Why Liberalism Failed
by Patrick Deneen.
Yale University Press, 2018.
Hardcover, 256 pages, $40.

Why Liberalism Failed is a timely and radical book. It is timely because it diagnoses the deep anxiety that now characterizes American life. It is radical—in the literal sense—because it seeks the cause in basic features of our political tradition. According to Deneen, liberalism has failed “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself.” By pursuing freedom as the highest value of political and social life, liberalism made real freedom impossible.

More than any other nation, America is essentially liberal. The failure of liberalism thus implies that “we may be witnessing the end of the Republic unfolding before our eyes, with some yet-unnamed regime in the midst of taking its place.” Why Liberalism Failed, then, is not just an epitaph for a political theory. It is an elegy for a doomed society.

These features are likely to win the book deserved attention from readers who agree with Deneen that our increasingly ossified class structure, assertive bureaucracies, and pornographic media (what Deneen calls “anti-culture”) don’t look much like freedom. Not all these readers will recognize, however, that Why Liberalism Failed is a traditional book as well as a timely and a radical one. To be specific, it belongs to a genre that attributes profound social and political changes to arguments in philosophical treatises. Adapting a term from academic German, the late Richard Rorty described this genre as Geistesgeschichte: the history of mind or spirit.

Geistesgeschichte has had celebrated practitioners on the political left, including Theodor Adorno and other writers associated with the so-called Frankfurt school. In the English-speaking world, it is more closely associated with intellectuals who lean right. Leo Strauss and Alasdair Macintyre are among the recognized masters of Geistesgeschichte. Richard Weaver’s most famous work summarized its basic assumption: ideas have consequences.

The great merit of Geistesgeschichte is that it forces us to consider how the conditions under which we live are influenced by ideas of which we are only dimly aware. It is probably not the case, as John Maynard Keynes asserted, that “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” But it is true that the expectations and norms that guide our behavior are often proposed and refined by philosophers and theologians before they are ever put into practice. By tracing the development and reception of ideas, we can learn to understand better why we take some beliefs and institutions for granted and reject others as absurd.

The disadvantage of Geistesgeschichte is that it encourages the conclusion that, because ideas have consequences, they are the only things that matter. Yet history is just the unraveling of implications from given premises. When it is not practiced carefully, Geistesgeschichte becomes a “just so” story. In other words, it reaches back into the past to explain why things must be exactly as we find them today, without acknowledging non-intellectual factors, contingency, and just plain chance.

Why Liberalism Failed displays both the vices and the virtues of the genre to which it belongs. At its strongest, it demonstrates the interdependence of political positions that are widely regarded as opposed. At its least convincing, it suggests that the last five centuries have been governed by an ineluctable logic that leads from Thomas Hobbes to Anthony Kennedy. In his attempt to expose the errors of liberalism, Deneen risks a kind of inverted Whig history that sees decline and corruption where liberals expected progress.

Deneen’s core argument is that the appearance of bitter disagreement that characterizes American politics is illusory. Despite their opposition on comparatively trivial matters such as taxes, both progressives and conservatives are committed to the promotion of personal autonomy. Progressives believe that the greatest threat to autonomy lies in inequality, so they use government to level differences in economic and social resources. Conservatives believe that the state is the greater danger, so they oppose such direct coercion and prefer voluntary cooperation, especially through market exchange.

Adherents of both sides, however, assume that the purpose of politics is to secure the greatest possible space for individual choice. This fundamental agreement reflects the fact that progressive and conservative are adjectives. Their meaning is determined by the noun that they modify. In Deneen’s judgment, that noun is “liberal.” Conservative or “classical” liberals and “progressive” liberals share a “fundamental commitment to liberation of the individual” and to the use of human ingenuity, particularly as expressed in natural science, to achieve that liberation.

For Deneen, therefore, the relationship between the individual and the state is one of interdependence rather than opposition. As he puts it, “the liberal state serves not only the reactive function of umpire and protector of individual liberty; it also takes on an active role of ‘liberating’ individuals who, in the view of the state, are prevented from making wholly free choices as liberal agents.” Even markets, which classical liberals regard as spontaneously occurring, are the result of coercive intervention. Echoing Karl Polanyi, Deneen notes that in the eighteenth century, traditional modes of production had to be forcibly disrupted before the English were willing to treat labor and natural resources as commodities.

In addition to Polanyi, Deneen draws on Robert Nisbet, who depicted the fascism and communism of the twentieth century as a response to nineteenth-century liberalism. According to Nisbet, liberalism dissolved the local, trade, and religious associations around with medieval society was organized. Deprived of its traditional outlet, man’s natural inclination toward community and need for assistance from others sought a focus in the national or class-based state.

Deneen acknowledges that liberalism is more successful in material and political terms than fascism or communism. For all its defects, “No other political philosophy has proven in practice that it could fuel prosperity, provide relative political stability, and foster individual liberty with such regularity and predictability.” But if liberalism is successful in providing a reasonable level of subsistence and avoiding outright tyranny, it is less successful in meeting our psychological needs. That is why the characteristic mood of a liberal society is what Alexis de Tocqueville called “restlessness”: a “strange melancholy” that arises when all opportunities are open to everyone, yet for that very reason the chances of success are infinitesimal.

