families and churches, that transmit values from generation to generation. Freedom, at its core, was the freedom to do the right thing.
Liberalism, by contrast, replaces this ordered liberty and the cultivation of virtue with “voluntarism” — the “unfettered” and “autonomous” choice of individuals — and an appeal to self-interest. This conception of liberty “undermin[es] any appeal to the common good” and “induces a zero-sum mentality that becomes nationalized polarization for a citizenry that is increasingly driven by private and largely material concerns.” Moreover, it sees the traditional institutions for the transmission of virtue as inherently oppressive, in large part because, by their very purpose and intent, they limit human choice and restrain human action.
In other words, imagine civic virtue as a bank full of accumulated social capital. Centuries (millennia, even) of human wisdom about the value of self-restraint and the necessity of self-governance have been emptied out in an orgy of self-interest and greed. Conservatives’ version of this social waste is their fetish for the free market, where greed has been transformed into a virtue — a source of creative energy that promises to lift all men but instead elevates only the fortunate few. One progressive version of this social waste is the fetish for the sexual revolution, a social movement that places personal sexual fulfillment on par with (or above) all other social norms.
When liberalism is unrestrained by virtue, “human beings increasingly live in a condition of autonomy in which the threatened anarchy of our purportedly natural condition is controlled and suppressed through the imposition of laws and the corresponding growth of the state.” As more “liberty” produces social costs, and as the private and civic institutions that traditionally cultivated restraint recede under the onslaught of modern liberal ideology, the only institution that can moderate or control those costs is the state. Thus, the modern paradox: The more “liberty,” the greater the power and reach of the state. Individualism “is not the alternative to statism, but its very cause.”
As a critique of the godless libertinism of the modern West, Deneen’s book is devastating. As a critique of the American Founding, it’s far less convincing. Deneen, you see, isn’t just taking aim at the sexual revolution or Randian love of the free market. He’s taking aim at the entire liberal project, root and branch, from Locke to the Bill of Rights. In many ways, he’s arguing that we’re living with the inevitable and natural result of the Founders’ moral and political vision.
Yet the wisest of the Founders understood that American liberalism prospers only when virtue reigns. As John Adams argued, “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Experience has demonstrated the truth of his words. Those demographic groups that maintain a kind of “lived Burkeanism” (to borrow Deneen’s phrase) are flourishing in the contemporary United States.
It turns out that when you wed liberal democracy to intact families, strong civic engagement, and virtues of self-discipline and self-restraint, you can unleash prosperity and innovation unlike anything the world has seen. Moreover, those virtues not only can persist through centuries of liberalism, they’re amply rewarded by the liberal structures themselves. While it’s fashionable to despise America’s immense, meritocratic upper middle class, that class also happens to contain the population that is more likely to cling to marriage, to family, to church, and to education.
Deneen’s book falters when it speaks of winners and losers, as if liberalism has stripped human beings of agency and responsibility. “From the outset,” he argues, “liberalism has held forth the promise of a new aristocracy composed of those who would flourish with the liberation of the individual from history, tradition, nature, and culture, and the demolition or attrition of institutional supports that were redefined as limits or obstacles of history.” That’s not precisely right. The wisest thinkers understood that combining liberalism with institutional supports results in new and unprecedented opportunity. There are reasons that Burke, for example, had far more warmth for the American Revolution than for the French.
It’s hard to credit the notion that liberalism has lost its promise when it’s quite plain that those individuals who embrace the most basic virtues of self-governance — complete your education, get married, and wait until after marriage to have children — continue to enjoy opportunities and autonomy that far exceed the opportunities and autonomy inherent in any competing system. By and large, liberalism is not so much a system that “leaves people behind,” much less one that forgets and abandons “flyover country,” as one that — when distorted — falsely promises prosperity and opportunity without institutional support and self-discipline.
Deneen ends his book with a call to a form of localized tribalism, a retreat to a “counter-anticulture” that prioritizes “household economics.” He argues that “utility and ease must be rejected in preference to practices of local knowledge and virtuosity. The ability to do and make things for oneself . . . should be prized above consumption and waste. The skills of building, fixing, cooking, planting, preserving, and composting not only undergird the independence and integrity of the home but develop practices and skills that are the basic sources of culture and shared civic life.”
It’s an alluring vision, but do you know where families that adopt those values truly thrive? In liberal democracies — where they can start an organic farm in upstate New York and sell their wares to restaurants in Brooklyn, or where they homeschool children who blow the roof off their SATs and secure admission to Harvard. (Admissions officers are always on the lookout for a good farmer to fill out the class.)
Are we facing the end of liberalism? Not at all. We’re being reminded once again that liberalism contains more than one revolution. The intellectual and moral heirs of the American Founding remain in conflict with those who hold fast to France’s far more disruptive upheaval, and the French will always claim their casualties. Read Deneen’s book. He’ll make you think, but as you think, you’ll be reminded once again of the immense blessing of American liberty, of the Burkean freedom to do the right thing liberated from the oppression of state control. That’s the liberalism that has not failed.