What Liberalism Is Good For
“A better system will not automatically ensure a better life,” Václav Havel wrote 40 years ago, in the context of Communism in the Eastern bloc. “In fact, the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.” Patrick Deneen incorporates that quote in his preface to Why Liberalism Failed, implying that Westerners in liberal democracies today are caught in a political system analogous to that of the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe last century.
David French in his review (“Liberalism’s Failure — and Its Success,” February 5) finds Deneen’s view unduly pessimistic. What Deneen objects to, he suggests, is liberal democracy informed by the French Revolution. Liberal democracy informed by the American Revolution is the system under which the very virtues — resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, frugality, the communitarian spirit, etc. — that Deneen holds up as necessary ingredients in some impending post-liberal order have been flourishing for centuries.
French’s analysis rings true. A more basic criticism of Deneen’s argument, however, is that he blames liberalism for our failure to maintain “the classical and Christian” values against competing assumptions about what constitutes the summum bonum. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people”: John Adams understood what many of us have forgotten, that liberal democracy is not an end in itself. It’s a means that makes it possible for us to cultivate classical and Christian — or broadly religious — virtues to which we and our societies are called. If we have failed to honor that call, let’s place the blame where it belongs, on ourselves, and resolve to use our time, talents, and freedom to better ends.
Exposing the Swamp Creatures
I disagree with the implication in the “Trump tweeted” item in the Week (February 5, 2018). Near the end, you write, “It is up to Trump’s appointees, not some shadowy ‘deep state,’ to prioritize FBI investigations.” Assuming the existence of the deep state, appointing, prioritizing, and leading responsibly will not produce proper agency behavior. Swamp dwellers will serve up foot-dragging at best and mutiny at worst. Draining the swamp calls for active measures. One such is going public, thus Trump’s tweets are loud and frequent.
So, is there a deep state? I think so. “Burrowing in” is the practice of converting a political appointment to a career. Over decades the result is upper management in government infected with former political hacks, and uneven treatment — investigations of enemies are zealously pursued while investigations of friends are slow-walked. Draining the swamp is an admirable conservative goal. All aboard, NR.
The Editors respond: Assuring agency effectiveness is a matter of will and competence, not tweets. “Swamp dwellers” who fail to follow lawful directives can and should face an array of disciplinary measures. Bureaucrats are often unaccountable, but that’s often because political appointees don’t hold them to account.
Tweets, by contrast, do virtually nothing to exercise real power. They don’t change policy. They don’t trigger employee discipline. They ignite public controversy, but unless that controversy is followed by actual changes in policy or personnel, they tend to disappear quickly.
Effective agency leadership can trigger real change. In Health and Human Services and the Department of Education, we’ve seen actual, substantial reversals in policy executed competently and professionally. It is possible to do the right thing, the right way.