Magazine article The Human Life Review

Why Liberalism Failed

Magazine article The Human Life Review

Why Liberalism Failed

Article excerpt

WHY LIBERALISM FAILED Patrick J. Deneen (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2018, 248 pages; hardcover, $30)

Radical chic, the fashion for anti-establishment sentiment that the New Left introduced into American culture in the 1960s, has arrived on the Right. This development complicates the political life of conservatives for whom true North in civic affairs is old-school, classical liberalism. Insofar as classical liberalism depends on a psychological tendency as much as on a precise philosophy, it's hard to define, although one usually begins by sketching it out in certain broad strokes: lean, limited government, scaled up just enough to ensure national security and public order, while at the same time loathing to restrict anyone's personal liberty, doing so only to the extent of preventing the most flagrant possible clashes between individuals exercising their respective freedoms to do as they please or as they think they ought.

The necessary underpinnings of that political arrangement are a constellation of social and cultural norms, attitudes, and behaviors. Let's call them virtues. At a minimum, they consist of tolerance, which may be seen to imply acceptance of what we think is immoral, except that we may express our disapproval while at the same time agreeing to refrain from taking it into our own hands, like a vigilante, to put a stop to actions that are legal but, in our judgment, unjust or in error. Related to the liberal virtue of tolerance but a little above it is civility, when we can muster the restraint and discipline to practice it. Finally, if we can reach so high, we treat our neighbor with magnanimity, a matter of putting the most charitable interpretation possible on his motives when we find ourselves contending with him over questions of how best to guarantee justice and thereby achieve the common good.

"Our constitution was made only for a religious and moral people," John Adams observed, in a letter widely quoted these days because it speaks so directly to how the decline of traditional standards of morality and public comportment in Western societies has coincided with a deterioration of "the liberal order," which, again, is hard to define, though we know it when we see it, or think we do. Today the contempt in which the term liberal is held across the West, including the United States, is greater than at any time since the 1960s.

Patrick Deneen, a political scientist and longstanding critic of classical liberalism, makes his case in one of the year's must-read books. Why Liberalism Failed is a lucid if gloomy-and, in the end, frustrating-attempt to explain his thesis that, unaware, the architects of the liberal order built their edifice on soft ground, into which, centuries later, we watch (some of us in trepidation, others with undisguised glee) the foundation sink and the ramparts collapse.

That's where the gloom comes in. Deneen piles on example after example of the unintended misery and desperation wrought by "liberalism." At the level of sentence structure, his tone is measured, but the cumulative effect of his syllabus of liberalism's errors is rather scolding. It's reminiscent of big-picture critiques that self-confident radicals were wont to make against the Establishment, the System, and what have you half a century ago.

What makes Deneen's account frustrating is the expansiveness of his definition of liberalism. Can it be stated in a sentence? Let me try. By liberalism Deneen means, at bottom, a doctrinaire and excessive individualism. Liberalism in his view is a philosophy according to which the value we place on individual autonomy, or freedom from societal constraints, is out of all proportion to the value we place on the freedom to belong to a family, a community, or a society. Our deep, original commitment to "freedoms from" blinds us to the "freedoms to"-the freedoms to enjoy sociality and relationality, whose value socialists and communitarians are given to emphasize (and sometimes to overstate). …

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