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How The Social Order Crumbles

David Brooks reviews Patrick Deneen’s new book Why Liberalism Failed. [1] 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.

Read the whole thing. [1]

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 [2], 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.)

129 Comments (Open | Close)

129 Comments To "How The Social Order Crumbles"

#1 Comment By blackhorse On January 14, 2018 @ 1:10 pm

The dance between faith and public morality is a complicated one. The JC framework was in place in the antebellum era, where it served as both a bulwark for slavery and a source agitation against it. The former is an instance of the church backing an existent social order. The latter, the voice of prophecy. Deneen seems to be bemoaning the former. One can argue which is the more authentic.

#2 Comment By blackhorse On January 14, 2018 @ 2:10 pm

“I suspect that all of those posting here would be very unhappy living under a non-liberal regime–or even a seemingly “traditional” regime, if their religion wasn’t the one running things.” Particularly so in this country, in which the mot likely ‘traditional’ regime would be Protestant Fundamentalism (except that it is not traditional, but a form of postmodern reaction).

#3 Comment By Rhys On January 14, 2018 @ 2:22 pm

In thinking more about this discussion. I don’t see anything particularly new. The pragmatic materialism that Deneen decries has been a feature of our political system since the early years of the 20th century.

Our political system in the US is divided into three parts: (1) progressives; (2) traditionalists; and (3) pragmatistic materialists. Pragmatic materialism took root in the late 19th century, and represents something along the lines of a Marxism that’s been stripped of its revolutionary spirit. Its emergence at the turn of the last century likely had an ameliorating effect on our political discourse, thereby saving us from much of what occurred in Europe.

Pragmatic materialists have have shifted their alignment over the years. Until the 1930s, they had been aligned with traditionalists. In the 1930s through the 1970s, they aligned with progressives. In the late 1970s, they began to shift back towards the traditionalists.

But, just as progressives overplayed their hand in the 1960s, so too have traditionalists overplayed their hand. We pragmatic materialists tend to align with whoever is less likely to gore our ox. What’s different now from the 1970s is the lack of a Franklin Roosevelt–a leading figure who can forge a sustainable left-center alignment with pragmatic materialists. Traditionalists suffer from the same deficiency.

That’s the problem I see in our political system today. As a pragmatic materialist, I currently see traditionalists and progressives as equally unattractive. I was with traditionalists when the social issues were things like crime and welfare. I’m not so interested in policing people’s private consensual decisions concerning sex, family, and marriage. That said, left-wing identity politics is just as absurd.

The problem today is that there are no figures like Reagan or Roosevelt among progressives or traditionalists who has the leverage to forge an agreement with pragmatic materialists. To be honest, I was hopeful that Trump would do that, given that he owed very little to the GOP leadership. I was wrong. Trump has instead doubled down on the very issues that are least palatable to pragmatic materialists. Then, again, the progressive response doesn’t exactly make me want to join them either.

The recent kerfuffle over sh*thole countries is a good example. Progressives want people from these countries merely because they aren’t white. Traditionalists want to keep them out for the same reason. Lost in all of this the fact that we need a coherent immigration system that considers something more than merely the color of one’s skin.

Right now, I feel like I’m being given a choice between having my ox gored on its left side or its right side. I’d rather that it not be gored on any side. Whichever party can promise me that will probably have my vote.

#4 Comment By CMPT On January 14, 2018 @ 3:33 pm

William Dalton: “Well, that’s an easy one. God defines all of those things, for all people, regardless of their religious beliefs, regardless of their capacity to form moral or religious beliefs. God is our all in all, and we are reconciled to ourselves and our purposes and meaning in life only as we are reconciled to Him.”

Even among people who all follow the same God, there’s vehement religious disagreement on whether, as a matter of civil law, divorced people should be allowed to remarry, whether contraception and in vitro fertilization should be permitted and whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Who’s interpretation of God’s requirements should decide whether a person is legally permitted to do any of the foregoing?

#5 Comment By CMPT On January 14, 2018 @ 3:59 pm

Kris: “Liberalism is on the decline in the West . . . “

By what metrics do you conclude liberalism is on the decline?

#6 Comment By Q On January 14, 2018 @ 4:19 pm

Anne: Your framing of the radical 60s spin-off communities as ‘JaneOp’, and your analysis of their effects on the culture, have given me a lot to think about. Whether or not or how far the analogy holds, I can’t say. But it’s a darn good line.

