How The Social Order Crumbles
David Brooks reviews Patrick Deneen’s new book Why Liberalism Failed. He lays out Deneen’s argument, then comments, in part:
Deneen’s book is valuable because it focuses on today’s central issue. The important debates now are not about policy. They are about the basic values and structures of our social order. Nonetheless, he is wrong. Liberal democracy has had a pretty good run for 300 years. If the problem were really in the roots, wouldn’t it have shown up before now?
The difficulties stem not from anything inherent in liberalism but from the fact that we have neglected the moral order and the vision of human dignity embedded within liberalism itself. As anybody who’s read John Stuart Mill, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, Vaclav Havel, Michael Novak and Meir Soloveichik knows, liberal democracy contains a rich and soul-filling version of human flourishing and solidarity, which Deneen airbrushes from history.
Every time Deneen writes about virtue it tastes like castor oil — self-denial and joylessness. But the liberal democratic moral order stands for the idea that souls are formed in freedom and not in servility, in expansiveness, not in stagnation. It stands for the idea that our covenantal institutions — like family, faith, tradition and community — orient us toward higher loves and common dreams that we then pursue in the great gymnasium of liberty.
I disagree. The problems in liberalism didn’t show up until now because most people in liberal democratic countries took the Judeo-Christian moral framework for granted. If the human rights (for example) that liberalism enshrines are something real, then they have to be grounded in something transcendent. It has been observed many times that liberalism is mostly a secularized version of Christianity; there’s a lot of truth to that. As I read Why Liberalism Failed, I take Deneen as saying that liberalism had to fail because at its core it stands for liberating the individual from an unchosen obligation. Ultimately, it forms consumers, not citizens.
I don’t see Deneen airbrushing the good parts of liberalism from history, but rather honing his critique on what he believes are its structural flaws that make it unsustainable. His critique is strong, certainly, and I think dead-on, in that he sees that liberalism cannot generate within itself the virtues it needs to survive.
Deneen’s critique is also matter-of-fact. Free markets are a core part of the liberal democratic model, but given the globalized nature of the economy, and rapid technological changes, we have to face the possibility that liberalism as we have understood it is inadequate to provide for the good of workers left behind by these changes.
If we have neglected the moral order embedded within liberalism itself, on what basis can we regain it? I keep going back to Adams’s line about our Constitution is only good for a “moral and religious people,” because self-government by the people can only work for people who possess the virtues to govern their own passions. This says to me that to perceive and to achieve the virtues embedded within liberalism, one has to be oriented towards a sense that there really are moral and religious truths beyond ourselves that bind our conduct.
Liberalism has degenerated into Justice Anthony Kennedy’s famous line:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
I think most Americans today would not get what the problem is with that definition. You can’t support a governing order based on something that weak. That, I believe, is Patrick Deneen’s overall point.
(Light posting today, gang, sorry. I’m really sick with the flu. Can’t seem to shake it.)