Last week’s episode of EconTalk is an interview with Patrick Deneen, whose provocative book Why Liberalism Failed raises important questions for classical liberals, libertarians, defenders of modernity and the contemporary political Left.  I think it’s best placed among a group of books trying to understand the current economic and political world, such as Hillbilly Elegy and Coming Apart, both of which focus on the widely claimed growing economic and political divisions that the authors view as new and corrosive to the world in which we live.  However, unlike those books, Deneen places the “blame” for our current state of affairs on liberalism.  What exactly liberalism is for Deneen and how he situates it are controversial, and I’ll leave it to the reader to refer to the interview for clarity. That said, Deneen is touching on several matters that at the very least should be unsettling for even the staunchest believers in market freedom, limited government, and technological progress.

I think there are a number of important issues raised in this interview but I’m going to focus primarily on four of them.  The first is what is “the good” for Deneen?  The second is what is “natural” for human life?  Third, what is the proper relationship between the political and economic realms to maximize well being and responsibility?  Finally, can responsibility, which seems to me to be at the crux of much of this, be generated without religion, tradition, external coercion and other “cultural” forces?  I think the short answer is yes, but this episode is food for thought on what the challenges to achieving that may be.

So what exactly is the good for Deneen, and why does he see the pursuit of it in jeopardy?  Clearly it has to be consistent with a shared set of values based on group norms.  The group norms Deneen notes that he values are human relationships, institutions such as churches and clubs, community-based life, families, and a general recognition about humans living according to “nature” – more on that below.  But what does that entail exactly?  What are the fundamental deviations from this “good” that worry him?  From the interview I can see several drivers for his worries.  The first is the decline of traditional family structures, and correspondingly the increasingly open view towards sexuality- both identity and practice.  Is that a good to which we should aspire?  Have those values been historically “good” for the vast majority of humans who during earlier periods were subjected to legal and extra-legal discrimination?  Strangely, Deneen claims that his desire to return to a more family-based life is because minorities are now suffering from the effects of broken homes and non-traditional living arrangements.  However, the breaking up of African-American families was the result of practices begun during slavery and later promoted by government welfare policies.  Liberalism doesn’t seem at fault here.  Another driver away from the good for him is materialism.  Of course this overlooks the fact that for much of human life the vast majority of individuals lived in deprivation and suffered as a result.  The relative risks don’t seem equal, at least to me.

How does Deneen view “natural” human existence?  Part of this is again about sex and sexuality, but another aspect of it is living in smaller communities with thick social networks.  Additionally, there seems to be a hint of living in accordance with nature, which one suspects has more to do with environmental/conservation ethics and a local view to markets and consumption.

Does liberalism really require living in a large, anonymous urban area, alone in an apartment staring at a cell phone or tablet?  Of course not.  Is liberalism what is driving people out of smaller towns and into larger communities that provide them with better job opportunities and a richer set of potential social connections?  A liberal would point out that technology now makes it much easier to live in rural areas.  Amazon can provide rural Americans with material goods easily, and technology links individuals in small towns to vast amounts of information and entertainment.  Jobs are in fact scarcer in these areas, but we see the rising frequency of remote/home employment.  Taken as a whole, rural, small town, community living has never been easier and more attractive.  And yet individuals are choosing to leave these areas?  At what point does Deneen’s argument go from encouraging the “natural” to paternalism, telling people they are geographically trapped for their own good.

Additionally, where is the most natural human activity of them all – the propensity to truck, barter and exchange?  Deneen seems to ignore this completely, except to the extent that we can focus only on our local economies.  Would Deneen allow for the importation of coffee and rum for me to consume here in Indiana?  Or would I have to suffer through milk and corn whisky for the rest of my life?  Why repress one natural tendency to favor another?

Third, Deneen clearly states his belief that politics should reign supreme over “the economy,” and not the other way around.  My first response is that speaking as a classical liberal I can hardly see how the economy reigns supreme over politics today.  To my mind, this reflects a lack of attention to the contributions of public choice theory.  In fact, one of Deneen’s favorite moves is to cite the American Founders.  As I recall, the Founders were deeply skeptical about the power of government in the hands of humans, and Deneen might want to acknowledge the inherent dangers of such an arrangement.  The people waiting in lines for food in Venezuela might also provide him with their thoughts on the matter.

Finally, one of the strengths of this interview was to raise the question of how liberalism can generate personal responsibility in everyday life.  The great worry Deneen seems to have is that traditional institutions helped to promote “the good”.  While we can all argue about what “the good life” is, I think we can all agree that liberty and responsibility are both necessary in any form of the free society.  Did religion, the family, and traditional culture all generate more responsibility than we see today?  Has the growth of the state undermined personal responsibility?  Here I think he stands on firmer ground, but as “liberals” do we have to agree that returning to a less free social order is necessary to make individuals act more responsibly?  Markets, without the welfare state, can help to promote responsibility.  Having government grant privilege, which has long been the hallmark of humanity prior to liberalism, does nothing to encourage responsible behavior.  Non-liberal societies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia are not well-springs of personal responsibility or social harmony.