#7 Comment By Brendan from Oz On January 14, 2018 @ 5:40 pm

“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.”

The obvious Sophistry, if not total Solipsism, of that statement is lost today. We really do think Man – or each of us – is the Measure of All Things – which is a rejection of Rational thought.

Rational thought came about as a rejection of Sophistry as well as superstition. I mourn its loss, as the results of such nonsense accumulate around us and assault Rationality from all angles.

#8 Comment By Youknowho On January 14, 2018 @ 5:50 pm

The problems of excessive individualism are the product less of liberalism than of abudance, abundance that makes people less dependent on a group, or able to change groups at will.

When survival hinges on you being part of a group, it is natural to follow the group norms, and subordinate your desires to the dictates of the group. You got nowhere else to go. You do not get to decide if those standards are good or bad. They are. You might, with time, experience, and acquired prestige change things a bit, but that is all.

Abundance means that you CAN survive outside the group, and that you need not conform to its dictates unless they make sense to you. Thus individualism is born. Not because some intellectual somewhere said something, but because YOU CAN. And that intellectual is probably getting his ideas from watching you and others like you.

And who of us would want to go back to a culture of scarcity and its hardship in order to get more cultural cohesion?

#9 Comment By David Rankin On January 14, 2018 @ 6:27 pm

Orwell wrote that loss of belief in personal immortality is the biggest problem of our time. He wrote that when Christianity was dominant as both a practice and a major influence on the ethos of Western cultures.
Since he wrote that, secular humanism has widened its scope in the West. It purports to embody a set of values that are not dependent on a transcendent source; values that, in fact, are more beneficial to the common good than are values derived from traditional sources. It vies with the remnants of traditional belief for cultural dominance. It seems to have won the day. But for how long?
In both politics and culture, almost everything seems up for grabs. The revenge of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

#10 Comment By likbez On January 14, 2018 @ 6:58 pm

The problem with the article is that the author mixed liberalism and neoliberalism:
Liberalism and neoliberalism are quite opposite ideologies.

And that error makes the article very incoherent as in one part it is talking about liberalism but in other about the neoliberalism using the same term.

Liberalism is closer to the now abandoned New Deal capitalism, then to neoliberalism
Moreover, Neoliberalism has nothing to do with Christianity. It is, in essence, a Satan-worshiping cult (“greed is good”), rejection of Christian morality.

And due to that, the notion that the USA is Christian country is false if we are talking about the US elite. The US neoliberal elite abandoned the Christianity. In total. Just look at Podesta and other miscreants.

The fact that neoliberalism is dominant in the USA and Western Europe suggests that we can talk about persecution of Christians under neoliberalism. Inflicting on them the epidemic of narco-addiction, alcoholism, and conscious efforts at destruction of family ties.

#11 Comment By Alex Brown On January 14, 2018 @ 9:22 pm

Rod, hope you feel better. But just in case:
In the Flu Battle, Hydration and Elevation May Be Your Best Weapons

And take a good rest. Be well.

#12 Comment By jessperr On January 14, 2018 @ 10:14 pm

Just a question for you, not necessarily for publication—and don’t worry, based on previous submissions, I’m expecting to give up any attempt at dialogue with you. I am no troll, just a guy disillusioned by Christianity in America, and looking for fellow pilgrims.
Here’s the Q: Do you think that monogamous, heterosexual billionaires, who “own” their own wealth as a private privilege with all the authority liberal governments allow, are more virtuous/orthodox/Christian (you choose the adjective) than the monogamous homosexual billionaire who submits his wealth to the authority of the community? Simply put, what concerns you more as a Christian thinker: the abuse of wealth as a private privilege of liberalism, or the abuse of sex?

#13 Comment By BCZ On January 15, 2018 @ 11:09 am

@RD: I recommend looking up the Sen’s work on the Liberal Paradox and commentary on it.

I think your dispute with Brooks and Deneen (and their disagreement with each other) is the difference between Liberalism as a working constellation of principles akin to ‘modern conservativism’ versus academic conservativism.

Many Liberals from FDR to Moynihan strongly endorsed (Moynihan most explicitly)the view of liberalism articulated by Brooks. It’s not fantasy. That was American Liberalism. It’s interesting how it is has disintegrated with those most interested in assaulting the ties that bind us (identity politics folks) are on the progressive wing of the Democratic movement and take seriously nearly none of the essential political philosophy of liberalism beyond radical individual liberationism.