“Restlessness” is a helpful way of describing the peculiar mix of panic and inertia that have been so widely reported in the wake of Trump’s election as president. Many Americans feel both that if they do not act swiftly and decisively that they will be excluded from important social goods, and that nothing they do makes any difference to their fate. And not only in their personal affairs. For the last decade, both progressive and conservative movements, Democratic and Republican administrations, have oscillated between manic activity and paralysis.

Deneen suggests that we have little prospect of escaping this condition so long as we are committed to liberal premises. The more we seek to exercise autonomous control over our lives, the more we subordinate ourselves to markets or to the state. The tragedy of American life, on this view, is not that it fails to deliver what it promises. It is that it gives us exactly what we demand.

Is this condition an inevitable consequence of a “political philosophy conceived some 500 years ago, and put into effect at the birth of the United States nearly 250 years later …”? In other words, is it primarily the result of ideas? Or a syndrome of developments that were encouraged and justified by philosophical arguments, but not produced by them? It is worth recalling that Tocqueville traced the “great democratic revolution” sweeping the West back to the admission of commoners to the priesthood and assertion by kings of a right to confer nobility. Neither of event was inspired primarily by changes in political philosophy.

Deneen,on the other hand, bases his argument on two propositions that are closer to Strauss than to Tocqueville. One is that books exercise a causal influence on society. A writer first pronounces some doctrine, in other words, and then it is put into effect. The other proposition is that liberalism is the product of a specific, relatively small set of books published between about 1550 and 1700. The founders of liberalism, on his account, were Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke.

There are number of difficulties involved with this position. Perhaps the most obvious is the fact, which Deneen openly admits, that neither Bacon nor Hobbes were liberals. Bacon articulated a vision of science as the liberation of man from natural limitation, while Hobbes derived political authority from the voluntary consent of free and rational individuals. Yet neither endorsed anything like the liberal vision of a constitutional government limited by juridical rights.

To identify liberalism with what Strauss called the “modern project,” it is necessary for Locke to be regarded as both Hobbes’s heir and the dominant influence on the American founding. Without venturing to review the enormous scholarly literature or reproducing a recent debate between Deneen and Robert Reilly on these questions, I can say that I do not find either claim fully convincing. Locke’s writings on religion show him to be, if not exactly an orthodox Christian, then considerably closer to contemporary Protestantism than Hobbes was. And whatever Locke’s private intention, it was these more conventional aspects of his doctrine that the founders of the Republic appropriated, often in combination with Greek, Roman, and common-law sources. The search for a coherent political philosophy of the founding seems to me a vain one. Although they were thoughtful and deeply read men, the framers were not scholars seeking to establish a doctrine, but statesmen trying to set up governments.

Moreover, the form that the American constitutions took—and their reciprocal influence on civil society—was not inevitable. As Tocqueville showed, the beliefs, goals, and strategies that the framers employed were less important in shaping American democracy than religious, economic, and social factors of which they were ignorant or dismissive, or that simply evaded their control. It may be true that the philosophical currents that Deneen traces back to Bacon were necessary conditions of the American founding. But they were neither sufficient nor determinative. To think so is the temptation of Geistesgeschichte.

That is not to deny that the idea of freedom plays a distinctive role in the American political tradition, which is accurately described as liberal in a broad sense. But I do not agree that it was based on a “political architecture that proposed transforming all aspects of human life to conform to a preconceived political plan.” Liberalism may have functioned that way in cases when it was imposed—generally unsuccessfully—on non-liberal societies. But its origins and the course of its development under the more favorable conditions in its countries of origins are the result of additional forces.

Yet these concerns are, at least to some extent, methodological and historiographical quibbles. The really important questions are much simpler. Compared to what is liberalism a failure? If we were to jettison liberalism what would replace it?

Because Deneen admits that liberalism has been more effective in every respect than its fascist and communist competitors, these questions are closely related. To make a just assessment, the failure of liberalism cannot mean only that it has not realized the most grandiose of promises of its most optimistic exponents (it has not), or that its benefits have come with heavy costs (they have). It must also be shown that it has been less successful than some alternative.

To meet this demand, Deneen gestures toward the possibility that new theories will emerge from practice. Like Rod Dreher, he has high hopes for intentional communities based on religious orthodoxy. By building interpersonal relationships, cultivating habits of duty and respect, and pursuing independence from the consumer economy on the local level, we may be able to recover a non-liberal form of subjectivity. Only on that basis could a postliberal theory be constructed.

At the same time, though, we should not expect that postliberal theory will answer the same questions as liberalism—at least not in the same systematic way. Deneen is probably right that the demand for an ideological replacement for liberalism is not only distinctively modern, but actually part of the problem. In seeking out a course beyond liberalism, we may find ourselves in a position that more closely resembles that of the ancients, who did not possess—and did not generally seek—a comprehensive political and moral doctrine. In this respect, he sounds a bit like the late Peter Lawler, whose “postmodern conservatism” meant a premodern acknowledgement of the limits of philosophy.

Even under postliberal or postmodern conditions, however, we would still need some notion of how government ought to be set up and how society should. I know of no better model than one that involves constitutional limits on state power, uses elections to give citizens some say over the laws under which they live, protects private property, and values the freedom of individuals to choose associations to which they will or will not belong. Deneen could rightly argue that all of these institutions have premodern origins and can be justified on very different grounds than those he criticizes in this book. Like Macaulay, Tocqueville, Gladstone, Acton, Aron, or Niebuhr, though, I know no better name for them than … liberalism.  

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science at the George Washington University, where he is executive director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom and director of the Politics & Values Program. Goldman is also literary editor of Modern Age.