State of the Union

Week 5—Libertarianism: Sources and Themes

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill offers both an ideal articulation of the libertarian worldview, as well as one that is both problematic and revealing. He straddles the “progressive liberal” and “libertarian” positions—but then again (as we will see next week, in the case of F.A. Hayek), so generally does libertarianism as a whole.

In contrast to the figures upon whom we focused in the first week of our course—the “classical liberal” figures like Locke and Paine—Mill’s main focus in On Liberty is not the dangers of overreaching and oppressive government, but rather, the dangers of suppression of freedom arising from a democratizing society. Mill largely takes for granted that liberalism has succeeded in establishing structures and practices that limit government. He begins On Liberty by noting the historical steps that have accomplished that goal: first, the establishment of a theory of inalienable rights; second, the political protection of those rights through the institutionalization of constitutional limits to public power; and, lastly, and most recently, the extension of political power to the populace. Yet, it is from this last solution of limiting public power from which a new threat arises: “tyranny of the majority.”

The greatest danger to liberty that now faced his time, Mill argued, was the danger of conformity to the opinions of the majority. In particular, Mill worried about the persistence and overwhelming shaping power of “custom” and “tradition” in defining acceptable and unacceptable opinion. Even where there was the existence of formal liberty (i.e., rights) and political liberty (constitutionalism), society was still dominantly defined by the rule of custom that existed beyond the realm of political solution. Liberty needs to be expanded not only politically, but to all spheres of life, and in particular, to opinion, speech, and inquiry.

A society governed by custom—hence, in Mill’s view, opinion by accretion—views dissenters and inquirers as threats to social order. He points to the examples of Socrates and Jesus as two figures who questioned the existing social order, and were executed as threats to established norms. Mill instead famously proposed to judge threats not based on compatibility with order, but whether it caused direct harm to other individuals: “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of any of their number, is self-protection That the only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Note that Mill here is speaking about the limits of the State to follow the will of the majority in limiting speech. Implicitly, Mill is calling upon the State not only to avoid interfering with free expression, opinion, and inquiry, but in fact to prevent those who might appeal to custom from interfering with the freedom of individuals.

After all, Socrates claimed that it was Aristophanes more than Meletus who had poisoned the demos against him, and it was the Pharisees who encouraged Pilate to crucify Jesus. By Mill’s understanding, public authority may be the most powerful protector of individual freedom, particularly in a society that is “custom-rich” like the one in which he regarded himself to be living (not to mention the less advanced societies such as the British colonies, e.g., India).

On Liberty is not merely a brief on behalf of liberty as an end in itself, however. Mill argues that liberty serves the end of progress. Liberty to inquire and challenge existing orthodoxies serves “the permanent interest of man as a progressive being.” Only by being liberated from the shackles of inherited opinion—most often in the form of custom and tradition—can a people begin to transform society in a progressive direction. As Mill argues, “the greater part of the world has, properly speaking, no history, because the despotism of Custom is complete.” Mill here means not that there’s no “history” in the sense that nothing happened; rather, progressive history has not been initiated in lands and places where “Custom” dominates. Only where the despotism of custom can be challenged without fear of persecution by independent-minded and free-thinking individuals can progressive history commence.

Mill seeks therefore replace a society grounded in custom with a society replete with “experiments in living.” He is particularly insistent that “persons of genius” be liberated from the “ape-like” conformity and mediocrity of ordinary people. Mill—as is almost always the case in the libertarian tradition—is an ardent defender of considerable inequality, particularly inequality born of liberated “people of genius” who are no longer restrained by the limits of custom. As I have argued elsewhere on this site, Mill sought to forge a society in which the strong and powerful would encounter few obstacles to their self-advance (which, like many libertarians, Mill could justify as ultimately benefiting society as a whole). Mill anticipates and fuels a society marked by the new inequalities of “meritocracy”—a world of winners and losers that one of our leading libertarian economists regards as an inevitable and laudatory outcome of our dynamic and progressive society.

Mill even sought to protect the elite from the rule of ordinary, custom-bound masses through proposals for plural-voting for those with education and argued for the enslavement of backward populations into industrial servitude until “history” could properly be started. Today, we find calls by libertarians for an activist Court to stringently strike down popular legislation that, for a libertarian, can be regarded as an obstacle to individual liberty—whether economic or personal liberty (e.g., popular laws that define marriage solely between a man and a woman). Following in Mill’s tradition, an active government is justified in the name of individual liberty. While libertarians have always been mistrustful of centralized government power, arguably at the very core of the tradition is a willingness to use extensive and powerful government powers to eviscerate the “despotism”—or even residue—of Custom, and thus, in freeing people from tradition and the communities that were their homes, forcing them to be free.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Read Patrick Deneen’s seminar introduction and syllabus here.

Week 4: Progressive Liberalism—Contemporary Voices

Turning from the theologically-infused liberal Protestant proponents of Progressivism of late-19th and early-20th century to some of its proponents in more recent decades, one is struck by both continuities and ruptures. In Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country—originally delivered as the Massey Lectures at Harvard University—we hear many echoes to the founders of Progressivism, including frequent invocations of John Dewey. This should not surprise us, given Rorty’s lineage: he was the maternal grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch. However, in chapters explaining the development of “modern liberalism” in Paul Starr’s Freedom’s Power, we see a concerted effort to create some distance between Starr’s updated liberalism and Progressivism. I think there are reasons to wonder whether Starr succeeds in separating the two as cleanly as he might wish.

Rorty’s short book Achieving Our Country sought to revive the fortunes of the Left from what he regarded as its lamentable embrace of cultural and identity politics. He called for a robust re-engagement with the Progressive legacy that had been established by Dewey, Croly, and Whitman, and in particular called for an embrace of the aspirational nature of the American project that had been relinquished by the Left following the disillusionment of the Vietnam War. His rhetoric, and even his theology, was deeply inspired by his Progressive forebears. Rorty called for a rejection of the idea of original sin as part of the inescapable human condition, condemning the Augustinianism of Reinhold Niebuhr and Jean Bethke Elshtain for pessimism about the potential for politics to overcome what traditional theology regarded as our fallen condition.

Instead, he evoked the names and language of John Dewey and Walt Whitman, both of whom aspired to “achieve our country,” to bring into being a nation that had been placed by Augustinians outside history with the eschaton, instead calling for the replacement of the “nation state” with the “kingdom of God.” Such an aspiration called for a reimagination of human potential, a possibility that had been created by political democracy and its generation of new human types, new forms of life, even humans with “more being” than predemocratic humans. America, Rorty argued, had been understood by the Progressives to be the “first cooperative commonwealth,” and even the usherer in of a world system that would supercede the nation-state: “the Parliament of Men, the Federation of the world.”

In contrast to Rorty, Paul Starr seeks to ground progressive (or “modern”) liberalism within the orbit of classical liberalism’s realism—thereby embracing the whole of the liberal tradition—on the one hand endorsing substantive commitments of the Progressive tradition, while at the same time disavowing aspects of Progressivism that Starr regards as based in unwarranted idealism and tending toward dangerous forms of paternalism.

Starr credits “modern” liberalism with four innovations that depart from basic aspects of “classical” liberalism:

1. Liberalism’s embrace of democracy

2. Progressivism’s call for greater economic equality (and expansion of federal government)

3. Libertarian liberalism’s call for expanded personal liberty (and a corresponding diminution of government)

4. Liberal Internationalism

Two of these are particularly worthy of some attention, numbers 2 and 3—the expansion of national power in order to address economic inequalities and promote equal opportunity; and the simultaneous commitment to decreasing both local and national power in regard to personal liberty (i.e., the demise of “morals legislation”). While these represent seemingly opposite commitments, they are born of a similar set of concerns and commitments. Emerging in reaction to growing economic inequality with the rise of the industrial revolution (and exacerbated by the dynamics of global capitalism), “modern liberalism” arises in significant part out of the same motivations of classical liberalism: in order to liberate people from unchosen, oppressive circumstances.

Progressive liberals conclude that while the political project of liberation has had considerable success, the price of that success—particularly the liberative effects of the market—have paradoxically resulted in a situation in which large numbers of people are increasingly destined for stunted lives due to penury and the narrow options for economic success. The original need to restrict arbitrary government is now amended to include more oversight over the economic concentration of power. Government—liberal government—is now seen less as an obstacle to personal liberty than as an essential partner in liberating people from the injustices of an economic system that generates titanic forms of inequality.

At the same time, a traditional role for government is enforcement of laws regarding “morals and manners.” Like straitened economic prospects, these laws and rules come under suspicion for leading to stunted and narrow experiences. Starr quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes, who writes (in words that echo John Stuart Mill) that “the theory of the Constitution is an experiment, as all of life is an experiment.” Government in the realm of private action and morality is reduced in scope and activity, born of the belief that anything should be permitted so long as no one is immediately and obviously harmed.

While one can perceive the theoretical consistency of the two positions—both aiming at affording the opportunity for varied and fully actualized life plans—at the same time one is also confronted by their contradiction. In economic matters, as a nation of citizens we are to view our fates as being bound together, with each of us owing to everyone else an obligation to afford decent prospects for a fulfilling life. Our lives are inextricably linked together, and the nation is to provide the umbrella through which our shared fate is mediated (the socialist thinker G.A. Cohen compared a nation to a camping group, in which all work together for the benefit of each other, without keeping close tabs on who brings or uses necessary goods).  While Starr abandons much of the quasi-theological rhetoric of the original Progressives, the aim is the same—to foster a sense of deep social solidarity among all citizens within the nation.

However, in the realm of personal morality, we are to regard each other as radically individuated selves whose actions should be of no concern or moment to anyone else, as long as no one is being obviously harmed. While seeking to infuse the economic realm with the mantle of morality, in the “personal” realm, the language of personal choice comes to predominate.  Progressives argue that the sum of individual choices in the economic realm has enormous implications for the social whole, requiring a commitment to redressing the social dislocations that the sum of those individual choices involve.  However, the same logic is not to apply when considering “personal choice.”  While the accumulation of various personal decisions—for instance, divorce or pornography—in fact arguably has rather profound social implications, we are largely required to ignore these in the name of the liberty of lifestyle “experimentation.” We are to adopt an attitude of “non-judgmentalism,” and even indifference.  These two core commitments of modern Progressive liberalism induces schizophrenia that so deeply informs contemporary American politics.

As we will see, the opposite tension (and even schizophrenia) applies to “Natural Rights Conservatives,” who defend an extensively unregulated market and support various forms of morals legislation. What we should notice is that the two political worldviews have been successful mainly in the areas where they are more “libertarian”: progressives in expanding the sphere of personal liberty, conservatives in defending an extensively free market order (both, of course, would likely conclude otherwise). What is noteworthy is that neither has been nearly as successful in the less “libertarian” part of their agenda, which suggests that the “contradiction” at the heart of their respective commitments has a tendency to resolve itself in the favor of social “solvents” rather than “morality.” This outcome may be deeply reflective of the overall tendency of American politics, born of the liberal tradition.

Starr finally wants to claim that “modern liberalism” is distinct from late-19th and early-20th-century progressivism in several respects. First, he claims that liberalism has made its peace with democracy. However, liberalism’s continued reliance upon courts to circumvent popular opinion (e.g., in the gay marriage issue), as well as its enthusiasm for expansion of government bureaucracy (and its close alignment with public unions) belies this claim. Secondly, he claims that modern liberalism has abandoned the “paternalism” of the old Progressives—who supported Prohibition and eugenics, among other issues. But modern liberalism’s obsession with bodily health, evident in its war upon smoking, fast food, and large sodas suggests otherwise. Its support for unlimited (and publicly funded) abortions—even its distaste for unaborted humans with Down’s syndrome—and its growing enthusiasm for euthanasia also suggests otherwise.

Lastly, Starr suggests that modern liberalism has embraced a more realist “liberal internationalism” that accepts certain inescapable aspects of power politics that aim in general for the support expansion of liberalism, though recognizes the need for realist compromise (here, he seems to be thinking of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy).  However, this stance seems to be at best a temporary commitment, with many liberals favoring the ultimate overcoming of the nation-state in favor of what might ultimately be a single liberal cosmopolity, one global nation ensuring uniformity of law, global oversight of global corporate power, and a borderless, open liberal society. One need only recall Rorty’s hopes for a “parliament of men, a federation of the world” (quoting Tennyson) to understand that a different end-game remains the aspiration of “the party of hope.”

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Read Patrick Deneen’s seminar introduction and syllabus here.

Week 3—Progressive Liberalism: Sources and Themes

There is legitimate debate over whether “progressive liberalism” constitutes a radical departure from, and even betrayal of, the basic commitments of “classical liberalism,” or whether it represents the next logical step in liberalism’s development. Both positions have merit.

