On the Death of Liberalism

Last week I finally had the opportunity to read Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, a book that had been on my “to read” list for several months now.

Understand that Deneen’s critique includes classical liberalism – the liberalism of our Framers and which has influenced many on the right today.

I’m not going to write a critique of the book. National Review has published several reviews of and rebuttals to the book, and Jonah Goldberg wrote a comprehensive G-File on the subject (and was also on a panel with Deneen a couple of weeks back debating the topic). I agree with most of the critical takes on Deneen, and would add only a few sparing thoughts.

The book is a bit disappointing, frankly. I expected to disagree with much of Deneen’s argument, but expected, based on the hype, a more thorough and systematic argument than Deneen presented. Deneen’s treatment of the subject was shockingly shallow. He seemed content to make sweeping generalizations about the thinkers he cited, as though he assumed that those generalizations were self-evidently true. For instance he writes of the “utopianism” of the liberal enlightenment tradition. He makes no distinction between French and Scottish/British enlightenment writers. But has anyone who has seriously studied the works of, say, David Hume, ever considered him a utopian?

Furthermore, Deneen makes the same mistake other critics of the Framers make: assuming theirs is a sort of value-less liberalism unconcerned with virtue. Thomas West’s Theory of the American Founding is a good rebuttal to this theory (not to Deneen directly), as is the David French review I linked above.

As I said, though, this is not a critique of the book per se. Rather, I’d like to focus on a couple of aspects of the book that fascinate me. First of all, Deneen’s critique of liberalism, root and branch, is a common one in both left-wing and right-wing Catholic circles. Anthony Annett, who used to blog under the handle Morning’s Minion, routinely disparaged the pernicious influence of liberal thought (or what he perceived liberal thought to be) on modern Catholic political thinking. R.R. Reno indirectly attacked the liberal tradition in his (really wide of the mark) critique of Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West.

Michael Brendan Dougherty also notices this trend:

Why have we come to this point? Some Catholic political thinkers — Patrick Deneen comes to mind — have energetically argued that this is the inevitable outcome of liberalism itself. That political liberalism makes false promises, holding out the possibility of liberty and pluralism but ultimately demanding conformism. Predictably enough, a subset of younger Catholics are re-evaluating the work of their co-religionist elders who made various terms of peace with liberalism, men such as Michael Novak and George Weigel. Like the English thinkers G. K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc, the younger, more-radical thinkers turn to Catholic social teaching or to the popes for guidance on political and economic matters. Some, calling themselves integralists, say that it’s past time to give up arguing for our claims under the guise of natural law. Instead, we should make our claims unabashedly for the social kingship of Christ.

MBD urges that instead of liberalism being at fault, these Catholics need to take a closer look inside the Church.

Catholics operate a massive portion of the U.S. health-care industry, a significant part of the nation’s university system, and a vital part of its charitable foundations. But Catholic citizens have socially conformed themselves to the American norms set by Protestant faiths. Catholic birth and divorce rates have, respectively, moved toward Protestant norms. In their catechisms, many Protestant denominations have accepted abortion and homosexuality as moral goods. And many prominent Catholic personalities — even those with imprimaturs of Catholic bishops — are urging Catholics to do likewise. This phenomenon practically invites the public authority to test the commitment of Catholics to their distinct set of doctrines.

And here then is another modest suggestion. The more urgent need for the Church’s liberty in the United States may not demand an attempt to transcend 500 years of a mistaken political philosophy. Instead it may be a matter of looking at a decades-long problem of disaffection and apostasy. The Church also suffers from a massive scandal of immorality and criminality among its prelates. These crimes, so long unaddressed by higher authorities in the Church, manifestly call into question not just the Church’s commitment to its doctrines but its fitness to lead so many civic institutions and to control so many resources. Are America’s Catholic bishops conducting themselves “as worthy members of the community?” And if not, can we expect their religious liberty to remain sacrosanct?

If the Church recovered its vigor and its authority internally, then the neighbors with whom it lives peaceably, and among whom we do so many good works, would be less inclined to test our commitments, or our patience. The social Kingship of Christ may proceed to impose duties upon all nations, but it begins with the words: Physician, heal thyself.

I think MBD is largely correct, but I would also emphasize the almost strawman-like mischaracterization of what classical liberalism is as being a detriment to serious Catholic engagement with the philosophy. As long as Catholic writers of both the left and right treat this sort of liberalism as a kind of hedonistic, amoral philosophy unconcerned with civic virtue, then I don’t think we can have a meaningful conversation about topic.

I’m also intrigued by Deneen’s argument that individualism can lead to statism/authoritatrianism, because I think he has a much stronger case here (although he never quite develops it as much as he could have). I’ve posited that Jeffersonian style individualism naturally progresses to statism. Though Jefferson had an appreciation for civic virtue, his basic philosophy eschewed many of the traditional components of society, including the concept of abiding by perpetual constitutions. When Jefferson’s radical conception of perpetual revolution is married to his extreme libertarian ethos, it’s no surprise when a rootless society emerges in which individuals are left isolated, dependent primarily on the government as a source of moral guidance.

The problem, again, is that Deneen takes his axe and swings it wildly against all forms of classical liberalism. He takes no notice of the significant differences in the liberalism of Jefferson on one hand, and Madison and Hamilton on the other. This inability to distinguish between the fine contours of different strands of liberalism mars what could have otherwise been a valuable contribution to political dialogue. Alas.