Top-Heavy Liberalism (Book Review)

During a good chunk of the mid-twentieth century the great conservative giants of that era argued over the question of what conservatism is. For Russell Kirk it transcended particular cultures and was, in the words of Bradley Birzer, “a natural longing to preserve the best of human thought as divined by, through, and across the slow process of the experience of humanity, tied to an omnipotent source of creation.” To Robert Nisbet, in contrast, conservatism was a modern phenomenon formed in reaction to the French Revolution and essentially launched single-handedly by Edmund Burke.

Regardless of where they stood in this debate, the idea that conservatism represents a well-nigh religious belief in liberal democracy and free market capitalism was anathema to thinkers ranging from Burke and Tocqueville to Kirk, Nisbet, Leo Strauss and Roger Scruton. Theirs was an intellectual struggle against — or at best a reluctant embrace of — the monumental advance of liberalism, which they saw as just another ideology next to fascism, Nazism and communism (even if they acknowledged it was a lot more humane). Spawned by Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke, liberalism had turned the natural rights doctrines found in classical philosophy and Christianity on their heads, and thereby opened the door for more radical ideologies to take root.

The latest to latch on to this line of argument, and making some waves doing so, is University of Notre Dame political science professor Patrick J. Deneen, whose recent book Why Liberalism Failed provides a concise and very pointed critique of the liberal project. Deneen argues that the dichotomy between ‘left’ and ‘right’ on our political spectrum is in actuality a false one, and that these two opposing poles form, rather, two sides of the same coin. It’s true, he writes, that progressives seek to expand the state while ‘conservatives’ — in the non-Deneen understanding of that term — desire above all to let the individual thrive in a free market. However, “Individualism and statism advance together, always mutually supportive, and always at the expense of lived and vital relations that stand in contrast to both the starkness of the autonomous individual and the abstraction of our membership in the state.”

How did this paradox come about? Enlightenment philosophy, argues the author, overthrew the classical and Christian doctrine that states that our rights are natural, which is to say that humans have an innate sense of good and evil which is reflected in our laws and customs. Instead, philosophers like Thomas Hobbes argued that the only reason humans flock together in communities with governments and laws is that otherwise their lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In other words, it happened out of naked self-interest. Subsequently, modern philosophy designed political and economic systems — liberal democracy and free-market capitalism — which elevated our vices over the classical virtues but sought to harness their impact by placing enough checks and balances to prevent any individual from making his fellow citizens suffer for his greed and selfishness.

If we face an existential crisis in the West today in which millions have thrown in the towel in the face of unstoppable globalization and anemic recovery from the Great Recession, with cultural and moral decline being the cherry on the cake, it’s not because liberalism has failed, but because it has succeeded, Deneen says.

But teaching folks that these human flaws are not undesirable traits to be suppressed by virtue but facts of life to be accepted and wielded in the public arena came with some unintended consequences: “In the same way that courses in economics claim merely to describe human beings as utility-maximizing individual actors, but in fact influence students to act more selfishly, so liberalism teaches a people to hedge commitments and adopt flexible relationships and bonds. Not only are all political and economic relationships seen as fungible and subject to constant redefinition, so are all relationships – to place, to neighborhood, to nation, to family, and to religion. Liberalism encourages loose connections.”

Were these consequences indeed unintended, however? Deneen argues not. If we face an existential crisis in the West today in which millions have thrown in the towel in the face of unstoppable globalization and anemic recovery from the Great Recession, with cultural and moral decline being the cherry on the cake, it’s not because liberalism has failed, but because it has succeeded, he says. Liberalism left us stripped of the comforts of the age-old and trusted institutions of civil society that it deemed inhibitive of our personal freedom and autonomy, such as churches, family, workplace and neighborhoods. These vestiges of authority out of the way, we have each morphed into individuals alone on an island, left to the whims of an impersonal free market yet more or less content with the consumerist choices it offers. “Gratitude to the past and obligations to the future are replaced by a nearly universal pursuit of immediate gratification.” The only recourse left to address our many grievances is the all-encompassing power of the state.