Brooks is right to critique the broad brush, and it is easy to overread Deneen’s conclusion here as causal rather than constructivist. The intellectual currents of liberalism as he describes it always existed in it intellectual form, but among pragmatic liberals nearly everywhere it has never fully embraced the strong form he articulates so much as the strong form being taken up by various political actors.

Deneen’s book is excellent, but the narrative a litle too neat to be a plausible guide to politics as lived and chosen.

#14 Comment By Matt G On January 15, 2018 @ 11:17 am

Thanks for initiating all this discussion, Rod. I’ve found a lot of things to read, and a lot of ideas to consider, on this blog. My question is, what does a person have to already know in order to read “Why Liberalism Failed?” Could you throw this book at a reasonably well-educated high school student and have them understand it? If not, what do you have to give them first?

#15 Comment By l’autre J On January 15, 2018 @ 12:11 pm

The problem with Brooks is that he fails to realize that the things he treasures — personal virtue, community, self-restraint, temperance and so on — are not actually creations of liberalism, nor are they necessary products of it. To a large degree these came from the pre-existing culture(s) that came to the US before the founding from non-liberal societies.

You might want to read up on the Quakers, a liberal sub-society in England and then the American colonies and USA, sometime. The Quakers are pretty much the historical root of American liberalism, present and culturally prominent despite perennially small numbers in Boston and Philadelphia when and where it all began. Have a look at the Five Testimonies (or six) of the Quakers. They didn’t invent these but they did make these into core values in American liberalism from the start. These have also been significant values of the liberal German and Ashkenazi Jews, who to a large extent have been the Quakers’ successors in American culture and politics as moral leaders.

Included among these was, of course, Christianity as a prominent influence on values, virtues, community and so on. Liberalism was draped over this, but it doesn’t create this, and none of this is inherent in liberalism. The liberal system in America has “free ridden” on these inherited aspects, which stem from non-liberal sources, for pretty much the entire history of the country. But they didn’t come from liberalism.

The trad Christian denominations introduced to America were almost invariably quite conservative from the start. They’ve generally resisted, and been political imitators and free riders on and Johnny-come-latelys, the reforms led by e.g. Quakers. See Abolition, which began with Quakers in the late 1700s, led to their outmigration and expulsions from The South (which made The South different from the North and West), and was taken up by some activist Northern Protestants (those abolitionists which became famous) later.

You can say a certain level of tolerance was practiced by more trad Christians toward more liberal Christians and sorta-Christians and non-Christians during this time and this constitutes some sort of social capital, but that’s essentially a view taken from within a conservative Christian bubble. Liberals and reformers always known who their principle opponents were in America and don’t see any such dependence- “The woman who takes a fearless stand for the incoming sex ideals must expect to be assailed by reactionaries of every kind. Imperialists and exploiters will fight hardest in the open, but the ecclesiastic will fight longest in the dark. He understands the situation best of all; he best knows what reaction he has to fear from the morals of women who have attained liberty. For, be it repeated, the church has always known and feared the spiritual potentialities of woman’s freedom.” (Margaret Sanger)

The very things that Brooks values the most do not themselves come from liberalism, and it is far from clear, particularly as Western liberalism reaches its particularly illiberal/hegemonic phase culturally, actively seeking to strictly limit the permitted influence of these things which glued the society together for most of our history but did not stem from liberalism itself, that liberalism is the best system in which to preserve or even practice these things moving forward.

I doubt any serious liberal would agree with this. My impression here in quite liberal country is that the consensus is that hardcore Christian religionism be given deference to its demands to be privileged in proportion to serious need for it, i.e. linear with the amount of people who can demonstrate some material adversity to themselves not self-inflicted. Rather than pain to the ego, which in parts of the country seems to get confused with that. But among left-liberals doubts about the sanity of your side are growing as of late, with continuing bad judgment and inexcusable behavior on your team’s part reducing your side’s room for negotiation.

The difficulty is that Christian Right activists have largely chose to an all-or-nothing strategy of standing on an informally established principle of privilege (‘religious freedom’) for Christians to the extent possible. That’s thin ice to stand on, given that while the USSC decided not to overturn RFRA in the 1990s for reasons of sociopolitical accommodation of the needs of the times, the minority dissent did state nonrefutable grounds for its violating Equal Protection.

