Does Liberalism Destroy Liberty?
By Arnold Kling
Liberal individualism demands the dismantling of culture; and as culture fades, Leviathan waxes and responsible liberty recedes.
—Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed1 (page 88)
Patrick Deneen has written a deeply pessimistic book. In short, his thesis is:
- 1. Liberalism is the philosophy which we have used to construct our society.
- 2. Liberalism is unsustainable, because it exalts an individualism that undermines the virtues and cultural norms needed to enable humans to live together in harmony.
- 3. Our need for such harmony leads people to concede increasing power to government and large-scale economic institutions.
- 4. Government and large-scale economic institutions undermine the very individual liberty that liberalism claims to support.
To illustrate, let me pose a hypothetical situation in which today we would likely resort to the heavy-handed use of government.
You live on the sixth floor of a fifteen-story apartment building in the middle of a big city. You have an important appointment early in the morning tomorrow, and you want a good night’s sleep. But one of your neighbors is throwing a party, with loud music blaring. Finally, at 1 AM, you cannot stand it anymore, so you call the police.
Two hundred years ago, this problem would have been much less likely to occur. Instead of living close to one another, you and your neighbor probably would have lived in separate dwellings within a village. Moreover, you probably would have known one another well enough for your neighbor to be aware of your important appointment and for you to be aware of the planned party, so that the two of you could have negotiated a reasonable compromise. Finally, if all else failed, you would have known many of the people at the party, and you could have knocked on the door and found them receptive to a request to keep down the volume.
My point in this example is that as society has evolved, we have become more interdependent and more atomized. We are more interdependent because we are more specialized, and we have assembled into larger and larger social units, including cities, global markets, and giant apartment buildings. We are more atomized because the strong, encompassing ties of village and family life have been replaced by the weaker, disparate ties created by our professional connections, hobbies, and interests.
Hence, we call the police to deal with a loud party. In this regard, Deneen is hardly the first to suggest that as other cultural institutions weaken, government tends to expand to meet social needs.2
But what Deneen is arguing is that today we call the police because liberalism ultimately failed as a philosophy. Liberalism necessarily undermines the virtues and cultural institutions that otherwise enable us to live in harmony.
I prefer to believe that we call the police as a way of adapting to contemporary reality. I think that we should seek better ways to adapting to this reality, but I am not ready to concede that liberalism per se has failed.
In the remainder of this essay, I will examine each word in the title of Deneen’s book. What is meant by liberalism? In what sense has liberalism failed? Why?
What is liberalism?
Deneen writes that liberalism
… conceived humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life. (page1)
He says that liberalism
… was launched to foster greater equity, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty. (page 3)
“Phrased this way, it is difficult to object to liberalism. Most of us would buy into the goal of respecting as much as possible the dignity and judgment of every individual human being.”
Phrased this way, it is difficult to object to liberalism. Most of us would buy into the goal of respecting as much as possible the dignity and judgment of every individual human being. What Deneen objects to is not this overarching principle but the way that liberalism has evolved in interpreting and implementing that principle. He writes:
Liberalism’s appeal lies in its continuities with the deepest commitments of the Western political tradition, particularly efforts to secure liberty and human dignity through the constraint of tyranny, arbitrary rule, and oppression. In this regard, liberalism is rightly considered to be based on essential political commitments that were developed over centuries in classical and Christian thought and practice. Yet liberalism’s innovations—ones that its architects believed would more firmly secure human liberty and dignity—which consisted especially of a redefinition of the ideal of liberty and a reconception of human nature, have undermined the realization of its stated commitments. (page19)
According to Deneen, classical philosophers focused on the importance of virtue. Individuals must have the virtue of self-restraint to function well in personal realms. They must have civic virtue to have thriving communities.
Liberalism, Deneen argues, disregards this need for virtue.
The classical and Christian emphasis upon virtue and the cultivation of self-limitation and self-rule relied upon reinforcing norms and social structures arrayed extensively throughout political, social, religious, economic, and familial life. What were viewed as the essential supports for a training in virtue—and hence, preconditions for liberty from tyranny—came to be viewed as sources of oppression, arbitrariness, and limitation. (page 25)
Instead, he says,
A succession of thinkers in subsequent decades and centuries [have been] redefining liberty as the liberation of humans from established authority, emancipation from arbitrary culture and tradition, and the expansion of human power and dominion over nature through advancing scientific inquiry and economic prosperity. (page 27)
Deneen says that liberalism departed from classical and Christian values.
What was new is that the default basis for evaluating institutions, society, affiliations, memberships and even personal relationships became dominated by considerations of individual choice based on the calculation of self-interest, and without broader consideration of the impact of one’s choices upon the community, one’s obligations to the created order, and ultimately to God. (pages 33-34)
In Deneen’s view, liberalism’s faith in the free market, constitutional government, and science led us to tolerate and even to encourage purely self-interested behavior on the part of individuals. We trust that economic cohesiveness will come from the incentives that operate in the free market. Political cohesiveness we believe will be ensured by checks and balances embedded in an electoral process that functions under a constitution. Challenges posed by our natural environment we think will be met by scientific discovery and technology. But Deneen thinks we’re wrong.
Has liberalism failed?
In making the case that liberalism has failed, Deneen points to several phenomena:
- increased concentration of political power in the hands of unelected government agency officials
- extreme economic inequality
- a decline in the share of college students taking liberal arts courses and a sharp drop in the quality of those courses
- technology that threatens to become our master rather than our servant
- environmental catastrophes
Concerning the latter, I cringed when I came across this:
Our carbon-saturated world is the hangover of a 150-year party in which, until the very end, we believed we had achieved the liberation from nature’s constraints. (page 15)
Deneen may have succeeded in signaling his concern about climate change by writing such a sentence, but it would not have been composed by anyone with a concern for scientific precision. As a factual matter, carbon makes up much less than 1 percent of the earth’s crust, and this is unchanged from 150 years ago, or, for that matter, 150,000 years ago. It is the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is thought to affect global temperatures, but even the atmosphere is far from “saturated” with carbon.