Many of the original architects of “progressive liberalism” begin with an explicit rejection of several of the main constitutive beliefs that undergird “classical liberalism.” Foremost among those arguments is a critique of classical liberalism’s “anthropological individualism,” that is, the beliefs expressed by the proto-liberal Hobbes and liberalism’s architect John Locke that humans are understood to be by nature autonomous wholes, driven fundamentally by self-interest and instrumental reason. By extension, architects of “progressive liberalism” reject classical liberalism’s insistence that these basic features constitute the unchanging nature of human beings; rather, figures like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Georg W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx argue that man’s nature is not “fixed” in this way, but rather evolves and develops in historical time. Man’s nature is more “fluid” than proposed by classical liberals, a belief that lies at the heart of progressive liberalism’s greater optimism in the project of creating a universally equal and just regime—even, in the words of several authors under consideration today, ushering in the “Kingdom of God.”

At the same time, progressive liberalism shares certain fundamental commitments with classical liberalism. The first of these is a deep distrust of custom, tradition, and unchosen authority. Following upon this, the two liberalisms share a belief in individual self-fashioning, though progressivism regards such self-creation to require considerable support by broader social forces and contributions. Both traditions seek expansion of the “sphere” in which citizens and humans identify, and at least initially, regard the nation-state as the natural domain in which individual liberation from parochial limitations can be achieved (however, as we will see, more contemporary progressives increasingly view the nation as unnecessarily limiting, and instead look to the prospects of a cosmopolitan, global form of membership). Both emphasize that liberation from the past and place sets into motion the basic engine of progress, though classical liberals stress that progress is achieved in the material, scientific, and economic realms, while progressive liberals believe that such material progress augurs the moral progress of humankind as well.

The American tradition is marked by a period in which Progressive liberalism was ascendant—conveniently designated as the Progressive era. Its major philosophical architects include authors we have under discussion this week: John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Rauschenbusch. We could add to this list the significant political figures of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, among others. All of these figures are inspired by the philosophical sources and arguments that we have touched on above, but perhaps above all, were immediately inspired by the very practical concerns about how best to address the perceptible injustices, abuses, and profound inequalities that were being generated by the American economic system as the Industrial Revolution transformed American society after the Civil War. A constant refrain in this week’s readings is the pressing need to change some of the basic working assumptions of classical liberalism in order to redress the injustices generated by a dynamic but socially disfiguring economy.

One of the consequences of the political, social, and economic dynamism that was unleashed by classical liberalism was the widespread sense that it had underestimated the capacity for human transformation as well. Dewey, for example, in Chapter 5 of his short book Individualism, Old and New (“Toward a New Individualism”), praises the “old” liberalism for its success in “liquifying static property” of the type that had been prevalent in aristocratic ages, and for eliminating the local bases of social life as the economic and political system became visibly more national and “interdependent.” Dewey dismisses the “romantic” individualism that had animated the American belief in individual self-reliance (here echoing Frederick Jackson Turner’s observations that the age of the American frontier had come to a close), instead calling for recognition that it was empirically now the case that Americans were now part of a “social whole” in which no individual could be understood to exist in practical separation or individuation.

The “old individualism” had successfully undermined any vestiges of aristocratic society or Jeffersonian agrarianism, but the nation had not yet made the leap into a new age in which there would be an “organic” reconciliation of individual and society. The “liberalism of the past” had created the conditions that now required its own supercession: the advent of a new liberalism was now in view, needing the push by philosophically and socially sensitive thinkers like Dewey who envisioned humanity’s own self-transformative potential.

Herbert Croly similarly saw a fundamental transformation taking place, particularly in the lived reality of a national system of commerce, culture, and identity. However, this national system was animated by a belief in Jeffersonian independence, even as in fact the new national system reflected new forms of interdependence. He called for the creation of a “New Republic” (which would be the name of the journal that he co-founded), one that would achieve “Jeffersonian ends by Hamiltonian means.” Democracy could no longer mean individual self-reliance based upon the freedom of individuals to act in accordance with their own wishes; rather, it needed to be infused with a social and even religious set of commitments that would lead people to recognize their participation in the “brotherhood of mankind.” This aspiration had been thwarted heretofore by antiquated belief in individual self-determination, neglectful of the fact of profound and growing interdependence. That interdependence, however, was now generating the potential for “the gradual creation of a higher type of individual and higher life.” As Walter Rauschenbusch would echo in his call to establish the “Kingdom of God” on earth, a new and more deeply social form of democracy “would not accept human nature as it is, but move it in the direction of its improvement.” By overcoming the individualistic self-interest that Rauschenbusch saw informing even traditional Christian theology—whose object had traditionally been individual salvation—Rauschenbusch, like Dewey and Croly, envisioned the “consummation” of democracy in the form of the “perfection of human nature.”

While one sees calls for “collectivist” economic arrangements in the practical recommendations of these thinkers—Dewey, for instance, calls for “public socialism” and Croly writes in support of “flagrant socialism”—it would be mistaken to conclude that they are therefore antithetical to a belief in the inviolability and dignity of the individual. A consistent theme in the readings by Dewey and Croly is the belief that only by eliminating what they regard as the cramped and limiting individualism of “old liberalism” can a truer and better form of “individuality” emerge. Only through complete liberation from the shackles of unfreedom—including especially the manacles of economic degradation and inequality—can there be an emergence of a new and better form of individuality. A consistent theme is that the apotheosis of democracy will lead to a reconciliation of the “Many” and the “One,” a reconciliation of our social nature and our individuality. John Dewey writes, for instance, that “a stable recovery of individuality waits upon an elimination of the older economic and political individualism, an elimination that will liberate imagination and endeavor for the task of making corporate society contribute to the free culture of its members.”

While we will have to wait until that elimination of old liberalism is complete to know fully how that reconciliation of “individuality” and “corporate society” will be achieved, what is clear in these central and formative arguments in the Progressive Liberal tradition is that only by overcoming Classical Liberalism can true liberalism emerge. The argument continues to this day whether this represents a fundamental break with, or fundamental fruition of, the liberal project.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Read Patrick Deneen’s seminar introduction and syllabus here.

Week 2–Classical Liberalism: Contemporary Voices

This week we move from a consideration of the main sources of classical liberalism to several more contemporary voices. While many authors might have been considered, I will focus on three main features of contemporary “classical liberalism” that are worth emphasizing. They are: 1. liberalism’s creation of limited but powerful government, seen in the arguments of Paul Starr in his book Freedom’s Power; 2. liberalism as the first universal political ideology, articulated by Francis Fukuyama; and 3. liberalism’s affinity for, and ultimate taming and even suppression of, democracy. I will discuss each aspect, and conclude by suggesting potential problems arising from each that classical liberalism presents to itself.

A Limited but Powerful State

Paul Starr has written a singularly helpful book. Many of the main currents of liberalism today present a story of a fundamental break that occurred in the history of liberalism, between the “classical liberalism” of Locke and Montesquieu, which inspired (among other things) America’s constitutional tradition, and the liberalism of the 19th- and 20th-centuries, beginning with the Progressive tradition and further developed by mid-century liberals like FDR, JFK, LBJ, Tip O’Neill (among others, in the realm of politics), and Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Dahl, Louis Hartz (among others, in the realm of ideas), and later 20th-century figures like John Rawls. According both to figures in the Progressive era (e.g., Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Croly) and contemporary conservatives who are critical of the Progressives (“natural rights conservatives,” as we will see in several weeks), the progressive tradition constitutes a fundamental break with the classical liberal tradition. One finds many instances in which prominent figures in the progressive liberal tradition place themselves in opposition to the basic presuppositions of the classical liberal tradition, particularly the emphasis upon individual autonomy, a belief in individual agency and responsibility (which is contrasted to social forces), and inviolable rights (especially property rights).

Starr has been an active voice on behalf of contemporary “progressive liberalism” (and we will be reading and discussing some of those arguments in two weeks), but his book begins with a strong argument for the continuity between the classical and progressive liberal traditions and an endorsement of many of the main features of classical liberal constitutionalism. While he also finds a number of features of classical liberal constitutionalism ultimately to be wanting—particularly in light of historical, and particularly economic, developments—he nevertheless accurately perceives that there are many basic continuities within these two phases of the liberal tradition. Starr is able to see these continuities by a focus on what he describes as liberalism’s main effort to “discipline power”—not simply to minimize or decrease power but in fact, to “discipline” power in such a way that in fact allows power to increase. The frequent emphasis upon liberalism as a form of “limited government” often blinds many observers to the fact that liberalism seeks the growth, increase, and expansion of power—political, economic, scientific, and military. Liberalism is “limited” inasmuch as it claims indifference to any particular way of life: it does not presume a human telos or shared conception of the Good that ought to be the aim of all human beings. Rather, by assuming the incommensurability of our wants and desires, it seeks to organize both government and society in such a way that those wants and desires can be variously pursued in a generally peaceful and stable manner. Starr unwittingly echoes the sentiments of Machiavelli in chapter 15 of The Prince, acknowledging this basic feature of liberalism:

Earlier republicans held that politics demands a devotion to the public good, but they conceived of civic virtue as a quality that only leisured gentlemen cold be trusted to display. Skeptical of such claims, liberals looked to political institutions as machinery for the public good that could work reliably with men as they really are, not as dreamers and dissemblers might wish them to be. This impulse lay behind their rationale for representative government and the deliberative procedures embodied in it. And nothing was more critical to this aspect of the classical political discipline than dividing power. [p. 58]

Thus, power needs to be “disciplined,” particularly by devices in liberal constitutionalism such as separation of powers, checks and balances, representation, and multiplying interests to create political stalemate. But in successfully disciplining power, power becomes a reliable servant of individual pursuits and can thereby be expanded. Indeed, liberal citizens will come to demand the increase of political, economic, scientific, and military power, inasmuch as the wants and desires of liberal citizens are actually multiplied and new ones are constantly created. All of the energies of liberal societies become oriented toward “growth.” Limits that restrict our ability to pursue individual ends become the one insupportable commitment of a liberal society.

On the one hand, politics must thereby be limited: unlike classical political philosophy (e.g., Aristotelian), which argued that the aim of politics was the cultivation of human virtue for the goal of realizing the human telos, liberalism holds that government should be largely out of the business of encouraging one way of life or belief over another. In this sense, liberalism is more “limited.” However, classical political philosophy held that the goal of cultivating virtue required a polity of modest size, scope, power, wealth, and even (potentially) duration. The polity itself had to be moderate, thrifty, and virtuous. It had to be geographically small and economically modest. It was thereby less likely to be expansive and corrupt; but as a result, it was more likely to be subject to conquest and enslavement by greater powers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Aristotle’s arguments on behalf of the ideal polis occur just as Aristotle’s student Alexander the Great is absorbing the Greek poleis into the Macedonian empire.

By contrast, liberalism’s limited ends justified a potentially limitless expansion of means: in order to assist every individual’s capacity to realize his or her own personal ends, an expansion of power was required. If the aim of politics is to provide “commodious living” (in the words of Thomas Hobbes) or “indolency of the body” (in the words of John Locke), then the main aim of politics is not to influence how people lead their lives, but to assist in providing them every possible tool for the realization of their own life goals. Starr persuasively argues that this expansion of power is best achieved by “disciplining” power. Thus—ironically perhaps—the more “expansive” ends of classical political philosophy led to a more practically limited government; while the more “limited” aims of liberalism leads to the expansion of “disciplined power.” It’s not mere coincidence that the most powerful nations in the history of the world are modern liberal democracies—even more powerful than competitor dictatorial nations that organized their society’s around the goal of military might, e.g., Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Liberalism’s aim and organization of “disciplining” power allows power to expand exponentially. And, as a result (Starr will argue), requires eventually the need not only to discipline public power (the aim of classical liberalism), but also private concentrations of power, particularly economic power (a main aim of progressive liberalism).

In contrast to the arguments we will see lodged by proponents of “Natural Right Conservatism” in several weeks’ time—and even some proponents of “Progressive Liberalism”—there is warrant to believe that Progressive liberalism is in certain respects less a departure and rejection of classical liberalism than its logical successor.

Universal and Homogenous State

Some 25 years after the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s seminal article, “The End of History?,” my students—who were then not yet born—were singularly fascinated by the argument. Their horizon has been shaped by what Fukuyama predicted (and then partially recanted)—that the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the triumph of liberalism as “the end of history.” While they have vague memories of the devastation and terror of 9/11, the idea of fundamentalist Islamism serving as a viable political alternative to liberalism is not remotely a consideration for them. They are the first “post-historical” generation, born after the possibilities of fascism and communism had evaporated, having been raised in an age when liberalism apparently has no viable competitors. Fukuyama seemed to them to be describing historical fact rather than prophecy.

Inasmuch as liberalism is the “water” in which they swim, they have little capacity to understand that liberalism is not simply just “there” like the sun, air, and the sky, but was the result of philosophical ideas and daring action. Fukuyama tells a story in which the rise and triumph of liberalism was historically and naturally inevitable: it is the only regime that accords with our nature as creatures that crave “recognition” (in Hegel’s parlance) and which allows for the full unleashing of our scientific, technological, and economic ingenuity. Liberalism is the first ideology—that is, a set of ideas that seek the remaking all human societies in their image and likeness, regardless of any particular history, culture, and traditions—and leads inexorably to the creation of the “Universal and Homogenous State.” That state—hoped for by Hegel’s disciple, Alexandre Kojeve—is, on the one hand, universal, because its philosophical principles can be accepted as true anywhere and everywhere. It is homogenous because those principles require standardization of political and social life through law, education, commerce, and even a universalized mass culture. Having discerned the outlines of the universal and homogenous state, Kojeve resigned his teaching post and took up a position as a bureaucratic functionary, concluding that administratively advancing the universal and homogenous State now was more important than teaching and writing and thinking about it.

