Magazine article The Christian Century

Why Liberalism Failed

Magazine article The Christian Century

Why Liberalism Failed

Article excerpt

Why Liberalism Failed

By Patrick J. Deneen

Yale University Press, 248 pp., $30.00

When congressional Republicans and the Trump administration enacted their tax bill, they were following in the steps of previous Republican administrations, particularly those of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, in which tax cuts accompanied reductions in social programs. When Democrats are in power, pretty much the opposite occurs: taxes go up, as does federal spending on the social safety net and related programs.

Despite the apparent dissimilarity between the political parties, Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen argues that today's liberals and conservatives aren't really so different. Both are guided by an ideological liberalism "premised upon the fiction of radically autonomous individuals." These individuals consent to a social contract and government whose sole purpose is to secure individual rights. In other words, there is no such thing, inherently, as society or social bonds. There are only individuals.

In this liberalism, liberty means license to do as you please. "The resulting liberal polity," Deneen writes,

   fosters a liberal society--one that
   commends self-interest, the unleashed
   ambition of individuals, an emphasis
   on private pursuits over a concern for
   public weal, and an acquired ability to
   maintain psychic distance from any
   other humans, including to reconsider
   any relationships that constitute a fundamental
   limitation on our personal

Republicans and Democrats operate from the same ideological playbook. The difference is that Republicans ("classical liberals") are content to let the invisible hand of the market impose whatever direction is to be had as self-interested individuals fight it out, while Democrats ("progressive liberals") want to use the government to level the playing field so that self-interested individuals might compete more fairly. Both assume that freeing individuals of constraint to pursue their own self-interest is the name of the game. In this sense, Deneen writes, liberalism acts "as a solvent upon all social bonds" and leaves us with a fractured, unsustainable society. Liberalism has failed because it has succeeded.

It offers freedom but without giving people a larger goal or purpose; this is the liberalism that gave us the recession of 2008, climate change, and an epidemic of gun violence, as Deneen sees it.

Is Deneen right about the dangers of liberalism? Yes and no. There is a way in which contemporary conservatives and liberals are both selling the same product: the idea of the liberated individual freed from tradition, obligation, and authority. …

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