This being 2018, Deneen also points to the electoral successes of Donald Trump and the Brexit plebiscite as signs that the liberal order has lost its appeal with the general public. But these less-than-overwhelming victories did not clearly rest on the above failures of liberalism that are Deneen’s concerns. The featured cause in the Trump and Brexit campaigns was control over immigration. The issues of government agency over-reach, economic inequality, liberal arts education, and climate change played little or no role in either.
Is liberalism in more trouble now than it was in 1917, with a Western Front mired in trench warfare and an Eastern Front blazing with revolution? Is liberalism in more trouble now than it was in 1933, with the U.S. economy at the bottom of the Great Depression and Germany handing power to Adolf Hitler? Is liberalism in more trouble now than it was in August 1939, when Hitler and Stalin joined forces under the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact? Is liberalism in more trouble now than it was in 1968, when the Vietnam War embittered many Americans and students in the United States, France, and elsewhere called for revolution?
Whatever the public thinks of liberalism today, it has defenders who can match Deneen in eloquence while providing a stronger factual case. One can read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, for example, also published this year.
I found myself also returning to Deirdre N. McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues, published in 2006. In the opening chapter, she writes,
The quality of life you personally lead, dear reader, is better than the lives of your thirty-two great-great-great-great grandparents. I’ll speak for myself. An Irish peasant woman digging pratties in her lazybed in 1805 or a Norwegian farmer of thirty acres of rock soil in Dimmelsvik in 1800 or the American daughter of poor English people in 1795 had brutish and short lives. Many of them could not read. Their horizons were narrow. Their lives were toilsome and bitter.3
For more information, see the EconTalk podcast episode Deirdre McCloskey on Capitalism and the Bourgeois Virtues.
McCloskey explicitly rejects the claim that liberalism undermines human character. She writes,
Richer and more urban people, contrary to what the magazines of opinion sometimes suggest, are less materialistic, less violent, less superficial than poor and rural people. Because people in capitalist countries already possess the material, they are less attached to their possessions than people in poor countries. And because they have more to lose from a society of violence, they resist it.
… The richer, more urban, more bourgeois people… have larger, not smaller, spiritual lives than their ancestors of the pastoral. They have more, not fewer, real friends than their great-great-great-great grandparents in “closed-corporate” villages. They have broader, not narrower, choices of identity than the one imposed on them by the country, custom, language, and religion of their birth. They have deeper, not shallower, contacts with the transcendent of art or science or God, and sometimes even of nature, than the superstitious peasants and haunted hunter-gatherers from whom we all descend.4
As she points out, the human race is filled with moral defects. But this was just as true in classical Greece or Christian Europe. Indeed, compared with the past, we can point to many ethical improvements, including the widespread revulsion toward torture and slavery.
Based on the foregoing, I would not concede that liberalism has failed. But it certainly seems to be going through a rough patch, and we can still wonder why this is the case.
The political center appears to be unusually weak in many Western countries. The traditional major parties are barely able to form coalitions in Germany and Italy. Voters instead are increasing their support for new parties and for fringe movements. It is easy to envision that something similar could take place in the United States if we had an electoral system more conducive to political start-ups.
Some of Deneen’s proposals for reform might be helpful. Like Yuval Levin, Deneen would like to build up community government and other intermediate institutions to reduce the scope of policies determined at the level of the central government in Washington, D.C. The success of smaller countries, such as Singapore or many of the countries in Scandinavia, shows that government does not need to serve a large-scale constituency to be effective. Indeed, Switzerland, with a population of 8.4 million—about the same as the state of Virginia—has a federal system, with many responsibilities handled at the level of cantons, which are comparable to counties in the United States.
For related ideas, see the Law and Liberty podcast episode Did Liberalism Fail? A Conversation with Patrick Deneen Feb. 14, 2018, and the Law and Liberty article “Patrick Deneen, a Wolf in Wolin’s Clothing?” by Dimitrios Halikias, April 11, 2018.
See also the EconTalk podcast episode Alan Wolfe on Liberalism.
But not all Deneen’s ideas strike me as benign. He favors a more localized economy, and I think that would have more costs than benefits. Deneen may not appreciate just how much we depend on the complex patterns of specialization and trade that have emerged. I used a computer to compose this essay. In a localized economy, I fear I would have to revert to using a quill pen.
Within the overall rubric of liberalism, there are many issues that give rise to debate and disagreement. These include the issues that Deneen thinks are of dire importance, such as economic inequality, bureaucratic over-reach, and climate change. I think that we can cope with these issues, but not if we approach them as many prominent media pundits do, with a desire to crush those who do not share their views.
My main concern about the future of liberalism is with the trends in public discourse. It seems we are becoming less and less charitable to those with whom we disagree. People impugn their opponents’ motives, mock their intelligence, and question their right to be heard. It is hard to reconcile such polarized political conduct with the ideals of liberalism.
Deneen accuses liberalism’s defenders of trying to solve the problems of liberalism with more liberalism. I must plead guilty. I think that if we could bring true liberalism to political discussions, then I personally would be less fearful for our future.
Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed. Yale University Press, 2018.
Deirdre N. McCloskey 2006, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. University of Chicago Press, pages 16-17.
Ibid., pages 26-28.
*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.
Read more of what Arnold Kling’s been reading. For more book reviews and articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.