On Liberalism’s Partial Success — and Conservatism’s Potential

Liberalism has helped humanity make great strides. But it has also left gaping holes — holes we need to fill.

Patrick Deenen, “Why Liberalism Failed,” Yale University Press, 2018.

A specter is haunting the West. No, not the specter of Marx’s communism nor quite Havel’s dissent, but the specter of illiberalism. Political centrism is collapsing in both America and Europe. The “alt-right” waxes and the liberal order wanes.

In the midst of this particular moment, Patrick Deneen has written an incisive book titled “Why Liberalism Failed.” Deneen’s book challenges both the American left and right in his diagnosis of our current cultural problems. It is immensely insightful, proposes difficult questions to our dominant political order and, although it stumbles at times, the book gives us the beginnings of a way forward.

What Is Liberalism?

Deneen’s book is not a simple castigation of the American left, nor is it the sort of screed that someone like Dinesh D’Souza would hawk on Fox News. Its indictment goes far deeper. He argues that liberalism as a whole is approaching something like a systemic failure.

Deneen defines liberalism as:

A philosophy [that] was a wager that political society be grounded on a different footing. It conceived humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life. Opportunities for liberty were best afforded by a limited government devoted to “securing rights,” along with a free market economic system…Political legitimacy was grounded on a shared belief in…a “social contract”…ratified continuously by free and fair elections of responsive representatives.

It is this system that is facing total collapse, precisely because we have implemented it so successfully. As liberalism matured, “its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest.”

Liberalism promised prosperity, yet has given us inequality. It promised responsive government but now Americans feel more divorced from their government than ever before. It categorically values freedom — yet the state grows more powerful and all-pervasive in its wake.

In his arraignment of liberalism, Deneen goes deeper than political philosophy. He takes aim at the foundational assumptions. He notes liberalism’s starting premise:

Human beings are thus, by nature, nonrelational creatures, separate and autonomous. Liberalism begins a project by which the legitimacy of all human relationships — beginning with but not limited to, political bonds, becomes increasingly dependent on whether those relationships have been chosen and chose on the basis of their service to rational self interest.

Ultimately, liberalism posits the individual and the individual’s liberty as the ultimate value, before which all other values must prostrate themselves. Restrictions on the individual’s choices must be justified on the narrowest grounds if justified at all. This assumption is foundational to the American and wider western liberal order. It is this premise, Deneen writes, that is responsible for so much dysfunction.

Liberalism’s Failures

Although the book, which is a brisk 198 pages, commits many pages to the philosophical issues with liberalism’s premises, it regrettably does not present an organized critique. At times, it can be difficult to know the heart of Deneen’s issue with liberalism even though it is the thesis of the entire book. Although he does offer many prescient criticisms of modern and even classical liberalism, his scattershot approach can result in overly pessimistic broadsides that are never followed up on or thoroughly substantiated.

For instance, he charges liberalism with cutting us off from nature, ensuring ecological devastation such as increased pesticide use through genetically modified organisms. The problem? Although the debate can be complicated and contentious, the scientific consensus is that biotech crops create less need for pesticide use, not more.

Similarly, liberalism allegedly has created a “titanic inequality” from the “increasing gap between wealthy-haves and left-behind have-nots.” This is possibly the weakest element of the book and one which Deneen spends very little ink on. Reading the book, one would never know that we are living in the midst of a massive decline of extreme poverty, largely due to the expansion of the liberal economic order. It’s true that we have been treated to a veritable flood of jeremiads about pervasive stagnation during and since the recent election, but we must remember that median incomes in the US have been on the rise since the late 1940s.

Although Deneen’s specialty is clearly not economics, there is nonetheless a germ of an argument here that is worth hearing out, especially this: The enthronement of the market as the center of conservative politics is a mistake. Deneen’s broader point, though regrettably undeveloped, can be useful to flesh out a mature conservative approach to the market and poverty.

The book’s most poignant criticisms are on a cultural level. When a supermajority of Americans feel that their country is headed in the wrong direction, there is something clearly rotten in the state of liberalism. It seems from his book that Deneen has a valid point.

Our rights-based orientation means that we do not ask if an action is virtuous but rather if that action is allowed. Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called this problem legalism and although it won him no friends at Harvard, it remains a consistent problem in liberal societies.

Conservatism will have to develop an answer on how to best develop virtue in a society obsessed with our rights as opposed to our duties.

Finally, Deneen takes aim at the main problem. Liberalism operates as a form of anti-culture. By attempting to liberate us from every social construct, it eviscerates communities, replaces them with atomized individuals and thus invites the state to fill in the void, if only by sheer necessity.

Because liberalism claims it is a universal ideology, it insists that every issue must be dealt with at the highest level, which explains our constant calls for a “national conversation” on whatever pressing topic of the day. Liberalism has no time for locales, communities and traditions that inhibit the individual or the compromises and genuine pluralism such an approach would entail.

This is where the book really picks up steam. It is clear we live in an era of escalating atomization. From Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” to Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart,” it’s apparent that America has become more divided and alienated than any other time in recent memory. New research shows this will get worse before it gets better. Although liberalism may not be entirely at fault for these disturbing trends, it — as our dominant political order and philosophical zeitgeist — clearly bears some responsibility.

Post-Liberalism: Which Way Forward?

Deneen lays out such an expansive case against liberalism that he declares we do not suffer from “a set of discrete problems solved by liberal tools but a systemic challenge.”

Is it truly that bad and do we have any alternatives?

I am not yet convinced that our current order faces the total collapse that Deneen and others seem to think is imminent. The historical decline in poverty, economic inequality and violence suggest otherwise. It does not seem coincidental that such trends correlate to the dominance of the liberal order.

This is not a call to complacency. Although American conservatives will always be by nature more liberal than our European or Canadian cousins, we do not have to be instinctively defensive when it comes to liberalism’s limitations. Deneen’s book challenges us to think about those limitations and what we can do to overcome them.

How shall we overcome these limitations and what would a post-liberal future look like? This is where critics of liberalism often seem to fall short. These (often erudite) critics, like Jose Mena at Fare Foward and Dr. Adrian Vermeule of Harvard Yard, advocate what amounts to a total overthrow of liberalism, yet they offer very little in the way of alternatives. We are told that the “contours of this project are highly complex; it will be enough in the short-term for us to begin to recognize” liberalism’s problems.

It seems imprudent bordering on insane to propose nothing short of a revolutionary change with functionally no idea of what that project begins to look like in practice.

Although Deneen does not propose a substantial substitute, he does offer some steps that will help get us started. Unlike some other critics, he argues that we must recognize the achievements of liberalism. In this he is correct. Too often the opposite of a mistake is simply the opposite mistake. If we are going to craft a politics that that addresses the problems of our modern age, we will be ill-served if we simply reject any vestige of classical liberalism.

Secondly, Deneen’s main answer is that we must recreate localist communities and polities in which we can experiment on what a humane post-liberal order can be. Deneen holds out hope for something that can replace liberalism and its worst excesses while still upholding the best of liberalism, which he isolates as “liberty, equality, dignity, justice, [and] constitutionalism.”

As conservatives to go forward, we must look back to the classical and Christian sources for these ancient ideas that have served us so well before modern liberalism corrupted them.

Although Deneen’s book is not without its mistakes and shortcomings, it is a valuable addition to the conversation about how to rescue us out of the current crisis we find ourselves in. Anyone interested in the ideas of liberty will find this book challenging and worth the while.