I think a part of Brooks’s brain senses this, but he is so committed to liberalism — or at least so fearful of potential alternatives — that although he sees the problem (much of his column writing bemoans the loss of these things, really), he can’t really bring himself to see that liberalism is fundamentally indifferent as to whether the things that David Brooks so cherishes fade into the mists of history completely, so long as the absolute prioritization of individual freedom of action remains paramount.

Brooks comes from a Jewish family and was raised in New York and Philadelphia, so he’s far from naive in the ways you imagine. He probably has a much better estimation of liberal creative and sustaining cultural ability than you do.

It’s unfortunate, really, because it makes a lot of what he writes rather painful to read, sadly.

Brooks lives an ecumenism or anti-tribalism which doesn’t make sense to much of anyone else. I’ve come to the view that he has made his life task an attempt to discover the perfect center of American life and society and identity and to try to manifest and understand and live and articulate the condition of Being American found there. Whether that is a worthwhile endeavor or even a sensible one at all is hard to say, with most of us probably quite skeptical that it’s either.

#16 Comment By Rob On January 15, 2018 @ 3:20 pm

Justice Kennedy’s principle is a paradox. His principle announces an imposed authority, even as it denies it. It is no less “tyrannical” than any pope, party chairman, or prejudiced tradition. The problem with Justice Kennedy’s statement is that it inherently commands others to respect another’s self-definition.
But why?
How can I live in a Muslim-only, Sharia-loving, burka-mandated community, under his principle? The answer is I cannot.
If I and a group of like-minded choose (let’s just say) to live in a particular social fashion—say with a Tsar as an absolute ruler of the group—how can we do this? If we wish to live in a group, as such, and with that political/societal constitution, we necessarily must exclude from the group anyone who does not subscribe to those tenets. There is authority, and you do not get to go your own way. Or perhaps you do, but you do not get either the benefits of the group or protection from the group itself. I.e., the group punishes or ejects you. That would run afoul of Justice Kennedy. Humans are social and interdependent animals after all.
Yes, this would violate Kennedy’s principle. For that principle, you don’t get to choose or self-define, unless you choose autonomy.
Let’s look at it another way. If I, as an American citizen, wish to subscribe to being Russian, i.e., self-define as a Russian, then I am liable to either have to emigrate or risk eventually being guilty of treason. As Belloc noted once, it is strange that one may be switch “religion,” and no one says anything, but, if a citizen announces a changed national allegiance, there is plenty to say.
Kennedy’s principle REQUIRES autonomy. He thereby, or rather, his principle, IS the unchosen authority. Regardless of what one may want, or actually be. One must self-define… as self-defining.
Kennedy is the “someone else” in charge.

#17 Comment By Rob On January 15, 2018 @ 3:21 pm

Whether or not one sees modern America as having sunk into degeneracy, or having reached its greatest vista yet, depends upon one’s vision of the Good and good community. If one sees the good or PURPOSE of political community, as providing ever more material benefits, and an ever-widening space for moral autonomy, without regard to much else, then America has progressed. If one sees the good or PURPOSE of political community, as maintaining a particular people, with a particular character, then America has undoubtedly proven a catastrophic failure and is continuing down the road of degeneracy in ad finitum.

#18 Comment By Angolo On January 15, 2018 @ 5:15 pm

“Every time Deneen writes about virtue it tastes like castor oil — self-denial and joylessness.”

That sentence is more revealing of Brooks than Deneen.

#19 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 15, 2018 @ 5:29 pm

I think it was Michael Harrington (“The Other America”) who said that every state is intrinsically a welfare state

One of the few times I appreciated William F. Buckley Jr. is when he had Michael Harrington as a guest on “Firing Line” and the moderator introduced him as “the foremost socialist in America today.” Buckley observed that this is rather like pointing out the tallest building in Witchita.

In the broadest sense, every state is established to look out for the welfare of someone. But I was channeling that original socialist slogan, “Those who work will eat.” Look up some old Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) songs or pamphlets. They lampoon capitalists in exactly the same language that conservatives have used for the last 50 years to lampoon “welfare queens.”

#20 Comment By Eliot J CLingman On January 15, 2018 @ 8:30 pm

I think both Brooks and most of the comments here are missing the forest for the trees, which is that Hobbes and Locke.. and hence liberalism… perceive the human as essentially atomistic by nature, and society as an artificial add-on based on fear of violence.

