Patrick Deneen

Has Liberalism Failed?

on May 4, 2018

Patrick Deneen, Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame University and author of the new book, Why Liberalism Failed, examined the idea he has advanced that the western liberal tradition is in crisis at the Catholic Information Center on April 27. His basic idea is that “liberalism has failed because liberalism succeeded,” but with no clear comprehensive social theory to replace it.

He said the world “is oscillating between illiberal liberalism and [the] authoritarian nationalist.” While this is a kind of civil war, it is not a violent war because state has a monopoly on power. This is “why everything hinges on the next election.” While the left and right are still discernible, there is less unity among them, and Deneen said that today we have more of “a war of all against all.” He offers no comprehensive alternative to liberalism. The most he proposes is “local forms of life,” which presumably could be distinctively Christian, while the overall society is not. This seems to be a version of the Benedict option. Somewhat like Rod Dreher, he proposes that we “think [our] way to know what to do next.” We should continue to be involved in politics (as we must to preserve some minimal religious liberty necessary for a Benedict option type of Christian life). He referred to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s observation that an idea which is now repeatedly advanced, that culture and not politics determines society, is really a conservative view. Moynihan held that the liberal idea is that politics can change culture.

Catholics have appealed to religious liberty as a way of preserving culture. This involves “using libertarian means to achieve non-libertarian ends.” Following John Courtney Murray and the Second Vatican Council, most Catholics have rejected the church’s earlier rejection of liberalism and accepted the liberal doctrine of rights as “articles of peace,” with no overall doctrine of the common good. Because of this, they have regarded the liberal state as capable of accommodating disparate doctrines of the good, including the Christian one. But Deneen said that Murray’s concept of the liberal state in this regard is “naïve.”

Deneen pointed out that according to Alexis de Tocqueville, in democratic society, people prefer equality over liberty. A perfected form of equality and liberty is the ideal toward which liberal society is tending. This is like the “state of nature” in early modern political theory, Deneen said. John Locke saw complete freedom and equality in the state of nature. The “absence of external impediments” was both the supposed condition of the state of nature, and the liberal ideal. The actual condition of humanity, however, is that of “dependent rational animals.” French philosopher and economist Bertrand de Jouvenel compared the vision of modern liberalism to the “views of childless men who have forgotten their own childhood.” This liberal vision, Deneen said, is neither a description of the past nor the present, but a “standard condition by which we can evaluate all potential arrangements of our lives.” The “consent of the governed” is an outgrowth of this modern vision. The doctrine of freedom of movement was also important to Locke. In liberalism, and today, the religion of parents isn’t simply passed on. Complete equality and freedom is attempted with adulthood. Liberalism’s “natural man” is not, therefore, the “result of nature,” but of a comprehensive liberal society. In this society, “there is no choice, but to become the infinitely choosing being,” according to Deneen.

Today life under the liberal order does not reinforce any idea of the good. The country is rather moving in the direction de Tocqueville said it would, toward complete individual freedom and equality. Deneen said that studies show that 78% of the silent generation were married by the age of 36, 56% of the baby boom generation were married by the same age, 48% of Generation X, and 37% of millennials, at the same age. On the other side, 5% of the silent and boomer generations were not married by the age of 45, and projections show 20% of GenXers and 25% of millennials will not be married by age 45. There is also a decline in the presence of close personal confidantes in life. He said that in 1980, the average person had three confidantes, but now the average is less than one.

Deneen said that the modern state does not exist to protect the individual but to break down families and other traditional authorities. Individualism increases the power of the state by attacking traditional authority. Liberalism is also a “pervasively educational order.” It shapes people to ensure that liberal freedoms are what they want. To do this, it must shape not only the public order, but also the private reality. At the frontier of public and private life, Catholics are required by liberals to deny the religious factor in their public decisions. It might be added that today business and professional workers are required to violate the precepts of their religions if they conflict with the state’s laws intended to educate the public in liberal ideas.

Liberalism finally cannot be indifferent to the education of children. If parents want children trained by religious principles, they will be in conflict with the state. For instance, Deneen pointed out, mandatory state education of children above the age of 2 has been called for by Minister of Education in France. The effectiveness of secular education and society is seen in the fact that Catholics retain 50% of their young people in their faith, while 25% become nonreligious, and 25% become adherents of “moralistic therapeutic deism.”

What is Deneen’s proposal? He said that liberal rights are “deeply insufficient.” He believes we need “to shape and form communities that understand that we are not in a neutral order.” Liberalism poses as the ultimate order, and attempts to subdue or incorporate whatever it encounters into a thoroughly liberal system. No claims of transcendence can be accepted as legitimate in society. Against comprehensive liberalism, a “counter-anti-culture is needed.” Reluctantly, must re-think the state itself, and insist that it is not ultimate, but that the divine orders all civilization. For such a “counter-anti-culture” to function, “true pluralism” is needed. In it, “the state is a community of communities,” in which the subordinate communities give the real meaning to life.

Deneen said that liberalism, or really, any final human authority, should be limited both by a transcendent order above it, and by subordinate human authorities. The limitations liberalism has incorporated within itself, such as the structuring of checks and balances within a political system, are not sufficient.

This writer cannot see a great difference between the “true pluralism” Deneen advocates and the classical liberalism that preceded the 1960s. It may be that “true pluralism” is more accepting of a nonbelieving element in society than traditional American society was, but unbelief by individuals was legal even in the American past. Deneen said that de Tocqueville understood liberalism to be the philosophy of America. Practical life in America, however, was rooted in Puritanism. But recently, he said, liberalism is “becoming more fully itself,” attempting to engineer individual happiness, and setting aside other authorities. That the state is competent to engineer a righteous life based on what is pleasing to individuals is contrary to a Christian understanding, however, and contrary to common sense. Other groups than the state are important in developing and supporting the human personality, and hence other authorities than the state are proper.

Deneen said that liberal society today faces a clash between the determinism of science and the absolute liberalism of the humanities – leading to an impossible conclusion that humans are both material to be manipulated and absolutely free. Universities are emphasizing expertise in a narrow area and invisible colleges as a way of achieving universality, he said, but “real political philosophers” are needed.

It could be added to Deneen’s observations that the obvious challenge for Christians is that acceptance of a transcendent authority is precisely what comprehensive liberalism refuses. “True pluralism” probably is what we should be striving for; it would allow believers to obey God while not coercing unbelievers, which the great majority of Christians believe is Biblically justifiable. But for this to be a workable solution depends on the strength and determination of non-liberal communities in a true pluralist system. The comprehensive liberals in this system will be driven by their enthusiasm for eliminating non-liberal elements in the world that they find repugnant, with only the balance of power to hold them in check. It may be that in the years ahead liberals will understand the presence non-liberal elements in society as something they must accept, although believing that traditional believers are finally wrong. In the same way today, different religions in liberal society accept other religions for the indefinite future, although they believe other religions are finally wrong.

To meet the threat of assimilation by comprehensive liberalism and realize a society which is a “community of communities,” Christians need strong Christian doctrine, communities, and institutions to show we have something at stake, and a willingness to engage in noncompliance concerning requirements that are incompatible with Christian commitments. It may be that in the near future liberals will succeed in making illegal Christian commitments to a much greater extent than they already have. But Christians have no real alternative to classical liberalism. We must keep pressing for religious liberty, and turn to noncompliance and taking the penalty if the effort for religious liberty does not prevail.

In any period of noncompliance, Christians must emphasize that our ultimate duty is to God, and that common sense indicates that it is wrong to require action in violation of conscience. The general respect for our right to obey God is no longer present, but we must remember that it is our duty to obey him in all circumstances.

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