Ironically, it’s economic life in the West which has taken the biggest hit in the author’s view. The emergence of the new liberal paradigm with its own economic necessities was not lost on our schools and universities. Whereas these had previously seen it as their primary mission to build the character of the youth walking into their doors, their new function gradually became to prepare the masses for participation in economic life — from Socrates to S.T.E.M., if you will. Not only did this shift accelerate man’s mastery over, and separation from, his natural world, it also carried with it the implicit lessons of meritocracy: If only the best and brightest are thought to be suited for a college education and successful career in our modern economy, the rest of us end up losers mopping the floor at Burger King or employed in equally unrewarding jobs. Previously these blue-collar middle classes would have filled decently-paid manufacturing positions, but those have long been killed off by automation and globalization. And the new elites increasingly married their own and sent their children off to the best schools, perpetuating the virtuous cycle of success. Thus the new stratification of Western societies was born. In the process, Deneen says, the depletion of Mother Earth’s resources in the name of economic progress has led to environmental devastation and climate change; and our enslavement to modern technology is literally rewiring our brain and making us more stupid every day.

Liberalism, the author argues, “has been for modern Americans like water for a fish, an encompassing political ecosystem in which we have swum, unaware of its existence.” But the above would suggest all is not well after all. By electing Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in November 2016, those who feel like they’ve lost out in the rat race sought “to deploy the statist powers of liberalism against its own ruling class.” The latter, however, are not intent to go down without a fight. Once the cheerleaders of democracy, they’ve now come to criticize the very system itself, and, not to put too fine a point on it, they lambaste “the deformed and truncated actions of a degraded citizenry that liberalism itself has created.” Indeed, any signs of introspection on the part of the elites are few and far between: “Liberalism created the conditions, and the tools, for the ascent of its own worst nightmare, yet it lacks the self-knowledge to understand its own culpability.”

As stated in the introduction above, Deneen’s ideas are hardly novel in the grand scheme of things. That said, there are some critical questions to be posed on his thought-provoking book even from a conservative point of view. First and most important of all, any criticism of liberalism ought to address the moral case for that political and economic system, which is that we should all be deeply humble and grateful for inheriting a society that enables us to pursue our own goals without the ever-present fear of true hunger, illness and the proverbial midnight knock on the door. If there is a single word of praise for liberalism’s multitudinous achievements to be found in Why Liberalism Failed, one has to look very hard. One can make a strong argument, glossing over our present-day political and cultural landscape, that peak liberalism is well behind us, while at the same time acknowledging that the civilization it has produced will still leave historians in awe three millennia from today.

Deneen’s unwillingness to do so would be more tolerable if he wouldn’t at the same time blame liberalism for all our ills. From the centralization of government to smartphone addiction to suburban sprawl to climate change, we are to believe liberalism is the culprit for all of it. While we’re on the subject of global warming: One could, like Deneen, make the argument that modern man and his insatiable appetite for material consumption has not merely contributed to the problem but conceived it in the first place. Another view would be that it’s a boutique cause developed by a decadent Western elite which has lost its religion somewhere along way in the past century and has, in a search for spiritual meaning, subsequently embraced radical environmentalism to take its place.

Furthermore, Deneen devotes a considerable passage to Federalist No. 27, in which he perceives a clear sign that, contrary to popular belief, the nation’s Founders weren’t so gung-ho on localized government after all. Authored by Alexander Hamilton, this document contends that the proposed national government would attract the best and brightest of mind and, for that reason, be more rational and “less apt to be tainted by the spirit of faction, and more out of the reach of those occasional ill-humors, or temporary prejudices and propensities” at the local level. Deneen concludes from this that “Publius clearly believes and intends that better administration at the federal level will lead to the displacement of local loyalties and engagement, and the redirection of attachments to the central government.”

I’m not convinced Deneen is being completely fair here. It is important to keep in mind that Hamilton wrote Federalist No. 27 to alleviate fears that the national government would need to resort to military force to execute its laws. Rather than becoming oppressive, he argued that the aforementioned dynamic would lead the federal government to be less oppressive. There was at any rate, Hamilton believed, no reason to assume bad laws originating at the federal level would face fiercer resistance, and therefore require “other methods to enforce their execution”, than those originating in the states. “Thus the legislatures, courts, and magistrates, of the respective members, will be incorporated into the operations of the national government AS FAR AS ITS JUST AND CONSTITUTIONAL AUTHORITY EXTENDS [emphasis original].” In a footnote to this sentence, Hamilton rejects as “sophistry” the accusation “that this will tend to the destruction of the State governments.”