Fukuyama came to have misgivings about his own arguments for the inevitability of the “end of history” for two reasons. First, in the original article itself, and in the subsequent book revealingly entitled The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama recognized that the “end of history” would mean the triumph of the secular bourgeois human, surrounded by comfort, predictability, and security, and bored senseless—Nietzsche’s “Last Man.” Distraction through popular culture might satiate a large number of this mass, but some would prove discontent, leading, Fukuyama suspected, to a potential resumption of history as some of these figures rose up in opposition to the comfortable degradation of the “universal and homogenous state.” Perhaps the “end of history” was not the end after all.

Secondly, Fukuyama came to recognize a fundamental and inevitable contradiction between the two impulses that he attributed at the heart of liberalism’s universal appeal: its insistence upon human dignity (“recognition”), on the one hand, and its capacity to generate extraordinary scientific and technological advances, on the other. Fukuyama’s subsequent writing focused on the ways that the latter imperative, in the form of biotechnology and genetic engineering, would likely come into conflict with the former commitment. He would express his deep misgivings about liberalism’s inevitable bright future in his subsequent book Our Posthuman Future. Interestingly, as we will discuss in a few weeks, the libertarian strand of liberalism is much less worried about these developments, and begins to resemble certain characteristics of “progressive liberalism” in its cheerleading of post- and trans-humanism.

Liberal Democracy?

Lastly, with the assistance of Fareed Zakaria’s article “Illiberal Democracy,” we explored the question of liberalism’s relationship to democracy. While most of my students take for granted that liberalism and democracy are natural allies, Zakaria’s article, and discussions that one finds throughout the classical liberal tradition (including the Federalist Papers) emphasize that liberalism and democracy are strained partners at best. While there is an affinity between liberalism and democracy, for liberalism to succeed, it must restrain, “discipline,” and even in certain essential respects supress democracy.

The affinity between liberalism and democracy is found most fundamentally in liberalism’s insistence upon consent as the only basis for legitimate power and authority. While in theory liberalism can accept any form of government, including a constitutional monarchy, from the very beginning, the architects of classical liberal regimes decided that periodic consent was the best means of ensuring ongoing legitimation. While John Locke speaks of the theoretical possibility of “tacit consent” as an ongoing basis on which to ground claims of legitimacy, as a practical matter, it is difficult for people simply to pull up stakes or foment a revolution when they decide that their tacit consent no longer suffices. Elections solve a practical problem, and liberalism became wed to democracy.

But liberalism also came into being at least in part to restrain democratic impulses, particularly driven by the classical belief that democracy is simply the rule of the poor many who seek to exercise unjust power over the wealthy few. Locke forefronts property as a fundamental right, and that belief is explicitly echoed by James Madison in Federalist 10, when he states that the purpose of government is to protect the “diverse faculties of men,” particularly inasmuch as that diversity is expressed through differences in property accumulation. The mechanics of constitutionalism seek to secure ongoing popular consent, but also to restrain and even discourage active political participation. Just as classical liberal thinkers hoped and believed that commerce would take the place of war and military honor as a central activity of the government, they hoped too that private economic concerns would come to preoccupy liberal democratic citizens, lessening and even eviscerating their interest in public affairs.

Thus, while political scientists of various stripes often lament the declining interest and participation of liberal democratic citizens in political affairs (e.g., elections), considering the basic premises of the classical liberal tradition, we should not be surprised that this is one of the signs of its success. But in this case, again, we see an apparent contradiction that may imperil the marriage of liberal democracy: if the citizenry ceases to have considerable interest in exercising even nominal forms of ongoing consent, then the presumptive basis for political legitimacy becomes tenuous. While some political scientists see political disinterest as a sign of relative political health—particularly those who (largely unwittingly) follow the logic of Locke’s theory of “tacit consent”—elections practically cease to be exercises of ongoing consent and instead become captured by more intensely interested political partisans—factions—that the system was designed to disarm. The current political divisions of our polity may not be the result of discrete problems subject to a tweak, but rather emanate directly from the logic of liberalism. And if that logic continues to unfold, we can only assume that untutored democracy will use the engine of liberalism to dismantle liberalism’s achievement.

History, it seems, may not be over after all.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Read Patrick Deneen’s seminar introduction and syllabus here.

Week 1–Liberalism: Sources and Themes

We are to liberalism as fish are to water: we swim in its currents without necessarily ever stopping to consider what water is. This week we explore the medium in which we swim.

Our readings for this week are several passages from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government and selections from Yuval Levin’s book The Great Debate that focus on the thought of Thomas Paine. Rather than spending any great length of time discussing many of the particulars of these arguments, I will focus rather on several common themes one finds in these introductory readings on liberalism, as well as interesting tensions between Locke and Paine that will be relevant to future discussions.

First and most centrally, both Locke and Paine begin with the construct of the “state of nature” that is intended to reveal what is most true about the human condition—our nature. This “move” already implicitly contains a set of philosophical assumptions, foremost among which is the belief that nature can be distinguished from history, or the accumulated experience and practices of humans over time. Thus, Locke and Paine reject the idea that tradition, custom, inheritance, or generational ties are a constitutive part of our natures. Rather, we can only understand our true nature by stripping the human creature bare of all these conventional and unchosen accumulations, and at least conceptually putting us into an ahistorical situation of “the state of nature.”

In this condition we are, in Locke’s view, at once likely to be most committed to our self-preservation, and, where no conflict exists between us, at least non-confrontational toward the preservation of others. However, Locke acknowledges that a state of peace will not long persist, since the state of nature lacks a neutral authority which can resolve inevitable conflicts. Locke thus oscillates between portraying the state of nature as one in which humans are minimally cooperative and at least indifferent—and so, a condition that is not as horrific as that one described in Hobbes’s state of nature—and a condition where conflict festers and exacerbates without resolution, leading to continual and escalating retribution without prospect of resolution (much like a feud). It is a condition that is not wholly unbearable, but filled with “inconveniences.” We agree to leave that condition on relatively strong negotiating terms,  forging a social contract that creates the neutral authority of the State while retaining rights to “life, liberty and Estate.”

For both Locke and Paine, several key features of liberalism follow. Political authority—and most, if not all human relationships, for that matter—are only legitimate when based upon consent. Consent can only be given by autonomous individuals, hence, individuals that are notionally always conceivably situated in the state of nature. The terms of that consent rest upon the protection of certain rights. Government does not exist to shape or form us to certain ends (i.e., political authority does not exist with a view toward human teleology); it exists to protect our individual rights to pursue our own ends, what we each individually (or, through the joining of various associations, together) see fit.

We retain the right to remake that political contract, as well as any other relationship that we freely enter. We retain the right to “exit”—whether by withdrawing from contracts that no longer serve their purpose (e.g., leaving a political arrangement to which we can no longer consent, or rejecting the inheritance of our parents, or changing religion, or divorce of a spouse); or, in extremis, by overthrowing political powers when they cease to abide by the terms of the original contract (i.e., revolution). While revolution will be exceedingly rare, it remains perpetually as a possibility, thus serving as a regulative limit upon the State’s temptation to exercise excessive power that violates our rights.

There is a tension worth noting in this regard between Locke and Paine. For Locke, the state of nature is one that is theoretically peaceful, but likely to be riven by “inconveniences.” For Paine, humans are naturally cooperative and peaceful, and only agree to the creation of the State mainly when complexity requires. In Paine’s imagining, humans are generally good by nature, and there is the strong suggestion in his work that any human inclination toward wickedness is actually exacerbated by government. (“Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.”) As a result, Paine in this instance anticipates the “libertarian” belief in “spontaneous order.” He is also more radical than Locke in his willingness to embrace revolution as a solution to social ills, evinced in his fervent support not only for the American revolution, but the French Revolution as well.

While the “state of nature” scenario seems to be conceived simply to advance the idea that the State is the creation of individuals, it also becomes evident that in an effective sense, individuals are a creation of the State. The state of nature in fact cannot permit the full flourishing of our individuality, lacking the stability, security, and prosperity that can be attained with the establishment of the liberal state. So, while as a matter of theory the State is an artifice, notionally the creation arising from the consent of individuals, as a matter of fact the liberal individual cannot come into being without the efforts and power of the State arrayed toward that end.

For this reason, we see arguments in both Locke and Paine that at once defend the idea of a limited but strong and powerful State. The State is limited in its ends:  it does not seek to cultivate a specific human telos. However, in achieving those limited ends, the State needs and requires extensive powers. Locke justifies the preservation of the monarchical exercise of “Prerogative” toward the end of preserving the State, which is the guarantor of liberty. “Prerogative,” he argues, can even be exercised in ways that violate the letter of the law and even the terms of the social contract, in extremis. Locke anticipates Justice Jackson’s famous phrase, “the Constitution is not a suicide pact.”  In such instances, the recourse of the citizenry is not likely to be a successful revolution, but prayer.

The right that is perhaps most central in the classic liberal tradition is property. In Locke we see the argument that government comes into being less to cease a state of war than, in particular, to eliminate “inconveniences” that prevent securing of the right to property. The State comes into existence especially to protect and advance property rights, but with a very special purpose: to allow the differentiation of the “rational and industrious” from the “querulous and contentious,” or, those who are more fitted by nature or discipline to make good use of property, and those who are more likely to complain that they don’t have as much as the former.  Locke argues that such an economy benefits everyone—most obviously the former, but even the latter, since the efforts of the “industrious and rational” increase the overall prosperity of society. While liberalism envisions a society of inequality (now based upon natural difference, rather than the artificial differences of aristocracy), it can be justified to the extent that everyone stands to benefit. Liberalism’s central wager is that economic increase will provide sufficient satisfaction to everyone in society, notwithstanding potentially titanic inequalities that such a system may generate.

Paine (as discussed by Yuval Levin) is at once an enthusiast for the ability of commerce to disrupt traditional forms of social arrangements (much as Marx will suggest at the outset of the Communist Manifesto, in which he describes the power of capitalism to make “all that is solid melt into air”), but comes to favor government activity to ameliorate the condition of the poor (or Locke’s “querulous and contentious”). Paine reflects a position that will come to define the divide between contemporary liberals and conservatives on the question of the societal benefits of “laissez-faire” vs. a commitment to basic liberal equality guaranteed by the State. However, we should notice that Paine also remains committed to the basic liberal faith and hope in the liberative effects of commerce. Like Paine, most “left” and “progressive” liberals today remain at base committed to the market as a primary engine of liberal society. That faith is reflected today in the shared commitment in both political parties for global free trade, for instance, notwithstanding debates over tax rates and levels of government assistance.

Locke and Paine are both proponents of “meliorism.” Aided by the liberation of belief from tradition (including opinion and religious belief), organized skepticism toward authority, productive property aimed at material increase, the rights to movement and self-definition, and a powerful government that comes into existence for the purpose of securing these various forms of individual liberty, liberalism at its core contains a belief in, and hope for, progress. In Locke, progress is assumed to be largely material: we can increase prosperity and prolong life, but we remain selfish and blinkered creatures. We can increase the prospects of peaceful co-existence by orienting our activities toward the economic realm and the protection of personal opinion and belief without expectation of achieving societal consensus. Paine seems more sanguine about the prospects for moral improvement and one sees incipient notion that perhaps narrow self-interest itself can be overcome with the correct social arrangements. His support for the French Revolution indicates a greater faith in establishing a more utopic society, expressed in his famous phrase, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” (NB: this quote was a favorite of the 20th-century’s most lauded conservative: Ronald Reagan).

In these passages, we see the basic commitments of classical liberalism, as well as many of the divisions it will come to manifest. In many respects, it is the basic constitutive belief of modern Western people (and, according to Fukuyama in 1991—as we will discuss next week—increasingly all humanity), whose various emphases and internal tensions inspire most of the political divisions and allegiances of our age. With few and fewer exceptions, we are all liberals.

This is water.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Read Patrick Deneen’s seminar introduction and syllabus here.

Invitation to a Seminar—Liberalism and Conservatism

Greetings, TAC readers, from the frozen tundra of South Bend, Ind.

During this semester on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, I am excited to be offering a class to a group of bright undergraduates entitled “Liberalism and Conservatism.” As I explained to them last week during our first class meeting , most of them, like most of their fellow Americans, describe themselves by one of these two labels without knowing much about the intellectual traditions of either, much less the different and contesting lines of thought within each of those traditions. I’m offering the course out of “conservative” grounds: we would all be better served as citizens and thinking individuals if we knew something of the history of these—and even our own—respective beliefs. I’m offering the course on “liberal” grounds: only by “thinking critically” about traditions can we better understand them, and potentially liberate ourselves from unthinking adherence to flawed traditions.