Hobbes’ theory is in direct contradiction to the proposition that a human by deepest nature is part of a community. For example, Max Weber argued against Hobbes in his book “Economy and Society”, and proposed that Gemeinschaft [community] is rooted in a “subjective feeling” that may be “affectual or traditional”, distinct to Gesellschaft [society] which are rooted in “rational agreement by mutual consent”. If Hobbes is wrong, then liberalism is untenable and will eventually be supplanted by different ways of organizing a community.

In short, this is a much more foundational conflict then the culture war politics about abortion, premarital sex or homosexuality.

#21 Comment By JonF On January 16, 2018 @ 6:07 am

Re: If Hobbes is wrong, then liberalism is untenable and will eventually be supplanted by different ways of organizing a community.

Hobbes is wrong– humans are innately social animals and our species would not have survived long after climbing down out of the trees if we weren’t. But how does that mean liberalism is wrong? Liberalism preaches social goods after all— universal healthcare etc. As opposed to the Randite option of every man for himself. The alternative to liberalism is some sort of dictatorial rule, which history finally taught us does not lead to human flourishing.

#22 Comment By blackhorse On January 16, 2018 @ 7:15 am

To “CLingman” re atoms. The Scotts Enlightenment also shared the view that man exists in community. Hume, Smith et al saw society as a series of reciprocal relations. The GOP Randers et al stubbornly deny this.

re auto “Christian Right activists chose an all-or-nothing strategy of [imposing what was] an informally established privilege. That’s thin ice to stand on” That is not freedom–that pushes toward establishment. And the face of the establishment will not be a nice, well-bread anglo -orthodoxy. It will be something more like this.. [7]

#23 Comment By Rob G On January 16, 2018 @ 7:53 am

“Simply put, what concerns you more as a Christian thinker: the abuse of wealth as a private privilege of liberalism, or the abuse of sex?”

Won’t speak for Rod, but I’d say the answer is “both.” Greed and lust are both deadly sins; we have managed to change the former into “self-interest” and the latter into “sexual liberty.” What makes the latter appear to be more important to Christians is that it’s the thing currently on the table; the transformation isn’t yet complete. On the other hand we lost it on greed a long time ago, alas, which is why you’ll hardly ever hear a sermon on the beginning section of James 5.

#24 Comment By l’autre J On January 16, 2018 @ 1:05 pm

Justice Kennedy’s principle is a paradox. His principle announces an imposed authority, even as it denies it. It is no less “tyrannical” than any pope, party chairman, or prejudiced tradition. The problem with Justice Kennedy’s statement is that it inherently commands others to respect another’s self-definition.

Oh, nonsense. There is no worthwhile distinction to be drawn between Kennedy’s formulation and Augustine’s older version of the same idea, “Dilige et quod vis fac.”

#25 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 16, 2018 @ 1:52 pm

Greed and lust are both deadly sins

Agreed. A workers cooperative commonwealth AND #MeToo.

#26 Comment By eddie too On January 17, 2018 @ 3:27 pm

self-determination, freedom for the individual to chart his/her own course through life is an essential part of both liberalism and christianity.

however, no one who chooses actions that denigrate him or herself or anyone else can be considered free. such people are enslaved to, in the liberal sense, their passions and ignorance; in the christian sense, in the sense Jesus taught, they are enslaved to sin.

#27 Comment By eddie too On January 17, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

ultimately the question is reduced to who are you going to believe, your own limited knowledge and understanding, the limited knowledge and understanding of those who have made a name for themselves in a worldly sense, or, in the only Person we know who offered Himself for our salvation, who worked miracles, including raising Himself from the dead.

some choose karl marx, others choose thomas jefferson, etc., etc., etc. i choose the Incarnate Word.

#28 Comment By Joe On January 17, 2018 @ 3:57 pm

If the problem facing the liberal order is the decline of the Judeo-Christian framework, then why does the pro-liberalism community seem to become more secular over time while illiberalism seems to be on the rise in the religious community? Maybe what you mean is that the increasing secularism of liberalism makes religious people less comfortable with it. But that frames the problem differently: it’s external to liberalism, not internal.

#29 Comment By Rob On January 18, 2018 @ 5:22 pm

Augustine’s formulation: “Love and then what you will, do”?
But Justice Kennedy’s formulation prevents just this, unless it is entirely inward-directed. That is his imposition.
To love something inherently means to hate something else.