Well, we all know how that turned out. I think it’s safe to say that, had the three men behind Publius been able to get a glimpse of what the constitutional republic they so brilliantly conceived looked like at the turn of the millennium, they would have tossed their cherished papers into the fire and picked up their muskets to wage a renewed civil war in support of the Crown. And this brings us to the key question: Is it possible for a political and economic system to start out as noble and virtuous but devolve along the way to a caricature of itself, its moral foundation and checks and balances eroded? Or rather, is it possible for this process not to occur? Few conservatives would deny that Western societies took a wrong turn in the mid-twentieth century; indeed, they would, for the most part, have gladly stopped the clock somewhere in the 1920s, when the size of government was about a bazillionth of what it is today, Sundays were still dominated by church attendance, and 18-year-olds with parents paying north of sixty grand for lousy college educations weren’t organizing cry-ins in protest of ‘the one percent’.

Put differently, one pertinent word I missed in Deneen’s thought-provoking book is “anacyclosis“, the classical political doctrine that states that the three benign forms of government — monarchy, aristocracy and democracy — are inherently weak and devolve over time into their respective malign siblings, tyranny, oligarchy and ochlocracy. That latter term means “mob rule”, in case you forgot all about your freshman year lectures on Polybius and Plato. The nation’s Founders certainly didn’t forget. In fact, they actively sought to forge a constitution which would halt this process of decay. Which is why I’m skeptical about Deneen’s quip that liberalism failed because it succeeded. I’m just afraid it failed because, at least in the U.S., the Founders failed.

Deneen is, of course, correct that our hyper-sexualized society with its loss of religion, broken families, drug problems, mass obesity, unsustainable public and private debt, identity politics, and all-around stupidity is the logical consequence of political theory dating back to Hobbes and Locke.

Deneen’s answer to our present ordeals is not a return to our pre-liberal state of affairs, with its eternal sectarian conflict, hunger, poverty and resulting short life expectancy (a past about which he has remarkably little to say). Instead, he pleads for a transition towards household economies under localized government more or less modeled after the life and writings of Wendell Berry. An acclaimed author, Berry is also a Christian, a life-long Democrat and an environmental activist promoting and practicing sustainable agriculture. For over half a century he’s been raising his own animals and growing his own fruits and vegetables on his Kentucky farm, aided only by a horse-drawn wagon and interrupted only by his occasional participation in protests against mining operations or the proposed construction of a nuclear plant in his state. All of his writings were typed up by his wife on an old typewriter.

I am very conflicted about whether I’m on board with this program. On the one hand, I’m appalled, like Deneen and many others, by the senseless consumerism and debased culture on display all around us. Deneen is, of course, correct that our hyper-sexualized society with its loss of religion, broken families, drug problems, mass obesity, unsustainable public and private debt, identity politics, and all-around stupidity is the logical consequence of political theory dating back to Hobbes and Locke. As such, liberalism did indeed ‘succeed’ — and it’s not at all clear what follows after the shenanigans come to a possibly explosive end.

On the other hand, apart from the question of how a transition of Western societies into a giant Shire would practically take shape, it’s not self-evident that this should be our desirable end goal. Surely the world would have missed out on some jaw-dropping heights of human excellence had the West been and remained a civilization of exclusively agrarian subsistence communities. After all, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Dr. Johnson, Edmund Burke, Einstein and James Watson didn’t flourish in the countryside. And, for that matter, neither did Patrick Deneen, whose impressive academic career includes stints at Rutgers, Princeton, Georgetown and Notre Dame as well as countless lectures across the United States and the rest of the world. One might object that the greatest art churned out in the West came to bloom well before liberalism did, but the same cannot be said of the germ theory of disease and the moon landing.

But the bottom line is that Patrick Deneen’s analysis is probably correct: Liberalism was top-heavy from the start and, as with all top-heavy objects, is bound to tip over at some point in time. What will happen next is less obvious, but in any event Deneen is to be commended for writing one of those marvelous books that leave the reader with more questions than answers. Which is the hallmark of any brilliant polemic.


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