In lieu of a weekly column that I have been writing (on and off) for TAC for the past year, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to invite readers to “take” the course along with my students at Notre Dame. I will post the syllabus here today, and beginning next week I’ll post compressed summaries of my three hours of weekly lectures on the material. I’ll also occasionally post some of the more interesting responses of my students (anonymously, of course), to give you a sense of how the “millennial” generation at the nation’s leading Catholic university thinks about and responds to these topics.

Over the course of the semester, we will be reading about and discussing six varieties of political belief: three liberal, and three conservative. They are:

LIBERAL                                    CONSERVATIVE

1. Classical Liberalism             4. Natural Rights Conservatism

2. Progressive Liberalism       5. Traditional Conservatism

3. Libertarianism                      6. Radical Catholicism

We will devote two weeks to each segment: in general, during the first week we will read from “sources” of each political belief, and the second week we will read more contemporary authors. We will be at least as interested in the relationships between each of these political beliefs as with their respective contents. None of these political beliefs exist in a vacuum, but influence each other—historically and philosophically—in fascinating ways.

As a teaser, let me point out some of the more interesting relationships not only between liberals and conservatives, but internal to each tradition as well. Classical liberalism—with sources especially in the thought of John Locke—provoked a strong initial reaction not from “conservatives” necessarily, but instead generated a reaction by figures that gave inspiration to “progressive liberalism.” Thus, among Locke’s most vocal critics were “historicist” progressive thinkers like Rousseau and Marx. Similarly, in the United States, among the most vociferous critics of Lockean philosophy of the Founders were the American progressives, John Dewey and Herbert Croly. Thus, in modern times, one of the most visceral debates has been contestation within the tradition of liberalism itself. In a development rich with irony, the rise of progressive liberalism led to a reaction by a distinctively liberal form of conservatism: “Natural Rights Conservatism.” With the ascent of progressive liberalism in the mid- and latter-part of the 20th-century, the defense of the “classical liberal” tradition came be articulated most robustly by “natural rights conservatives” (influenced by the German emigre, Leo Strauss). Thus, what was originally “liberal” became “conservative.”

Looking at each row of my “schematic,” we can see interesting dynamics between the liberal and conservative positions. If the “classical liberal” (#1) and “natural rights conservatives” (#4) are deeply similar and substantially sympathetic to one another, we see a more complicated dynamic between “progressive liberals” (#2) and “traditional conservatives” (#5) They are, on the one hand, deep and eternal antagonists, with the progressives rejecting out of hand the claims of “custom” and “tradition,” while the traditionalists harbor deep suspicion toward a progressive belief in a future that is always better and brighter. Yet, they are at the same time deeply similar in their “historicism”: both hold the basic belief that humans are historically constituted creatures whose ontological horizons are shaped by the passage of time. Of course, progressives believe that the key to human happiness lies in the future, while traditionalists point to the wisdom imparted from the past. But their basic “historicism” proves to be deeply objectionable to the a-historicist principled liberalism of both the classical liberals and the natural rights conservatives. Thus (for example), not only do Natural Rights Conservatives disagree with Progressive Liberals (a la Glenn Beck, or his academic sources, Straussian critics of progressivism such as the recently-departed Harry Jaffa and his cadre of students associated with the Claremont school, such as Charles Kesler), but they harbor deep suspicions toward Traditional Conservatives. This helps to make sense of why Leo Strauss devoted a chapter on the “Crisis of Modern Natural Rights” of his landmark book Natural Right and History criticizing not only Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but Edmund Burke as well. This also helps to explain why the Straussians and Kirkeans don’t get along all too well, even while they both strenuously believe that Progressive Liberalism is a mutual nemesis.

Or, consider the relationship between Libertarianism (#3) and “Radical Catholicism” (#6) as I have dubbed it. They are profound, deep, and eternal antagonists. However, interestingly, they straddle both liberalism and conservatism (albeit in opposite ways). Libertarianism has affinities with “Natural Rights Conservatism” (itself as a species of liberalism), while Radical Catholicism shares some overlapping consensus with concerns of Progressivism (thus, Alasdair MacIntyre’s continued interest in Marxism, particularly the Marxist critique of liberalism). Both tend to be deeply discontent with the current configuration of contemporary political parties, and would prefer a re-alignment that would either draw together or expel libertarian elements of the respective Parties. Because they have been distinct minorities in American politics, however, they have had to be content with alliances with various other positions—holding their noses the entire time. That could be changing, however, as libertarians seem to be waxing in appeal while “Radical Catholics” contemplate a “Benedict Option.”

Much more can, and will, be said about these relationships. Suffice to say, they are at least as interesting as the individual beliefs themselves, and we will give those relationships due attention as we proceed through the “semester.”

All readers are invited to be as involved as they wish in this “course”—from reading the “assignments” and commenting on my “lectures,” to simply reading my weekly lecture summaries and mulling over them in the privacy of your own mind. I will post the summary of the week’s readings each Wednesday, beginning next week.

My syllabus in full is posted below. For next week’s assignment, please read the selection from John Locke, and if you are able to procure a copy, the selected pages of Yuval Levin’s masterful book, The Great Debate. We’ll “discuss” these next week.

Just don’t ask me what will be on the test…

POLITICAL SCIENCE 306: Liberalism and Conservatism

Spring 2015: Wednesdays

Instructor: Prof. Patrick J. Deneen, The University of Notre Dame

Course Description: In this course we will examine the intellectual origins and basic features of the dominant political beliefs in contemporary American politics, Liberalism and Conservatism. The course aims to provide deeper insight into the respective beliefs, and the relationships between the different schools of thought.

We will focus on six main forms of political belief:

1. Classical Liberalism

2. Progressive Liberalism

3. Libertarianism

4. Natural Rights Conservatism

5. Traditional Conservatism

6. Radical Catholicism


Berkowitz, Peter: Constitutional Conservatism

Burke, Edmund: Reflections on the Revolution in France

Dewey, John: Individualism, Old and New

Hayek, Friedrich: The Constitution of Liberty

Levin, Yuval: The Great Debate

Mill, J.S: On Liberty

Nisbet, Robert: The Quest for Community

Starr, Paul: Freedom’s Power


January 28: Classical Liberalism—Sources

John Locke, Two Treatises on Government: II §4-8; III §19, 21; VI §73-74; V §26-28; IX (entire); XIX §221-22

Yuval Levin: The Great Debate: pp. 44-52, 92-97, 116-125, 150-168, 178-185, 207-214

February 4: Classical Liberalism—Contemporary

Paul Starr, Freedom’s Power, pp. 15-27, 53-82

Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History”

Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”

February 11: Progressive Liberalism – Sources

John Dewey, Individualism, Old and New, chs. 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 Walter Rauschenbusch, The Social Gospel, selection TBA

February 18: Progressive Liberalism – Contemporary

Paul Starr, Freedom’s Power – pp. 85-116

Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country, ch. 1

February 25: Libertarianism – Sources

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty – (Entire)

March 4: Libertarianism – Contemporary

Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, chs. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, Postscript

Nick Bostrom, “Tranhumanist Values”: Summary


March 25 : Natural Rights Conservatism – Sources

Leo Strauss: “What is Political Philosophy?”; “The Three Waves of Modernity”; “Natural Right and the Historical Approach”

April 1: Natural Rights Conservatism – Contemporary

Charles Kesler, “What’s Wrong with Conservatism” (except first and last sections)

Peter Berkowitz, Constitutional Conservatism, ch. 4

April 8: Traditional Conservatism – Sources Edmund Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France (Hackett Edition), 3-35, 43-55, 59-70, 73-85, 96-99, 148-152, 195-199, 216-218

Yuval Levin, The Great Debate, pp. 52-68, 71-82, 97-116, 128-150, 185-198, 219-222

April 15: Traditional Conservatism – Contemporary

Russell Kirk, “Burke and the Politics of Prescription” (in The Conservative Mind)

Russell Kirk, “Who Are the Conservatives?” (in A Program for Conservatives)

Roger Scruton, How to Be A Conservative, chs. 2, 10.

April 22: Communitarian Traditional Conservatism:

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, II.ii.2, “Of Individualism” II.iv.6, “Of What Kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear”

Nisbet, The Quest for Community: chs. 3-5, 6, 8, 10, 11

April 29: Radical Catholicism – Sources

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Selection TBA)

L. Brent Bozell, (“Letter to Yourselves,” pts. 1&2, from Triumph)

William T. Cavanaugh, “Killing for the Telephone Company”

May 6: Radical Catholicism—Contemporary

Michael Hanby, Christianity’s Civic Project, with responses from Rod Dreher, George Weigel (First Things, February 2015)

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Following the Science

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In 2008, Sens. Obama and Clinton fell over each other with promises to “follow the science.” They were speaking particularly in criticism of President Bush’s ban on stem-cell research and Republican resistance to the widespread findings regarding anthropogenic climate change. By “following the science,” they promised, policy would no longer be the prisoner of “political” considerations—it would be decided based upon scientific findings.

Supporters of candidates Obama and Clinton knew exactly what was implied by that phrase—”following the science”—thus short-circuiting any real discussion of what, precisely, that phrase meant, and whether there was in fact any such thing as “following the science.” Obama and Clinton’s supporters knew exactly what policy prescriptions were implied in that phrase, and never stopped to ask questions such as, “should moral and ethical considerations guide decisions in the application of scientific research?” or, “should scientific research itself be subject to ethical and moral limitations?” or, “isn’t there a reason that public policy decisions are made by elected leaders who represent a variety of constituencies, and not scientists who may have a blinkered view of what their findings entail?” Does the fact that some sick people could benefit from kidney transplants justify opening a market in kidney purchases? What of signing up poor people to engage in risky medical research for significant compensation? What of using clones for organ harvesting? How does one, in such instances, “follow the science”?

Or, consider the most recent findings that add to a bevy of research conclusions regarding oral contraception—”the Pill.” Research shows decisively that oral contraception is linked to increased risks for various forms of cancer, particularly breast cancer, which is the second leading form of cancer overall (following prostate cancer), and is estimated to be responsible for 40,000 deaths this year alone, or about 7 percent of all deaths resulting from cancer in the United States. “The Pill” is listed by the CDC and the WHO (through its International Agency for Research on Cancer) as a Group 1 carcinogen. An article this summer in The Atlantic—hardly a publication of the conservative religious right—highlighted a recent study that confirmed again what many previous studies have shown—a link between the estrogen that is ingested in the Pill, and an increased incidence of breast cancer, among other cancers.

Yet, unsurprisingly, there was no cry from President Obama or Secretary Clinton to “follow the science!” Indeed, Olga Khazan, the author of the Atlantic article, acknowledged that the usefulness of the Pill to many people (women and men alike, presumably), complicated what exact conclusions are to be drawn from the science.

As with most things OB-GYN related, that’s frustratingly confusing. The pill is essential; not getting cancer is too. How do you choose what’s more important—a lifetime of easy reproductive autonomy, or ratcheting down your risk of a deadly disease by marginal amounts?

Based on “what the science says,” the answer is presumably easy: stop taking the Pill. But based on what people actually want —indicated in the admission that the “science” needs to be considered alongside the benefits of a “lifetime of easy reproductive autonomy”—then we should not be surprised that it’s not so easy to “follow the science.”

But notice how easily these very arguments can, and doubtless someday will, be marshaled on behalf of maintaining a steady diet of carbon from the burning of fossil fuels. The Right has spent considerable effort on the activity of simply denying the validity of climate change, or even where they admit it, resort to suggesting that it’s something other than a product of human consumption of petroleum. Their main response to accumulated scientific evidence is to deny its validity, rather than to confront its implications.

But imagine if we just slightly altered a few of the phrases from the Atlantic article on the link between contraception and cancer. One can well imagine conservatives eventually saying, for instance, “As with most things energy related, that’s frustratingly confusing. Fossil fuels are essential; not making the globe warmer is too. How do you choose what’s more important—a lifetime of easy energy-assisted autonomy, or ratcheting down your risk of climate change by marginal amounts?” Or, in the slightly-altered words of an OB-GYN expert cited in the article, “For the vast majority, the usefulness of fossil fuels outweighs the risk by a huge margin.”

Here is my prediction: we are as likely to cut back on fossil fuels in order to stop climate change as women are to cut back on their consumption of oral contraceptives to avoid certain cancers and to cease the pollution of the environment. This is because when “following the science” runs squarely against “a lifetime of easy autonomy” of any form, “what the science says” will lose.

This is not simply coincidence: when we moderns speak of science, we are speaking of a specific kind of activity aimed at a specific end. We can contrast our understanding to that which preceded modern science.  Among ancient thinkers, Aristotle (for instance) engaged in “science” (though many would accuse of him of being at times a poor scientist), a form of inquiry aimed at understanding phenomena—whether “natural” or human. For a long time, this form of inquiry was understood to be an extension of philosophy, or the effort to understand phenomena, and was often called “natural philosophy.”  Thus, his “political science” was the effort to understand human nature, just as his natural science was an effort to understand plants or animals or the movement of the stars. To the extent that there was a practical implication of these studies, it was generally to understand how humans could conform to that natural order—including our own nature.

