Today I direct your attention to a review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, one of the most talked-about books of the year so far, over at CT. The liberalism which Deneen has in view has nothing to do with the political views of progressives or present-day Democrats. Instead it is the governing philosophy which underlies much of American democracy, including contemporary liberalism and conservatism.
The big idea here is that liberalism failed, basically, by succeeding. Every aim which liberalism sought to achieve has been achieved, and we are all the worse for it. For instance, liberalism claims to limit government and hold it accountable yet we see government–run by an unaccountable executive-branch bureaucracy–encroaching into every area of daily life. It affirms the dignity of all people and seeks better standards of living yet generates tremendous economic inequality. It pays lip service to diversity and multiculturalism but underneath the surface it forms us all into a homogeneous people who all think the same and want the same things. It promises to free us from the constraints of nature via science and technology but turns us all into consumers who rob the future for the sake of immediate gratification.
In short, liberalism aspires to free us as individuals from all the traditions, values, judgments, and relationships that burden us, but we’re left feeling lonely, empty, and unfree. And as Americans increasingly feel this gap between liberalism’s promises and real life, we will go looking for a strong man to fix our problems. The 2016 elections gave us a taste of the autocracy in store, and Deneen suggests that more can be expected.
There are two basic problems with liberalism: anthropological and theological. The anthropological problem is that liberalism views the individual as fundamentally autonomous. If family/community traditions and expectations constrain you, cast them off. Be your own person. The problem with this is that it becomes the government’s job to remove all obstacles to one’s individual freedom. Thus individual freedom and the growth of the state go hand in hand, as the state grows ever larger and moves into ever more areas of life to ensure that individuals remain free.
Ironically, as Deneen observes, the growth of individual freedom is connected to the growth of the state. The state moves into more and more areas of life to ensure people remain “free.” In other words: “Statism enables individualism, individualism demands statism.” No longer do we view ourselves in relationship to this middle layer of community and culture—churches, families, and all the cultural institutions which comprise our local communities. Rather, we become dependent on this large, abstract, impersonal state to maximize our freedom.
When economic anxiety hits or the culture war turns against us, maybe we tinker with our laws. Maybe we look for a better candidate. Yet the real problem is systemic. It goes all the way back to the anthropological assumptions we began making at the American Founding, assumptions learned from writers like Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. Both sides of today’s culture war, moreover, have been duped. The only real difference is method. Conservatives work for individual liberty and equal opportunity through a free market. Progressives aim at economic equality and freedom from traditional social norms through the government. Yet right and left are the two sides of “the same counterfeit coin,” says Deneen.
Just think: Are you surprised the Republican Party leadership keeps betraying Christian social values? You shouldn’t be. Both parties operate by the same deeper principle: upholding the primacy of the sovereign individual, no matter what that individual demands.
Liberalism might pretend to be neutral between different views of the good life, but in fact, it colonizes our institutions. It shapes how we think. It’s a sectarian wolf in a non-sectarian sheep’s clothing.
The theological problem is even deeper: In liberalism, it’s all about freedom. This runs contrary to the Christian way of looking at things, in which freedom is limited by other concerns, chiefly justice. If you are a Christian, you don’t get to use your freedom to, for example, terminate an unwanted pregnancy or redefine marriage or ask someone of a different race to go sit at the back of the bus. But liberalism can’t say this, because it’s all about freedom. It knows of no substantive way to define justice, other than whatever wins the most votes. It cannot define justice in any way that isn’t completely dependent upon time and place.
Christians know, however, that governments exist most fundamentally to do justice (Gen. 9:5–6; 1 Kings 3:28; Prov. 29:4; Rom. 13:1–7). Which means justice, not freedom, should be a Christian’s preeminent political value. Freedom is a secondary political good and should always be constrained by justice.
When we make freedom our uppermost value, we effectively make it a god. Freedom is like a car you can drive in a good direction or a bad one. That’s why George Washington and John Adams said their form of government worked well among a virtuous people but less well among an unvirtuous people.
And here I think Deneen is on to something, even if he misidentifies the culprit. The real culprit is our idolatry of freedom. When freedom becomes the only value proclaimed in our classrooms and movies and Fourth of July speeches, it soon colonizes everything. We lose the ability to distinguish between a just freedom and an unjust freedom. We have nothing to say to the woman who wants the freedom to abort her child. There is no other publicly satisfying moral language left.
The culprit is not anthropology, per se. In fact, liberalism learned to affirm the dignity of every individual from Christianity. If a parent abuses a child or a man his wife or a mother her unborn child, we want the state to intervene on behalf of that individual—not because we pit the individual against family, but because God has given the state jurisdiction precisely there.
Liberalism’s trouble is that it wants the flower (the dignity of every individual) while cutting off its roots (the fact that we’re created in God’s image). It wants the anthropology without the theology. And such flowers never last.