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Deneen on Liberalism

Deneen on Liberalism
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Statue_of_Liberty_approach-300x193Why Liberalism Failed. By Patrick J. Deneen. Yale University Press, 2018. Xix + 225 pages. Reprinted from Mises.org

Patrick Deneen’s thoughtful book poses a challenge to libertarians. Deneen, a political theorist who teaches at Notre Dame, has with great force identified a fundamental tendency of our times. Destruction of traditional attachments to family, local institutions, culture, and virtuous behavior isolates individuals and makes them dependent on an all-powerful government. In arguing in this way, Deneen shows himself an apt disciple of Tocqueville, about whom he has elsewhere written at length.

Deneen writes, “An earlier generation of philosophers and sociologists noted the psychological condition that led increasingly dislocated and disassociated selves to derive their basic identity from the state.. . .A population seeking to fill the void left by the weakening of more local memberships and associations was susceptible to a fanatical willingness to identify completely with  a distant and abstract state.” (p.59)

The renowned sociologist Robert Nisbet described this process with insight: “Shorn of the deepest ties to family {nuclear as well as extended), place, community, region, religion, and culture, and deeply shaped to believe that these forms of association are limits upon their autonomy, deracinated humans seek belonging and self-definition through the only legitimate form of organization available to them: the state.”(p.60)

Deneen also provides a penetrating analysis of the modern university. “The guiding imperative of education became progress, not an education in liberty derived from a deep engagement with the past. . . [The humanities today emphasize] radical emancipatory theory focused on destroying all forms of hierarchy, tradition and authority, liberating the individual through the tools of research and progress….The humanities and social sciences also focus on identity politics and redressing past injustices to specific groups, under the ‘multicultural’ and ‘diversity’ banners that ironically contribute to a campus monoculture.”(pp.118, 122)

All this is well said, but why does the book pose a challenge to libertarians?  The libertarian Albert Jay Nock would have applauded Deneen’s remarks on education, and the great historian of classical liberalism Ralph Raico often stressed the importance of civil society.   Many libertarians view Nisbet with favor. Indeed, as Deneen knows full well, Tocqueville, on whom he relies for his depiction of individuals unmoored from local attachments, hardly counts as an enemy of classical liberalism.

Deneen knows that there are “conservative liberals,” but he thinks they have missed the root of the problem. Both classical and modern liberalism are the product of efforts by early modern thinkers to overturn the virtue and self-restraint taught by classical philosophy. “The foundations of liberalism were laid by a series of thinkers whose central aim was to disassemble what they concluded were irrational religious and social norms in the pursuit of civil peace that might in turn foster stability and prosperity, and eventually individual liberty of conscience and restraint.”{p.24} Among these thinkers were Machiavelli, Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke.

Locke is especially important, as he certainly counts as an ancestor of classical liberalism. As Deneen sees matters, Locke replaced classical natural law with the unlimited pursuit of material gain. ”Locke’s thesis was that ongoing and continuous growth of wealth and prosperity could function as a replacement for social cohesion and solidarity.”(p.139)

Behind this interpretation of Locke lies another thinker whom Deneen does not mention, though he has elsewhere discussed him: Leo Strauss. Deneen, like Ernest Fortin and Robert Kraynak, is a Catholic Straussian, and one might call Why Liberalism Failed “Leo Strauss meets Wendell Berry.”1 Strauss was a great scholar, and Deneen follows his riveting narrative of a break between ancient and modern philosophy. But he does not tell us that the Straussian account is controversial, and there is much to be said against it.

It is certainly true that Locke allowed more scope for accumulation than the ancients, but it hardly follows from this he wished to free people from all self-restraint. To the contrary, he defended divine and natural law and argued for the existence of God. To this, Strauss and his followers counter that Locke was a dissembler: he was a secret atheist and rejected natural law as traditionally understood, his references to the “judicious [Richard] Hooker” to the contrary notwithstanding.

The arguments in support of this by the Straussians do not strike me as persuasive, but this is not the place to debate the issues.2 Rather, my criticism of Deneen is that he does not inform his readers that his understanding of Locke is controversial. He does not engage with any of the accounts of Locke by contemporary analytic philosophers, e.g., Michael Ayers, Locke: Epistemology and Ontology, Matthew Stuart, Locke’s Metaphysics.and Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality, none of which concurs with the Straussian picture.  Deneen does not weigh the evidence; instead, he just sets forward his own account.

This is unfortunately not the only instance in which Deneen presents a one-sided view. He says, “Descartes and Hobbes in turn argued that the rule of irrational custom and unexamined tradition—especially religious belief and practice—was a source of arbitrary governance and unproductive internecine conflicts, and thus an obstacle to a stable and prosperous regime.” (p.25) He does not mention that, pending the completion of his ambitious project of reconstruction, Descartes states as a  maxim in his “provisional moral code” in Part Two of the Discourse on Method: ”to obey the laws and customs of my country, holding constantly to the religion in which by God’s grace I had been instructed from my childhood.” Of course, the Straussians view this as not Descartes’ “real” position; but, once more, my complaint here is not that they are wrong but that Deneen declines to respond to views that counter his own.

Even when Deneen deigns to note conflicting opinions, his way with dissenters is “short and sure.” Referring especially to the work of the great medieval historian Brian Tierney, he says, “Some scholars regard liberalism simply as the natural development, and indeed the culmination, of protoliberal thinking and achievements of this long [Roman and Christian] period of development, and not as any sort of radical break from premodernity.” (p.23) He says that the view is “worthy of respectful consideration” but does not provide it, instead passing on to offer his own account.

Deneen has little use for the free market. Guided by Karl Polanyi and Wendell Berry, he favors “developing economic practices centered on ‘household economics,’ namely economic habits that are developed to support the flourishing of households but which in turn seek to transform the household into a small economy.”(p.193) I confess that I do not share the admiration for Wendell Berry found in some circles.3 If he is a philosopher, it is of the “crackerbarrel” sort.But the point once again is not to dispute Deneen but rather to note his failure to consider alternatives to his own views. He discusses only two professional economists:  one, Stephen Marglin, is like him a critic of the effect of economic development on community. He has also read Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over, a book which, whatever its merits, is not a work of economic theory. He mentions Hayek but does not appear conversant with any of Hayek’s work in economic theory. Mises is not mentioned, and if Deneen is familiar with the economic theory—as opposed to philosophy or speculations about the future—of any modern economist, he has kept his knowledge carefully concealed.

One question in particular he ought to have asked himself: Would the small-scale economy he favors be able to support the world’s population? That appears an issue undreamed of in Deneen’s philosophy.
Despite these problems, though, Deneen’s insights about the state merit great praise.
  • 1.I have the impression, though, from his brief remarks (p.81), that his interpretation of Vico differs in emphasis from that of Strauss. https://wslamp70.s3.amazonaws.com/leostrauss/s3fs-public/Vico%20%281963%29%20_0.pdf
  • 2.For my criticisms of the Straussian interpretation of Locke, see my review of Michael Zuckert, Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy. https://mises.org/library/launching-liberalism-lockean-political-philosophy-michael-zuckert
  • 3.For a discussion of Berry, see http://takimag.com/article/we_will_berry_youthe_flaky_socialism_of_the_crunchy_cons/print#axzz54JZGdWV1
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Profile photo of David Gordon

Dr. Gordon is the editor of The Mises Review, and a contributor to such journals as Analysis, The International Philosophic Quarterly, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, and The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.

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