The moderns altered the meaning of the word science, particularly through the work of Francis Bacon. Bacon fiercely criticized the Aristotelian and scholastic understanding of science, instead arguing that science should not only seek to “understand” nature, but when possible, to command, alter, and master it. “Let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest,” he wrote in Novum Organum, urging that science be undertaken for the sake “of works.”  The hope, as he expressed in his utopian fantasy The New Atlantis, was to enlarge the “bounds of Human Empire.” America’s greatest Baconian—and architect of Progressivism and still-beloved philosopher of the American left—John Dewey, invoked Bacon in his recapitulation of the task of modern science:

Scientific principles and laws do not lie on the surface of nature. They are hidden, and must be wrested from nature by an active and elaborate technique of inquiry. [The modern scientist] must force the apparent facts of nature into forms different to those in which they familiarly present themselves; and thus make them tell the truth about themselves, as torture may compel an unwilling witness to reveal what he has been concealing.

(Reconstruction in Philosophy)

Both the employment of fossil fuels to power industrial and mobile modernity, and the discovery and widespread use of The Pill are legacies of this project of modern science—to extend human mastery over nature, even, when necessary, to “torture” nature. The right and the left might engage in many battles, but they agree in essence over the nature of the project of modern science; their disagreement about that project mainly lies in what constitutes the “nature” that should be conquered.

For the right (following early-modern lead of Bacon, his student Hobbes, and Locke), the conquest of nature should be aimed at “external” nature, the natural world, for the benefit of humankind. There is a residual respect for the creatureliness of humans, conceived within a frame in which humanity is radically separate from nature “out there” (an idea that Aristotle could not have conceived).

For the left (influenced by Rousseau), only through the overcoming of human “nature” (appearing always in just such quotes) can human liberation and true autonomy be achieved. The Pill is just one way that human nature is to be mastered; so, too, the ability to safely and surgically extract a fetus; to engage in embryonic stem-cell research; to redefine marriage without regard to considerations of reproduction; and, for a growing number, the hope of immortality through the project of “transhumanism.” However, the natural world is regarded as inviolable, a space that should bear no imprint of human exploitation. Like the right, the left reflects the modern divide between nature “out there” and human nature, but now it favors “the environment” over human “nature.”

In both cases, the aim is what Bacon described as “the relief of the human estate,” which has become tantamount to the securing of the greatest expansion of human autonomy. While the left and right appear to fight titanic battles over issues such as the size of the national deficit, both engage in a deeper fundamental shared project of expanding the scope of human autonomy with the assistance of applied science, or “technology.”

And if one finally considers the record, it is the advance of this shared commitment that has proven to be the heart of success of both the right and the left. The right has generally “won” in the economic realm, expanding trade and globalization, while generally losing in the realm of “social issues.” The left has generally won (and continues to gain ground) on these same “social issues,” without decreasing a jot the production and consumption of fossil fuels around the world. There is a reason why a growing number of millenials exhibit a consistent ethic of libertarianism, describing themselves in growing numbers as “socially liberal and economically conservative.” They are the progeny of the marriage (feigned as a battle) between the modern left and the right, Baconians all.

We do “follow the science”—the path laid down by the modern scientific project to master nature—down the path to ever-increasing human autonomy, which in fact requires the architecture of massive government for its achievement. And down this path lies finally the mastery of ourselves, which is also our ultimately complete subjugation. Living autonomously through technology on a ravaged planet might not have been Bacon’s hope, but it is our destiny if we continue to “follow the science.”

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

How Democracy Dies

Alexis de Tocqueville   Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856)

If there are two things that one is likely to hear from college faculty today, they are that 1. Students are too careerist, and 2. We need a more democratic society. They worry about the growing utilitarian cast of education in general, as well as the remnants of hierarchy, authority, paternalism, and inequality in today’s society.

What they generally don’t see is the deep underlying connection between these two phenomena. A familiarity with Tocqueville’s essential Democracy in America would prove enlightening.

Tocqueville expresses wonder and awe at the activity of the Americans that he encountered during his visit to the United States in 1830-31. In contrast to the relative complacency of people in their social roles in aristocratic Europe—where no amount of work, effort or activity could move one either from the ranks of the aristocrats to the commoners, or vice-versa—Americans live daily with the awareness that their station in life is one of variability, potential, and fragility. The result was a society that was, by appearances, industrious, but more deeply riven with anxiety. Thus, Tocqueville was moved to call this condition one of “restlessness,” or “inquietude,” the inability to be “quiet” or still or in a state of quiescence.

In one of his justifiably most famous chapters, Tocqueville describes the resulting social state. Chapter 13 of Part 2, Volume II of Democracy in America is entitled “Why the Americans are so Restless in the Midst of their Prosperity,” which begins:

In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords, it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures.

The chief reason for this contrast is that the former do not think of the ills they endure, while the latter are forever brooding over advantages they do not possess. It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.

I think often of this passage, having taught at three extraordinarily prestigious and famous institutions of higher learning—and having witnessed daily exactly this “cloud” upon the brows of our highest-achieving students. Far from being complacent and self-congratulatory about their membership in America’s (and, increasingly, the globe’s) elite, they are anxious and perturbed, worried about their prospects for “success” and whether they will measure up to others who are similarly blessed with such advantages—while staying ahead of those who are aiming to overtake them from below. They laugh nervously but sympathetically when I recount their momentary joy when they learned of their acceptance to an institution like Notre Dame, Georgetown, or Princeton—and their near-immediate anxiety after opening the “thick” envelope, whether they’d enroll in the right major, receive the best internships, and eventually gain admittance to the best graduate or professional schools, win the top prizes, or receive offers from the top firms. When I tell them that they will never stop worrying, that cloud on their brow darkens, but their heads nod in understanding.

Tocqueville relates that this is one of the central consequences of democracy. Democracy’s relentless drive to equalize our station in fact makes democratic humans extraordinarily fretful about their station. Having rejected the arbitrary inheritance of birthright and rank of aristocratic ages, democracies inflate especially differences of attainment in the material realm. Democratic citizens become obsessed with material markers of success—not only what one might need to lead a good and decent life, but how one’s attainments compare to others. We become driven especially to measure our worth in monetary terms, and economics and business (note the word—”busyness”) becomes the most important activity of our society.

For this reason as well, Tocqueville observed that democratic peoples would have little patience for “theory,” instead demonstrating a preference for practice. They would regard the classics as generally old and superceded opinion, instead preferring what “works.” While he never devoted a chapter to education, particularly university education, based on everything he writes elsewhere, one is justified in concluding that he would have predicted that increasingly “democratic” universities would become more elitist and “meritocratic” (though, ironically, “merit” would tend to be clustered among children of the rich), and that one could expect a growing demand for “relevant” and “practical” training in preference to study in the “theoretical” areas of humanities, arts, literature, or even theoretical sciences.

Ironically, democracy would increasingly produce workers and consumers, not citizens. Their concerns and obsessions would run almost entirely to the private realm, and the thoughts they might spare for public life would be driven by these same private concerns—what is government doing to pump up economic growth, how much of my earnings does it demand, is it supporting “upward mobility”?

When Tocqueville speaks of democracy in a more ideal sense, however, he speaks of independent citizens who demand nothing less than active participation in self-rule. He admires the spirit of liberty that he witnessed in parts of New England (where there were literal, not televised, “town hall meetings”), which imbued those participants with a belief that freedom was only achieved in conditions that permitted a flourishing of civic self-government. His worry was that “democracy” (which would incline us to materialism and privatism) would defeat democracy.

His ultimate fear was that this tendency toward privatism—especially the “restless” pursuit of thing after thing—and disinterest in the banal activities of self-government would result in an apathetic and disconnected citizenry whose main interest would be security and comfort amid the unpredictability of their economic lives. In another famous chapter, much admired by conservatives—”What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear”—Tocqueville strains to describe a new kind of tyranny that he fears and expects to arise from democracy, the rise of a mild and gentle “tutelary power” that would seek to cushion citizens against all the dangers, harms, and risks of the world. Tocqueville expresses discomfort of how best to call this kind of government, since at all times in the past, a tyranny implied a form of government imposed by force upon a people against their will. But this new specter, “democratic despotism,” arises through the invitation and desires of the democratic citizenry itself. In fact, they will call it “democracy,” not despotism. But its cost is steep:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

In contrast to democracy understood as a discipline of shared self-governance—leading to self-command and an inclination to obey laws made by oneself—Tocqueville describes here instead a people altogether infantalized by their private materialist obsessions and civic indifference. Rather than making them into men and women, this form of democracy creates perpetual adolescents: “[Democratic despotism] would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood.”

The answer to this threat, then, isn’t simply “more democracy.” Tocqueville, rather, pointed to certain arrangements in which active self-rule was more likely to occur—especially local, small-scale settings in which people would develop a strong sense of investment and care in the outcome of decisions. As our economic interests have swamped our civic commitments, our attention naturally drifts away from such smaller scales in preference for global markets (beyond our control) and government (that no longer seems to be the rule of the people).

Today, “thought leaders” are likely to call for more democracy by restraining the power of the Corporations and global market. But we need to discern more clearly that the very prominence of these institutions, along with a “tutelary” government, is itself the result of “democracy.” What we need is not “more” democracy, but better democracy—developing the arts of self-government closer to home.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame. 

A Secular Age?

Gary Blakely / shutterstock
Gary Blakely / shutterstock

Part of my summer reading included two recent books that created harmonic assonance as I serendipitously read them together. One was Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age, and the other was The Sacred Project of American Sociology by my Notre Dame colleague, Christian Smith. Bottum’s book is a engagingly-written historical, social, and theological examination of the rise of “Post-Protestantism” amid the declining fortunes of Mainline Protestantism and the growing confidence and irrelevance of traditionalist Catholicism during the 20th-century. Smith’s book is an equally engaging broadside against the putatively secular “project” of modern sociology (though his target easily extends to most of the social sciences and the humanities as well), in which he persuasively argues that academic sociology is in fact a “sacred” project whose aims are embraced with religious fervor, and departure from which is seen as blasphemy and reason for shunning.

In a word, both books are stories about the “sacred” nature of what we often call “secularism.” Bottum speaks of the decline of Mainline Protestantism and its replacement by the “Post-Protestant” denizens of academe, journalism, entertainment, business, most Protestant religious outside Evangelicalism, many liberal-leaning Catholics and non-Christians, and broad swaths of “non-elites” who have been shaped by these many leaders of culture and opinion. Smith writes of one segment of this population—sociologists—who are the embodiment of what Bottum calls the Post-Protestant “poster-children.” They are what we typically call “secular.” Both these books call into question the purported a-religiosity of this “secularism,” but rather point to the specifically sectarian nature of this particular form of “secularity”—not so much “Post-Protestant,” as Bottum describes, but Protestant after God.

What struck me through my juxtaposed reading of these two books is that they together tell the story of where Protestantism went and what Protestantism became when it ceased to be a “religion.” Bottum rightly focuses on the role of Walter Rauschenbusch in the development of Protestantism away from a “religious” religion and toward a “secular” religion. Rauschenbusch’s promotion of the “social gospel” aimed to turn Christians away from considerations of original sin, the baleful influence of Satan and temptations of evil, the failings of the human will, personal piety and prayer, and the gift of grace and redemption ultimately through Christ, and instead toward the overcoming of “social sin” and what he called “social salvation” and “the progressive regeneration of social life.” Rauschenbusch and prominent Protestants of his generation—including John Dewey, Herbert Croly, Jane Addams, and many other minor players in varied positions throughout society—helped to make Protestantism into a social and political project, even while taking it out of the churches. That process is what we call “secularization,” but it’s a deeply and distinctively religious and especially Protestant form of “secularism.”

Christian Smith fills in the express commitments of this purportedly secular, yet deeply “sacred project.” This unchurched (yet highly institutionalized) new-yet-old religion seeks to realize “the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures” (pp. 7-8; Smith’s emphasis).

Smith, like Bottum, notes the influence of early American pragmatists and progressives, as well as an ungainly alliance of modern “-isms” such as Marxism, Freudianism, feminism, post-modernism, etc. But he is also quite explicit regarding the ways of a kind of shadow Christianity: this “sacred, spiritual project parallels that of (especially Protestant) Christianity in its structure of beliefs, interests, and expectations,” including shared emphases upon moral equality and dignity, self-direction and free will, and a strongly moralistic streak about how humans ought to live (p. 18). Smith then claims that “it would not be wrong to say that sociology’s project represents essentially a secularized version of the Christian gospel and worldview,” which perhaps misstates (in similar ways to Bottum in his insistence of calling this same class “Post-Protestant”) the nature of the belief. For, each would acknowledge, it’s not merely a secular belief, but in fact a very specific set of beliefs holding that human efforts can now bring about an earthly salvation. It is still deeply biblical—without the Bible—and Christian—without Christ—and salvific—without heaven—and millennial—without the Second Coming. It is, in effect, where Protestantism went, and what it became, after it moved out of the Mainline churches and into the modern research universities and the glitzy Richard Florida cities and the tony suburbs—where it became fashionable to be “spiritual but not religious.”

