One decade ago, the idea that liberal democracy is so fatally flawed that we are headed for a ‘postliberal’ future would have been outlandish to nearly everyone. While the emerging postliberal movement remains far from mainstream, it’s hard to ignore a growing group of writers articulating both ancient and modern criticisms of liberalism.
The Naval Academy’s Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership hosted a panel on the emergence postliberalism with Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, author of Why Liberalism Failed, and Peter Berkowitz, Director of Policy Planning in the Trump administration and professor at Stanford. It was moderated by Ed Barrett, a director of the Stockdale Center.
Attacks on liberalism in the last century have historically come from communists or fascists. However, Deneen’s book has become known for its zealous traditional conservative social, economic and political critiques of liberalism. Attacking both Democrats and Republicans, Deneen argues that the worst problems facing America are intrinsic to liberal society and can’t be solved without radical change.
One such problem is the rise of a “meritocratic” ruling-class detached from traditional morals and communities. Reading from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Deneen contrasted an aristocratic society, with people socially rooted in place, with a liberal one where people have freedom to define and distinguish themselves. But that freedom comes at a cost.
As Deneen said: “to free ourselves completely we need not just be free from arbitrary rule of government… but [also] to be free of any kind of arbitrary form of identity forced upon us. So, a liberal democracy will increasingly achieve a kind of equal liberty when people free themselves of any unchosen inheritance.” This absolute freedom competes with “unchosen” obligations to family and community.
Deneen believes Tocqueville’s prediction of a future capitalism-driven aristocracy has arrived. In this “new kind of aristocracy, those who are able to exceed or excel” are “in the material realm. Not priests, prophets or soothsayers. It’s going to be people who can do well economically and those people are going to distinguish themselves in contrast to those who don’t.”
The notion of a “meritocracy” only makes sense if people gain prominence due to genuine virtue. But what merits merit? Deneen argues the process of obtaining prerequisite merit necessary for social advancement is deeply damaging to the cultivation of real virtue.
Freed from the binding inheritances of aristocracy, we’re maximally incentivized to be dedicated as possible to financial success, primarily accessible through elite universities. Those who craft their lives to be as amenable as possible to professional advancement do so at the expense of other virtues. Professional success isn’t intrinsically wrong. But, in aggregate the most successful people have to value standardized test scores, GPA’s, extra-curriculars and other bourgeois indicators at the expense of intrinsic goods of community and virtue. The result is a ruling class that’s detached and scornful of anyone whose morality isn’t implicitly centered around getting into Harvard.
Berkowitz willingly acknowledged the litany of issues with liberalism. However, he added that “all regimes, every single one, we learn from [Aristotle and Plato] contain the seeds of its own destruction.” Humans have an infinite appetite for power at the expense of everything, and so in any society the elites are always liable for corruption.
Berkowitz, however, noted that John Locke and other founding fathers of liberalism thought that giving people political freedom would enable them to pursue virtue on their own terms. This doesn’t happen on its own, though, which is why we perpetually struggle to inculcate virtues that allow us to resist our infinite appetite. As Berkowitz said: “truly human life is lived with a variety of constraints. Constraints coming from a sense of our knowledge of our duty understanding of virtues and life within a community.”
Despite Deneen’s prophecies of the downfall of liberalism, however, the most convincing argument came from Berkowitz contrasting every illiberal nation today with the United States:
“If you’ve been fortunate enough to have a good education and you’ve come to believe that there’s wisdom in Plato and Aristotle and in our inherited religious traditions… and you want to live a life in accordance with their understanding would you say ‘Aha! I need to get up and move to communist China, authoritarian Russia, theocratic Iran or socialist Venezuela? No! You would say the United States of America, for all of its faults and defects, and not by accident, [is] the kind of regime [that] still provides more opportunity to cultivate the virtues to form communities.”
To buy into post-liberalism Christians don’t need to be convinced that liberalism has numerous problems; that much is obvious. A harder question is asking what kind of system, weighed down by its own problems, could offer better than alternatives. Liberalism may in fact be only narrowly better than its competitors, but without a better alternative we should stay squarely in the liberal camp.