American politics seem dumber than ever. Recently, it was a major news story when a reality TV star met with the President (himself a former reality TV host) to discuss pardons and prison reform. However, this vapid, celebrity approach to politics may be provoking a thoughtful backlash, as exemplified by two recent books that have garnered readers by exploring big questions in political philosophy.
These volumes address the crisis of political liberalism, providing very different answers to the question of whether it should be preserved. Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed argues that liberalism should be abandoned. Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg of National Review reminds us of liberalism’s blessings and urges us to defend it.
The contrast between these widely-reviewed volumes (my own reviews are here and here) has sparked considerable debate, especially on the political and cultural Right. The authors agree that liberalism, understood as it is broadly instantiated in the liberal, democratic capitalist West, is in crisis, but diverge regarding its nature and their prescriptions.
Goldberg claims that the happy combination of political liberty, representative government, free markets and technological creativity resulted in what he considers the “Miracle” of liberal democratic capitalism, which has provided previously unimaginable wealth, comfort, freedom and security. But if this is so, then why is the liberal West in danger of committing suicide? He asserts that it is not only because complacency, boredom and ingratitude induce us to forget how much liberalism has done for us, but also because liberalism is unnatural.
We may live in a liberal culture and polity, but we have not significantly evolved from our tribal, stone-age ancestors. Tribal chiefs and divinely-ordained leaders are more natural for us than democratic self-government and freedom. Liberalism, in Goldberg’s account, does not give us an all-encompassing identity that provides a sense of meaning. And so many people are readily tempted back to our natural tribalism, which promises to reunite the fragments of the fractured liberal self.
Although Deneen is not insensate to the positives of liberalism, from rising standards of living to the freedoms liberal regimes promise, he fears that as liberalism becomes more dominant and therefore more pure, the blessings that it has provided will either be lost or prove not to be worth their price. The core of Deneen’s argument is that liberalism carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and thus is failing because it has triumphed—it betrays itself as it fulfills itself. As liberalism muscles out older traditions and practices that had restrained its excesses, it becomes increasingly self-destructive and, ironically, illiberal. At the heart of this phenomenon is liberalism’s determination to liberate human appetite.
For Deneen, liberalism is primarily a philosophy of individual emancipation, with an emphasis on human control of nature as a means to achieve this. Instead of controlling our appetites, we indulge them. Instead of seeking our place in family, community and creed, we seek liberation from their constraints. Instead of accepting a place in the order of the cosmos, we seek dominance. Technological prowess is put in the service of fulfilling our desires. But the scientifically-aided liberation of human appetite makes us slaves to our passions, unable to sate our inflamed desires.
And in the end, it makes us slaves to the state as well. Those who will not control themselves cannot rule themselves, and so they will be controlled and ruled by others. But in a regime of advanced liberalism, that rule will be by those who are themselves governed by their desires and passions. This is why, in my analysis, liberalism faces a legitimation crisis as elites resort to illiberal measures to “save” liberalism (and their own power and prestige). Fundamental freedoms of conscience, association, speech and the free exercise of religion are curtailed in the drive to serve identities constituted by desire and consumption.
Plato warned of such dangers in his description of how democracy degenerates into tyranny. For Deneen and his fellow-travelers, this is the natural endpoint of liberalism: desire rampant and tyrannical. Goldberg, however, would dispute this, arguing that these outcomes are not liberalism, but its betrayal. And this rejoinder cannot be dismissed as a “real liberalism has never been tried” variant on the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, for Goldberg presents what he believes to be an exemplary account of real liberalism having been successfully tried in the West, over the last centuries. Are our past failures and current problems really due to liberalism itself, or to the unavoidable imperfections and inevitable decay of even the best regimes and cultures?
The authors’ respective views on the intersection between liberalism and self-control may provide an answer. They agree that virtue and self-control are necessary to sustain a self-governing polity. However, philosophical liberalism offers little guidance regarding how self-control is to be cultivated, and therefore it depends upon virtues that are inculcated by non-liberal relationships, associations and institutions. What separates Deneen and Goldberg are there divergent understandings of how liberalism interacts with those virtue-instilling relationships and associations.
For Goldberg, liberalism is about staying out of the way and leaving people free to find meaning and fulfillment in family, faith, and the like. In this account, liberalism is generally neutral; it does not offer a unified philosophy of life, or definitive teleology of human persons and cultures. Thus, although Goldberg recognizes the importance of intermediary institutions, especially the family, between the individual and the state, he does not address the charge that liberalism’s liberation and celebration of desire undermines these crucial social relationships and entities.
This omission is odd, because Goldberg does discuss the idea that liberalism’s material success contributes to creating a class that will denigrate and undermine liberalism in an attempt to find a more authentic way of life. Furthermore, Goldberg has some familiarity with Deneen’s work, presumably including Deneen’s emphasis on controlling our appetites, rather than being controlled by them.