“Post-Protestantism” is not in fact really “post-”religious at all, but simply a new manifestation of Protestantism (now not limited to Protestants, of course) that now exists wholly outside the churches and instead has become exclusively a political, social, and educational project, albeit one with decidedly millennialist aims to transform the world (what would have once been called to “usher in the Kingdom of God”). What we call “secularism” isn’t just a world where “God is dead.” In fact, it’s the very opposite of what Nietzsche expected (and perhaps hoped would come to pass) in a world After God. It is not a world of pitiless ubermenschen who snuff out all remnants of Christian pity, imposing instead a new order of Roman-like rule of the strong. As Terry Eagleton has pointed out, “secularists” aren’t Nietzschean at all; but where Eagleton accuses them of living inconsistently with their own post-Divine presuppositions, Bottum and Smith help us see that in fact their inspiration isn’t Nietzsche in the first place, but rather Rauschenbusch and Croly and Dewey and Rorty and Rawls. Whatever their religious origins and identities and even non-religious claims, they are still deeply Protestant, even if they have now explicitly protested Protestantism itself.

Both books acknowledge the deeply Protestant nature and origins of this new “sacred/secular” order, but don’t altogether elaborate the ways in which this is the case. But, at base, Smith’s description helps us to discern its theological core. The aims of the “emancipation,” “equality”, “autonomy,” “self-direction” of agents who live out their lives as “they personally so desire” is the natural and inevitable end-station of the Protestant embrace of individualized belief. What begins as a breaking away from The Church as a series of institutional divorces, eventually devolves into the divorce of individuals from each other, resulting finally in a society in which the only agreement that can be achieved is that we should all mutually affirm each other’s right to pursue whatever version of individual truth (or untruth) and personal gratification one might desire. Ironically, the logic of Protestantism eventually turned against its own institutionalized origins in the churches, since such a setting comes to be seen as merely an arbitrary organization that seeks to exert social control over the individual. The only legitimate umbrella organization to which we all belong becomes the State, which is increasingly viewed as the agent of our mutual liberation. Thereby, the sacred project of autonomous liberation becomes collectivist; the perfectly libertarian society is also the most perfectly Statist (a marriage we daily see coming more into focus).

What these two books also help the reader see is that this form of post-Protestant “religious” secularity is the established religion of, and increasingly indistinguishable from, liberalism as a political, cultural, and social form of human organization. It was once believed by many that liberalism was a neutral political order within which a variety of beliefs could flourish—among them, Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, etc. But what is clear both as an intellectual and theological matter as well as an observable fact from many current cultural battlefields is that what Smith describes more broadly as a “sacred project” is increasingly intolerant of competitor religions, and stridently seeks their effectual elimination by “liberal” means. It does so not in the name of some amorphous and tolerant “secularism,” but in the name of the new, and increasingly established, State religion of America. What we call “secularism” isn’t simply unbelief—it is a system of belief with distinctive “theology” without God and this-worldly eschatological hope, and it demands obeisance or the judgment of blasphemy and condemnation.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

From In Loco Parentis to Leviathan

Frontispiece of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes
Frontispiece of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

One of the fruits of the sexual revolution was the rejection of longstanding rules and guidelines governing behavior of students at the nation’s colleges and universities. Known as in loco parentis—”in place of the parent”—these institutions were understood to stand in for parents, and hence dictated rules regarding dormitory life, dating, curfew, visitations, and comportment. Adults—often clergy—were charged with patrolling the dormitory halls and campus grounds, seeking to discourage any opportunity for young people to do what teenagers and young adults have always sought to do—engage in a bit of hanky-panky beyond the watchful eye of their elders.

Some 50 years after the liberation of students from the nanny college, we are now seeing not a sexual nirvana, but widespread sexual confusion and anarchy, and a new form of in loco parentis—the Parent State.

An article that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “Fight Against Sex Crimes Holds Colleges to Account” describes how a number of universities are now under federal investigation for claims of mishandling cases of alleged sexual crime, abuse, and harassment. It details how the federal government is becoming more aggressive in compelling universities to doggedly pursue accusations of sexual harassment under provisions of the Title IX nondiscrimination statues. It also tells of reporting requirements mandated by the Clery Act, which requires all institutions of higher education that receive federal financing to disclose the number of sexual assaults on or near their campuses each year. This, and an increasingly aggressive Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education, are putting colleges and universities on notice that they had best doggedly investigate any and all accusations of sexual assault, lest they fall afoul of federal authorities and put their federal funding in jeopardy.

As a member of the faculty at Notre Dame, I recently received an email from our campus security officer reminding me that I am considered to be a “Campus Security Authority” and that I am therefore required under the Clery Act—a federal law passed in 1990—to report any and all incidents of possible sexual assault that I might encounter. This requirement applies whether I am told directly, or overhear accidentally discussions of such incidents; whether I have been asked to keep the incident confidential (perhaps even by someone who does not want to file a claim or accusation); whether they happened on or near campus (what is “near”?); whether they are rumor or third-hand tales; whether they are happening now or happened at some point in past (no evident statute of limitations, so be careful what you brag about on your 50th college reunion weekend). The email lets me know from the campus’s “Clery Manager” that am required/obligated/it is my duty/responsibility under federal law to report anything I might hear that would then be subject to further investigation.

The lifting of in loco parentis rules on college campuses was done in the name of liberating students—adults—from the watchful and even invasive eye of campus authorities. It has led to a condition of sexual anarchy in which young women especially seem to be vulnerable (“compounded by a culture of binge drinking”), according to the New York Times article. But one must speak of their safety, not vulnerability. Read More…

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How Red (State) Is Marx?

May Day, 2014

Not since the 1960s has Marx’s name been so widely invoked as a guide and sage. Except in a few academic outposts—mainly “culture studies,” not in the disciplines in which Marxism was once most vital, political science and economics—Marx had almost wholly disappeared as a serious contender of our attention. By the early 1970s, Rawls had replaced Marx as the main object of the devotions among those on the Left, by which time the Marxist experiments in Russia, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere seemed to have left it wholly discredited. The American Left had made its peace with liberalism, and while it remained egalitarian, redistributist, and enamored of centralization, it largely made its peace with capitalism.

With the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Marx is back in vogue, though—as is the case with Piketty as well—likely more invoked than read. In the backdrop of a range of statistics showing that economic inequality has deepened over the past several decades and accelerated since the Great Recession of 2008, and the broader anxiety felt nearly everywhere that the nation is heading in the wrong direction, Piketty’s argument is riding high on the wave of the Zeitgeist. Critiques of capitalism are in vogue in salons and academe and in the media, and calls for radical rethinking are the order of the day.

But as in early-20th century, those who most ardently embrace Marx tend not to be the dispossessed, but educated and wealthy elites. The revolution—such as it is—once again seems to be the cri de coeur of the nation’s educational, media, and even business liberal elites. The object of their critique would seem to be—themselves. As Matt Continetti recently documented, those most likely to be in the 1 percent (or at least 5 percent) today are documented liberals.

But, read your Marx: Marx knew that the revolution of the proletariat was not likely to be advanced by the proletariat: it would, in fact, be the enlightened segment of the bourgeoisie who would lead the charge in transforming of society. They would constitute the “vanguard” who would act on behalf of the dispossessed workers, and then rule on their behalf until society was sufficiently transformed that true equality could be established and the “State” could finally wither away.

In fact, the lower classes on whose behalf the enlightened would act could not be trusted: they were in the grip of “false consciousness,” deceived about the nature of their true condition, likely to “cling” to their religion and other backward beliefs. Marx was clear who constituted the true opposition: not the wealthy, from whom the enlightened were to be drawn; it was the lower-middle class, the “conservative” element of society. As Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto,

The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionaries, but conservative. Nay, more they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.

The elites would invoke the anxieties of these classes—wrought above all by the dislocation of capitalism—to justify the displacement of the old aristocracy with their replacement by the temporary dictatorship of the enlightened. The enlightened would rule for an unspecified time until the “reactionaries” could be re-educated, and then all divisions would cease: no more war, no more countries, no more religion, no more possessions. Imagine!—it’s easy if you try. Read More…

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The Case for “Serfdom,” Rightly Understood

Baker County Tourism / Flickr
Baker County Tourism / Flickr

Last Saturday I had the honor of addressing the 50th anniversary meeting of the Philadelphia Society. The title of the meeting was “The Road Ahead—Serfdom or Liberty?” My remarks sought to suggest that conservatives should be more circumspect about their rote incantation of the word “liberty,” and that there may even be something to be said for “serfdom,” properly understood. My remarks in full are printed, below.

“The Road Ahead—Serfdom or Liberty?”

 The Philadelphia Society Annual Meeting—50th Anniversary

Patrick J. Deneen, The University of Notre Dame

I would like to begin my remarks by calling to mind two commercials that aired at different points during the last five years. The first aired in 2010, and was produced by the Census Bureau in an effort to encourage Americans to fill out their census forms. It opens with a man sitting in his living room dressed in a bathrobe, who talks directly into the camera in order to tell viewers that they should fill out the census form, as he’s doing from his vantage as a couch potato.

Fill out the census, he says, so that you can help your neighbors—and at this point he gets out his chair and walks out the front door, past his yard and the white picket fence and points at his neighbors who are getting into their car—You can help Mr. Griffith with better roads for his daily car pool commute, he says—and then, indicating the kids next door, “and Pete and Jen for a better school,” and continues walking down the street. Now neighbors are streaming into the quaint neighborhood street, and he tells us that by filling out the census, we can help Reesa with her healthcare (she’s being wheeled by in a gurney, about to give birth), and so on… “Fill it out and mail it back,” he screams through a bullhorn from a middle of a crowded street, “so that we can all get our fair share of funding, and you can make your town a better place!”

The other ad, produced in 2012, was produced by the Obama re-election campaign, though it was not aired on television and has today disappeared from the internet. It was entitled “The Life of Julia,” and in a series of slides it purported to show how government programs had supported a woman named Julia at every point in her life, from preschool funds from a young age to college loans to assistance for a start up to healthcare and finally retirement. In contrast to the Census commercial—which portrayed a neighborhood street filled with people who knew each others’ names—“The Life of Julia” portrayed a woman who appeared to exist without any human ties or relationships, except—in one poignant slide—a child that had suddenly appeared but who was about to be taken away on a little yellow school bus, and as far as we’re shown, is never seen again. No parents, no husband, a child who disappears.

The first ad is a kind of Potemkin Village behind which is the second ad. The first ad shows a thriving community in which everyone knows each others’ names, and as you watch it—if you aren’t duped by what it’s portraying—you are left wondering why in the world would we need government to take care of our neighbors if we knew each other so well? Why is my obligation to these neighbors best fulfilled by filling out the Census form? The commercial is appealing to our cooperative nature and our sense of strong community ties to encourage us to fill out the Census form, but in fact—as the commercial tells us—it is in order to relieve us of the responsibility of taking care of each other; perhaps more accurately, it’s reflecting a world in which increasingly we don’t know our neighbor’s names, and instead turn to the government for assistance in times of need.

The second commercial is what lies “behind” the Potemkin village of the first. Read More…

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Even If Hobby Lobby Wins, We Lose

Today’s Supreme Court oral argument, in the case of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, is correctly understood to pit defenders of religious liberty against those who believe that the government has a compelling interest in requiring employers to provide contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization services through their healthcare policies. In significant part, the case hinges on whether the companies—privately held businesses whose owners are unquestionably deeply religious individuals, and who run their businesses informed by those views—can be considered “persons” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I, like many Christians, hope their case prevails.

But while the businesses are often characterized as “family-owned businesses,” each is a national business with hundreds of employees and multi-state operations. Hobby Lobby is by far the larger chain, with 640 stores that employs 28,000 individuals. While it has religiously-themed goods, plays Christian music, and closes on Sundays, in most respects it is identifiably a “big-box” store that can usually be found in major retail corridors, surrounded by acres of concrete and provisioned largely by merchandise made in China. While it is a “family-owned” business, it is hardly a mom-and-pop shop.

The dominant narrative—religious liberty against state-mandated contraception—altogether ignores the economic nature of the case, and the deeper connections between the economy in which Hobby Lobby successfully and eagerly engages and a society that embraces contraception, abortion, sterilization, and, altogether, infertility. Largely ignored is the fact Hobby Lobby is a significant player in a global economy that has separated markets from morality. Even as it is a Christian-themed brand, it operates in a decisively “secular” economic world. It is almost wholly disembedded from any particular community; its model, like that of all major box stores, is to benefit from economies of scale through standardization and aggressive price-cutting, relying on cheap overseas producers and retail settings that are devoid of any particular cultural or local distinction. The setting where one finds Hobby Lobby near us—on Grape Road in nearby Mishawaka—is about as profane imaginable a place on earth, accessible by six lanes of concrete roads where there is a heavy concentration of large chain retailers, where it anchors a sensory-deadening row of retail store fronts that border acres of cracked and barren pavement, awash in discarded plastic bags and crumpled fast food wrappers. On the rare occasion that I enter the store, even amid the Chinese mass-produced crosses and the piped in Christian music, under the endless florescent lighting and displays carefully-managed to optimize impulse buying, I am hardly moved to a state of piety, prayer, and thanksgiving. I am, like everyone else, looking for the least chintzy item at the cheapest price.

Hobby Lobby—like every chain store of its kind—participates in an economy that is no longer “religious” or even “moral.” That is, it participates in an economy that arose based on the rejection of the subordination of markets embedded within, and subject to, social and moral structures. This “Great Transformation” was detailed and described with great acuity by Karl Polanyi in his masterful 1944 book of that title. He described a sea change of economic practice that took place especially beginning in the 19th-century, but whose theoretical groundwork had been laid already in the 17th- and 18th-centuries by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith. As he succinctly described this “transformation,” previous economic arrangements in which markets were “embedded” within moral and social structures, practices, and customs were replaced by ones in which markets were liberated from those contexts, and shorn of controlling moral and religious norms and ends. “Ultimately that is why the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society: it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system.” Read More…

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What’s Wrong with Academic Freedom

Rarely do opinion pieces in college newspapers emerge as subjects of national controversy, but a recent essay by Harvard student Sandra Y.L. Korn has generated widespread denunciation among conservatives. Her essay—entitled “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom“—argues for dispensing with longstanding commitments to “academic freedom” in favor of what she calls “academic justice.” Academic freedom permits the airing and defense of any and all views, but she rightly notes that some views have come to be largely unacceptable in academia today. Since such views are not only socially unacceptable, but often discouraged or even prohibited as a matter of university policy, why should they not also be banned when they are articulated as findings of faculty research?

If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’? Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of ‘academic justice.’ When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.

As might be expected, Ms. Korn’s essay has provoked strenuous criticism, including accusations of “academic totalitarianism,” investigations into her personal background aimed at exposing her as a limousine liberal, and criticism from at least one highly visible blusterer in the conservative media.

The default position of these conservatives is that Ms. Korn is attacking the sacred holy of the academic enterprise—academic freedom. In other words, mainstream conservatives have adopted the view of … John Stuart Mill, the lion of liberalism. The same John Stuart Mill who stated that most stupid people are likely to be conservative. And perhaps he had a point. Because academic freedom is not a particularly conservative principle. Academic freedom has been the vehicle by which the universities have been transformed into liberal bastions today, but it is now the inviolable principle that conservatives are rallying around in their denunciation of a Harvard undergraduate. True to form, and as I have argued in a previous column, American conservatives tend to be subject to drift, and almost inevitably end up occupying the territory once held by liberals when they move leftward. Their rallying to apparently contentless “academic freedom” is a particularly vivid case in point.

I agree with Ms. Korn—academic institutions inevitably are dedicated to some substantial commitments, and (often with difficulty) attempt to “patrol” those boundaries, if not with sticks, more often by populating their institutions with people who generally share those commitments. “Academic freedom” was the means by which the substantial commitments once held mainly by religious institutions were initially destabilized and eventually rejected, and provided the cover for their replacement with a new set of commitments. “Academic freedom” purports to be an openness to all views and opinions, but itself contains an implicit philosophy that eventually becomes manifest in, well, Sandra Korn (who is entitled to the confident assertion of the victory that has been won on today’s campuses by her teachers). Read More…

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Liberalism’s (Un)Limited Government

Why is it that today’s liberals have become the most ardent cheerleaders of arbitrary monarchy? Wasn’t liberalism born of the effort to limit arbitrary rule of a single, unelected ruler?

No, I’m not suggesting that the Left has suddenly decided that they regret the American Revolution. But, in nearly every leading liberal magazine, newspaper and blog, there is a growing excitement and hope that Pope Francis will change the Roman Catholic Church’s “policies” on birth control, male celibate priesthood, homosexuality, gay marriage, divorce and (some, at least, though far fewer) abortion. They have celebrated the appointment of Pope Francis as a sign that the Church is finally going to join the modern world, and fervently hope that he will simply declare that those teachings are no longer valid and embrace today’s accepted orthodoxies. They yearn for executive fiat.

It is striking to witness this palpable longing in juxtaposition of the absence of any real concern on the Left about possible abrogations of the rule of law arising from President Obama’s decision to suspend the “employer mandate” until 2015, and general support of the President’s assertion that in the face of Congressional opposition that he has recourse to the “Pen and the Phone.” And, after a season of accusatory lamentation about Pope Benedict’s authoritarian treatment of the “Nuns on the Bus,” there has been deafening silence from the Left over the Obama administration’s decision to go to court to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to violate their conscience in accepting provision of contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization.

Liberalism was born, the story goes, as a reaction against arbitrary and unlimited rule by monarchs. Yet, today’s liberals seem to adore executive power when it’s used to effect their preferred ends, even hoping that one of the only remaining “monarchs”—the Pope—will single-handedly change the “rules” of the Church. They wish to exchange “fiat” in the sense of “let it be done” to “fiat” in the sense of “do as I say.”

(Of course, “conservatives” don’t escape from this general inclination—they tend also to be ardent supporters of expansive executive power when one of their own is in office, and it is generally conservative intellectuals who have been most interested in developing theories about active executive power.)

What happened to limited government, you might ask? I answer: exactly what liberalism promised. For, liberalism was never about “limited” government, but the pursuit and exercise of potentially limitless power toward seemingly “limited” ends of securing Rights. Read More…

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A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching

For most casual observers, whether Catholic or not, the main battle lines within American Catholicism today seem self-evident. The cleavage overlaps perfectly the divide between the political parties, leading to the frequently-used labels “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics. We have Nancy Pelosi and Andrew Cuomo representing the Left, and Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback aligned with the Right. Mainstream opinion has classified Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as honorary Republicans, and Pope Francis as a Democrat (hence, why he is appearing on the covers of Time and Rolling Stone magazines).

This division does indeed capture real battle lines, but more than anything, the divide is merely an extension of our politics, and—while manned by real actors—does not capture where the real action is to be found today in American Catholic circles.

The real action does not involve liberal “Catholics” at all. Liberal Catholicism, while well-represented in elite circles of the Democratic Party, qua Catholicism is finished. Liberal Catholicism has no future—like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation. The children of liberal Catholics will either want their liberalism unvarnished by incense and holy water, or they will rebel and ask if there’s something more challenging, disobeying their parents by “reverting” to Catholicism. While “liberal” Catholicism will appear to be a force because it will continue to have political representation, as a “project” and a theology, like liberal Protestantism it is doomed to oblivion.

The real battle is taking place beyond the purview of the pages of Time Magazine and the New York Times. The battle pits two camps of “conservative” Catholicism (let’s dispense with that label immediately and permanently—as my argument suggests, and others have said better, our political labels are inadequate to the task).

On the one side one finds an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century. It is closely aligned to the work of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, and its most visible proponent today is George Weigel, who has inherited the mantle from Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. Its intellectual home remains the journal founded by Neuhaus, First Things. Among its number can be counted thinkers like Robert GeorgeHadley Arkes, and Robert Royal.

Its basic positions align closely to the arguments developed by John Courtney Murray and others. Essentially, there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism. Liberal democracy is, or at its best can be, a tolerant home for Catholics, one that acknowledges contributions of the Catholic tradition and is leavened by its moral commitments. While liberalism alone can be brittle and thin—its stated neutrality can leave it awash in relativism and indifferentism—it is deepened and rendered more sustainable by the Catholic presence. Murray went so far as to argue that America is in fact more Catholic than even its Protestant founders realized—that they availed themselves unknowingly of a longer and deeper tradition of natural law that undergirded the thinner liberal commitments of the American founding. The Founders “built better than they knew,” and so it is Catholics like Orestes Brownson and Murray, and not liberal lions like John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, who have better articulated and today defends the American project. Read More…

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Corporatism and Gay Marriage: Natural Bedfellows

One of the truer sayings that comes down to us is that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Coalitions form and dissolve according to changing political winds and tides, and at times temporary partnerships are forged that are at best amusing, at worst, incoherent. The home-schooling movement has brought together anarchist hippies and conservative Christians; libertarians and social conservatives have spent some time shacked up together in their common animus against the activist liberal State; today, Catholics and evangelicals often find themselves manning the barricades against the HHS mandate. The list is long and sometimes amusing if not jarring.

One of the more remarkable partnerships that is least remarked upon today is the coalition that has formed around the effort to advance gay marriage—namely, left-leaning gay activists and corporations. If any political antipathy seemed to be permanent and unchangeable, one would have believed that it would be the Left’s hatred of the Corporation. Corporations, by the Left’s telling, represent almost everything that is wrong in contemporary America—crony capitalism, structural inequality, environmental degradation, worker indignity—in short, legalized immorality. Occupy Wall Street designated the corporation as Enemy #1, and the Left generally begins foaming at the mouth at the mere mention of Citizens United as, effectively, a coup by corporate America against democracy.

Yet, generally unremarked upon has been the deep friendliness between the Left and corporations in the most burning issue of the day (according to the Grammy Awards at least)—gay marriage. It has been particularly noticeable to me as a recently transplanted Hoosier, given recent efforts to defeat the proposed amendment banning gay-marriage in Indiana by a combination of Left gay-activists and corporations. To the extent that the amendment has run into trouble, it has been arguably because of the concerted resistance not by the activist Left—who were always going to have limited traction with an overwhelmingly Republican state legislature—but corporations.

Here is what those corporations are saying: “A ban would tell talented workers to stay out of Indiana.” According to Marya Rose, chief administrative officer for Indiana-based company Cummins, “If we have a climate in our state that makes people feel unwelcome in any way, we think that’s bad for Cummins, and we think that’s bad for business.” Similar arguments have been made by Nike in Oregon and General Mills in Minnesota. In New York, the push for legal recognition of gay marriage received major financial backing from some of the oft-denounced “wolves” of Wall Street—many of them prominent in conservative circles, especially Paul E. Singer, chairman of the conservative think-tank the Manhattan Institute. In Indiana, a coalition combining gay activists and corporations has been formed under the banner, “Freedom Indiana.”

In a period when the Left takes up the banner decrying “income inequality,” it should at least give pause to see them cozy up to corporate elites in support of their most darling issue of the day. Indeed, what is most striking is the not-so-subtle threat that is made by opponents of the Indiana gay-marriage amendment: if you pass this ban, talented people will leave, and even corporations will find it difficult to remain. The same threat that is often used by corporations to compel localities into watering down collective-bargaining powers, diluting environmental restrictions, crafting significant tax breaks and “sweetheart deals” is now being used by proponents of gay marriage to threaten the legislators of Indiana. A state struggling with high unemployment and a rust-belt economy can ill-afford to upset the Masters of the Universe.

Perhaps this is merely a marriage (no pun intended) of convenience, an instance of “strange bedfellows.” However, a deeper connection is discernible. Long before the current debate over gay marriage, modern capitalism required the redefinition of the family and marriage. Gay marriage is only the logical conclusion of a long process of the redefinition of marriage into a largely private, interpersonal bond whose main purpose is the self-actualization and personal fulfillment of the contracting individuals, to be made and remade at the convenience of both or even one of the contracting parties. Read More…

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A Culture of Life

The Supreme Court. Orhan Cam /
The Supreme Court. Orhan Cam /

Today marks the 41st anniversary of the national legalization of abortion in the United States. Thousands will march on the Mall and in the streets of Washington D.C. in protest of this decision, braving frigid temperatures and a blanket of snow to express their profound moral objection to Roe v. Wade and lamenting the estimated 55 million young lives that were legally extinguished since January 22, 1973.

The March for Life has become a rallying point for the pro-life movement, an annual pilgrimage of sorts, especially for young people who gather together to affirm a bedrock belief: the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. Even amid the overwhelming sense of tragedy and loss that draws them to D.C., in order, it is hoped, to effect a change, there is also a sense of affirmation and even celebration in the company of many others who are also so firmly committed, who gather to defend a belief that is today dismissed and mocked by cultural elites and cognoscenti (including the governor of New York, purportedly a Catholic), who find joy in the fellowship of so many companions who stand for life. As one friend posted on Facebook, “the Tribe is together.”

Amid the widespread sense of shared purpose, there is perhaps little time or inclination to reflect on a question: why gather, as Marchers do, in Washington D.C.? It is perhaps a question whose answer is self-evident: the March ends outside the Supreme Court, which continues to affirm Roe v. Wade as controlling precedent. It is the location of the president and the Senate, which ultimately has the power to make or confirm appointments to the Court. It is the nation’s media center, where such a protest has the best chance of being amplified to the nation. It is physically laid out to accommodate large protests, with its Mall almost seeming to have been designed for that purpose. It is the nation’s capital, where our elites congregate to make policy and steer the nation. Naturally, if people from all parts of the nation gather in protest of a national issue, it is not only the best place, but the only place.