Deneen has long asserted that the development of virtue necessary to sustain self-government is sabotaged by liberalism, which preaches no good higher than self-fulfillment, whatever that might be. He contends that liberalism is dedicated to liberation from family, community, church and any other associations that restrain us. Liberalism is not neutral, but actively fosters hostility to the communities, relationships and institutions that inculcate virtue and thereby enable human flourishing and self-government. Liberalism is parasitic—feeding off the social capital produced by non-liberal traditions, cultures and creeds. Liberalism as liberation philosophy destroys the social fabric that produces citizens capable of self-government.
Goldberg has not attempted to answer this charge. And with declines in religious participation, family formation and stability, and other non-liberal institutions coinciding with declining life expectancy and collapsing fertility, his broader invocations of material prosperity seem like whistling past the graveyard—one filled suicides and overdoses.
To effectively answer Deneen’s challenge to liberalism, Goldberg will need to articulate another idea of liberalism. Rather than uncritically grounding liberalism in John Locke and Enlightenment philosophy, thereby treating it as a triumphant philosophical project, Goldberg would have done better to emphasize liberalism as a practice that developed organically within concrete circumstances. Instead of the overweening arrogance of the Enlightenment philosophers, this defense of liberalism as practice would make more modest claims, and would be more convincing for it.
In this understanding, liberalism offers itself as a way of political organization developed from the experience of both human dignity and fallibility. Human dignity demands a respect for human freedom and choice, sometimes even when they are misused. This restraint is also necessary because recognition of human fallibility demands modesty in our deployment of government’s coercive power. Representative government alleviates the potential for tyranny, and separation of powers within government is a further safeguard. Federalism serves the same purpose, and is also an acknowledgement of the importance of subsidiarity and local knowledge. Human rights can be recognized as important not because they are necessarily derived from self-evident metaphysical principles, but because they are an effective way to restrain government and adjudicate disputes.
There is much in the American experience to support this modest, experientially-grounded version of liberalism. The American structure of government is a triumph not of Enlightenment rationality, but of experience, tradition, compromise and knowledge of human frailty. The American “novus ordo seclorum” had deep roots in the past and incorporated a humble recognition of human limitations.
This is what I believe Deneen also misses. While the American founding certainly owes something to Hobbes, Locke and the Enlightenment, there was also much within it that derives from Christian and classical sources. For example, The Federalist Papers were much more eager to discuss ancient republics than Locke’s theories.
The common mistake of both Deneen and Goldberg is to see the United States as essentially a modern project rooted in Enlightenment philosophy. Deneen condemns this; Goldberg praises it. But although Enlightenment thought did influence the American founding, it had less effect than other factors such as Protestant Christianity, the practical experience of colonial self-government, and the English common law tradition.
Thus, Deneen’s hopes for “liberty after liberalism” might find success by refocusing on the America experience of ordered liberty, especially as recorded by Tocqueville, whom he greatly admires. What may be needed is less quibbling over what Madison meant in Federalist 10, and more exploration of the lived, and living, experiences of those who seek to act virtuously in liberty. The experience of liberty, and of liberalism as a practice rather than an overarching philosophy, may still have much to teach us. The philosophy of liberty may develop from its virtuous practice, rather than the reverse.
This approach may also help remedy the defects of Goldberg’s book, which despite its valuable reminder of our blessings, ignores the dangers of ideological liberalism. Goldberg ought to reflect upon how virtuous citizens capable of self-government and ordered liberty can be produced, and how their development will be hindered by a liberal philosophy of self-indulgence. Contra Locke, man is born neither free nor rational, but can only attain degrees of freedom and rationality through sustained effort and instruction. If a culture is to have liberty, it must be defended not only from rivals and barbarians without, but from the barbarians within who invade every generation.
Both of these books are valuable contributions to the discussions we need to have in these disordered times. Thoughtful debate regarding their strengths, flaws and disagreements is of great value as we consider how we should live and what we should strive for. At a time of political and cultural degradation, such books provide sparks of light in the darkness. And there is darkness around us. For all of its prosperity and technological prowess, Western liberalism seems exhausted. And so we return to asking: Can it be saved? Should it?
We are not the first to ask these questions. They have been pondered, for example, by Whittaker Chambers, who believed that in leaving communism he was defecting to the losing side. He once declared to Bill Buckley that “it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within.” We can hope to do little more, he wrote, than “snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack” and secretly bury such tokens “in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else.” Yet by the grace of God, and in part due to the witness of Whittaker Chambers, communism collapsed.
Today, Western civilization still seems to be wrecking itself from within, and there is still that within it which should be preserved. Saving it may seem an impossible challenge. But as T.S. Eliot knew, there are no lost causes because there are no gained causes. Reevaluating and debating liberalism is part of our task, but we must not succumb to a sort of political Pelagianism that trusts too much in our own efforts (a trust that can lead to despair when we fail). Decline and renewal will constantly struggle this side of Heaven; we must do what we can, and rely on grace for the rest. As Eliot also wrote, “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”