However, the March’s annual presence in D.C. obscures a number of issues, above all, whether abortion is ultimately a political and even legal matter. On one level, inescapably so: it has been a political matter for decades, even a “wedge” issue that has become a defining difference between the two political parties. It is obviously a legal issue, generating countless pages of legal theory and philosophical argument, as well as scores of subsequent High Court and even more lower court decisions that have responded to ongoing challenges and debates over the issue. So perhaps no further thought is necessary—destination D.C.

However, by other considerations, treating it exclusively as a political and legal matter obscures the extent to which it is most fully a question of culture. And, if conservatives would generally tend to agree on one thing—aside from the immorality of abortion—it is that culture does not originate in Washington, D.C., or at least that it shouldn’t. Read More…

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Experiments in Living

John Stuart Mill

Yuval Levin has argued in his recent, very fine book, The Great Debate, that Edmund Burke is the pre-eminent figure at the origin of today’s contemporary conservatism (as Thomas Paine is the figure who inspires much of modern liberalism). But when one searches the American tradition for evidence of Burke’s influence, one is hard-pressed to find a robust Burkean intellectual tradition. In many ways, it had to be invented from scratch by Russell Kirk, but not until 1953 with the publication of The Conservative Mind.

America seems to be a most Burke-unfriendly place, infertile soil for the transplantation of such a strange flower. Tocqueville suggested that Americans are intuitive Cartesians, not apt to accept authority from any source outside themselves. Many of the signs suggest that the likes of Louis Hartz and Lionel Trilling were right—America has always been, and always will be, a liberal nation, a place intuitively hostile to tradition as Burke understood it.

It seems correct to me to conclude that Burke has not been a major figure in the American intellectual tradition—but the reason for this, I would argue, is not that America is preternaturally hostile to Burkean philosophy per se, but because there has been little need for Burke since most Americans were conservative not as a matter of philosophy, but as a way of life. While the  American intellectual tradition has  been dominantly liberal (the quirky exceptions such as Henry Adams and late Orestes Brownson, modestly popularized by Russell Kirk, tend to prove the rule), most Americans, generally uninterested in the world of ideas, have lived fairly conservative, tradition-bound lives.

Burke becomes necessary when a fairly conservative way of life has received a shock and longstanding conservative practice must be defended by being made into an -ism. Thus, Burke “created” conservatism in the aftermath of the French revolution, and the creation of a Burkean tradition in America by Russell Kirk became necessary as America moved into the dynamism of the post-World War II era. The same thing may be happening today amid the widespread celebration of Yuval Levin’s book: the deployment of Burke may indicate less the incipient triumph of Burke than the implicit recognition that liberalism has advanced yet further. And that advance today is nothing short of the cessation of a longstanding conservative way of life for most Americans.

The ascendant intellectual figure of our time is not Burke—nor Paine—but John Stuart Mill. Ironically, Mill is often regarded as a great hero of conservatism, lauded especially for his libertarian formulation of the “Harm Principle,” his argument that individuals should enjoy the greatest possible exercise of personal liberty until and unless it results in some measurable harm to others. Many conservatives with passing knowledge of Mill have some positive regard for what they think they know of his philosophy.

But Mill was no conservative: he was the midwife of modern liberalism, and in many ways the arch-foe of Burke, apres la lettre. Mill is perhaps best known for some of the arguments he advanced in his 1859 classic work, On Liberty. While many of today’s libertarian admirers of Mill tend to assume that Mill’s “Harm Principle” speaks primarily about limiting government’s rule over individual liberty, Mill was mainly concerned not about oppressive laws per se, but about the constraints that public opinion could forge. As he opens his work by recognizing, in England of his day, “the yoke of opinion is perhaps heavier, [and] that of law lighter, than in most other countries of Europe; and there is considerable jealousy of direct interference, by the legislative or executive power, with private conduct….” Writing at the dawn of the era of popular sovereignty, he acknowledged that someday popular opinion might be translated directly into popularly-mandated coercive government power; but at that moment, “the majority have not learnt to feel the power of the government [as] their power, or its opinions their opinions.” What concerned Mill, then, was not coercive law, but oppressive public opinion.

What was this oppressive form of opinion? Mainly, it was ordinary, everyday morality—what he witheringly criticized as “Custom.” While Mill at times argued that a good society needed a balance of “Progress” and “Custom,” in the main, Mill was a decided critic of Custom as the enemy of human liberty and a proponent of Progress as a basic aim of modern society. To follow Custom is to be fundamentally unreflective and mentally stagnant. “The human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is a custom, makes no choice.”

Custom may have once served a purpose, Mill acknowledges—in an earlier age, when “men of strong bodies or minds” might flout “the social principle,” it was necessary for “law and discipline, like the Popes struggling against the Emperors, [to] assert a power over the whole man, claiming to control all his life in order to control his character.” But today, Custom dominates too extensively (note: Custom, not Law); and that “which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.” The unleashing of spontaneous, creative, unpredictable, unconventional, often offensive forms of individuality was the object of Mill’s praise. By unleashing extraordinary individuals from the rule of Custom, society might be transforming and transformed.

But note that Mill was explicit that this was especially beneficial for the most educated, the most creative, the most adventurous, even the most powerful. A society based on Custom constrained individuality, and those who craved most to be liberated from its shackles were not “ordinary” people but people who thrived on flouting the basic assumptions of what constituted normal society. Mill called for a society premised around “experiments in living”: a society as test-tube.

We live today in a Millian world: everywhere, at every moment, we are to be engaged in experiments in living. Custom has been largely routed: much of what today passes as “culture”—affixed with the adjective “popular”—consists of the flouting, mocking, ironizing and dismissal of Custom. Society has been transformed along Millian lines in which everyone is to be engaged in “experiments in living,” liberated from the dominion of “judgmentalism” and rather embracing any and every form of “diversity.”

Mill understood better than contemporary Millians that this would require the dominance of the “best” over the “ordinary.” In relatively more advanced societies, a society premised on the rejection of Custom would require greater political representation of the society’s most “advanced” elements. For Mill, this would be achieved through the fundamentally (and today offensively) inegalitarian distribution of voting rights, in which those with a higher education would be accorded more votes. In our purportedly more egalitarian age, this same end is achieved through somewhat subtler means—the manipulation of public opinion by cultural elites through the media and control of key institutions like higher education, law schools, journalism and entertainment. For less advanced societies, Mill argued that outright enslavement of backward populations may be necessary until they could be sufficiently set on a path of progressive advancement. This would mean, first and foremost, forcing them to work and care more about being economically productive than attracted to wasteful activities like worship or leisure.

For much of American history, while Americans were not philosophically interested in Burke, they were Burkeans in practice. Most Americans lived in accordance with Custom—with basic moral assumptions concerning fundamental human norms that accompanied a good life. You should respect authority, beginning with your parents. You should display modest and courteous comportment. You should avoid displays of lewdness or titillation. You should only engage in sexual activity once married. Once married, you should stay married. You should have children—generally, lots of them. You should live within your means. You should thank and worship the Lord. You should pay respects to the elderly and remember and acknowledge your debts to the dead.

Mill would dismiss these behaviors as unthinking Custom; Burke would praise them as essential forms of “prejudice.” He wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France

In this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings, [and] that, instead of throwing away our old prejudices, we cherish them….We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock of each man is small, and that the individuals do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages…. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes part of his nature.

Mill feared the tyranny of public opinion, expressed through Custom, but Burke argued rather that the tyrannical impulse was far more likely found in the impulses of the “innovators” and might be retarded by the restraints of Prejudice. It was the unshackled powerful that were to be feared, not the custom-following ordinary citizens.  Burke saw a  close relationship between the revolutionary and tyrannic impulse, made particularly insidious when the Great could claim the mantle of popular legitimacy: “The spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper…. When they are not on their guard, [the democratists] treat the humbler part of the community with the greatest contempt, whilst at the same time, they pretend to make them the depositories of their power.”

Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that “everything is allowed.” It is a society organized for the benefit of the strong, as Mill recognized. By contrast, a Burkean society is organized for the benefit of the ordinary—most people who benefit from societal norms that the Great and the Ordinary alike are expected to follow. A society can be shaped for the benefit of most people by emphasizing mainly informal norms and customs that secures the path to flourishing for most human beings; or it can be shaped for the benefit of the extraordinary and powerful by liberating all from the constraint of Custom, mainly through the obliteration of Custom. Our society was once shaped on the basis of the benefit for the many Ordinary; today it is shaped largely for the benefit of the few Strong.

The results of this civilizational transformation are accumulating everywhere we look. The Strong are flourishing: congregating in the wealthy counties around Washington D.C., New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and the like, they participate merrily in a society that disassembles all the old Customs, while their growing wealth insulates them against the ravages of our new economy shorn of the old ways. Beyond their vision, in the “fly-over” country, their countrymen are sinking in the quicksand of their new liberties. Pre-marital sex, abortion, out of wedlock birth, an epidemic of fatherless children, the incapacity to hold down secure employment in a globalized and increasingly automated economy—these and a host of other social ills are the fruits of their liberty. Experiments in living will lead to a few successes and many failures; the latter are part of the price of success for the Strong.

The deepest irony of our absurd age is a political narrative that claims our Millian liberals are the party who succors the Ordinary. But compare the amplitude of the calls for gay marriage (which, it turns out, will not preclude ongoing “experiments in living”) to the utter silence regarding the epidemic of fatherless children in America, and ask yourself who benefits from “experiments in living.”

And because we have no real Burkean intellectual tradition, in the main our conservatives are simply a different Millian flavor—mainly economic, that is, libertarian Millians.  Arguably, America’s  the leading Burkean scholar today – Harvey Mansfield, a longtime teacher of conservatives at Harvard University, who wrote his dissertation on Burke, subsequently published as his first book – has failed to interest his legions of students in the thought of Burke.  From his perch at Harvard, Mansfield has educated much of what passes for today’s conservative intelligentsia, shepherding scores of dissertations and placing many of his students in prominent academic or intellectual positions of influence. As a sign of his influence and the esteem in which he is held, two Festschrifts have been written for Mansfield, together containing some forty essays by several generations of students. Of those forty essays, only one is explicitly a study of Burke—but it is a study of Leo Strauss’s Burke, not Burke himself. None of his students, to my knowledge, has written a book on Burke. Machiavelli, yes, in several instances—but Burke, no.  America’s leading intellectual conservatives have generally been uninterested in the thought of Burke.  But we can ill-afford this neglect, for the sake of our countrymen.

At one time Americans did not need Burke because we were practical Burkeans; but today we need Burke because we no longer have Custom. Sadly, however, once you need to draft Burke into the battle, you have probably already lost the war.

Patrick J. Deneen teaches political theory at the University of Notre Dame.

Follow @PatrickDeneen

Would Someone Just Shut That Pope Up?

Since the release of Evangelii Gaudium there have been countless articles and commentary about the economic portions of Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation. Some of the commentary has been downright bizarre, such as Rush Limbaugh denouncing the Pope as a Marxist, or Stuart Varney accusing Francis of being a neo-socialist. American conservatives grumbled but dutifully denounced a distorting media when Pope Francis seemed to go wobbly on homosexuality, but his criticisms of capitalism have crossed the line, and we now see the Pope being criticized and even denounced from nearly every rightward-leaning media pulpit in the land.

Not far below the surface of many of these critiques one hears the following refrain: why can’t the Pope just go back to talking about abortion? Why can’t we return the good old days of Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI and talk 24/7/365 about sex? Why doesn’t Francis have the decency to limit himself to talking about Jesus and gays, while avoiding the rudeness of discussing economics in mixed company, an issue about which he has no expertise or competence?

There are subtle and brash versions of this plea. At “The Catholic Thing,” Hadley Arkes has penned a characteristically elegant essay in which he notes that Francis is generally correct on teachings about marriage and abortion, but touches on these subjects too briefly, cursorily and with unwelcome caveats of sorts. At the same time, Francis goes on at length about the inequalities and harm caused by free market economies, which moves Hadley to counsel the Pope to consult next time with Michael Novak. The upshot—be as brief as the Gettysburg Address in matters pertaining to economics, and loquacious as Edward Everett when it comes to erotics.

On the brash side there is Larry Kudlow, who nearly hyperventilates when it comes to his disagreement with Pope Francis, accusing him of harboring sympathies with Communist Russia and not sufficiently appreciating Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. (R. R. Reno, who is briefly allowed to get a word in edgewise, wisely counseled Kudlow not to fight the last war—or, the one fought three wars ago, for that matter.) Revealingly, Kudlow counsels the Pope to concentrate on “moral and religious reform,” and that he should “harp” instead on “morality, spiritualism and religiosity,” while ceasing to speak about matters economic. Similarly, Judge Napolitano, responding to a challenge from Stuart Varney on why the Pope is talking about economics, responded: “I wish he would stick to faith and morals, on which he is very sound and traditional.”

These commentators all but come and out say: we embrace Catholic teaching when it concerns itself with “faith and morals”—when it denounces abortion, opposes gay marriage, and urges personal charity. This is the Catholicism that has been acceptable in polite conversation. This is a stripped-down Catholicism that doesn’t challenge fundamental articles of economic faith. Read More…

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