My good friend and Notre Dame colleague Professor Patrick Deneen recently authored a First Things article titled “Unsustainable Liberalism.” If you haven’t read the essay, you should. It presents a boldly provocative argument that reflects deep thinking about our current political and cultural situation.
I’d like to offer a critique of Deneen’s argument. I’ll briefly summarize his view and then offer a few thoughts on what I think he gets right, but also on what he gets wrong. My position, as you will see, is not that Deneen is wrong about what ails liberalism—in fact, I think his diagnosis is spot on—but that he overlooks and understates the resources available to us through a return to America’s founding principles.
Deneen’s Critique of Liberalism
Liberalism, Deneen states, is unsustainable. It’s unsustainable because its success depends on non-liberal institutions, but the practice of liberalism undermines these very institutions. Liberalism thus contradicts itself; inevitably it will collapse.
Deneen identifies two key commitments of the liberal project: anthropological individualism and opposition to nature.
By anthropological individualism, he means that liberalism, above all, values individual choice. Liberalism values the right over the good—it prioritizes the individual’s right to form his own conception of the good over any definitive normative conception of the good. To say the same thing differently, liberalism, as Deneen nicely puts it, “dismisses the idea that there are wrong or bad choices.” Because there is no good, no real good, individuals are left to form their own conceptions of the good.
This commitment to anthropological individualism, Deneen says, is fatal to those social structures and institutions that restrain self-centeredness and individualism.
Liberalism destabilizes the family because it teaches husbands and wives that the legitimacy of all human relationships depends on choice. If you no longer choose your wife or children, you can dispense with them.
Liberalism displaces churches and civic organizations because the modern bureaucratic state provides for citizens what they cannot provide for themselves: a head start when you are a child, college loans when you are a young adult, unemployment compensation when you lose your job, Social Security and Medicare when you are a senior. Our social instincts that lead us to help others are blunted by a nanny state that cares for us throughout our lives. This frees us from having to care for others or to need their care. Liberalism, Deneen says, encourages loose connections.
Perhaps worst of all, liberalism dehumanizes the individual because it teaches him to value above all else the exercise of his will. But the value of choice isn’t just personal autonomy. Our capitalistic system directs us to exercise our wills primarily in pursuit of material and physical gratification. Liberalism teaches us to be self-centered utility-maximizing, pleasure-seeking animals.
If this seems bad, I’m only halfway through Deneen’s critique.
The other reason liberalism is unsustainable is because it is hostile to nature. Liberalism rejects the idea that we have a fixed human nature. It also rejects the idea that we should be guided or limited by nature. Deneen does not dwell long on this in his article, but one can see where he is going and what he sees as wrong.
We overcome the natural connection between sex and pregnancy with a pill and abortion. We overcome the sadness that accompanies life’s difficulties with psychotropic drugs. We may soon overcome death itself by age-enhancing developments of a modern scientific project that aims not to harness nature, but to overcome it.
The result of liberalism’s commitments to autonomy, on the one hand, and emancipation from nature, on the other, is the adolescent who spends four years of college hooking up, then gets married but encourages his wife to have an abortion because he does not have the time for a child. Eventually he divorces his wife in exchange for a series of trophy girlfriends. All the while, he makes lots of money, probably as a plastic surgeon, which he spends in his later years by purchasing all sorts of unnecessary gadgets and, of course, an unlimited supply of Viagra.
I exaggerate, but only slightly. With Obamacare now firmly in place, our fictional character will not actually have to purchase Viagra.
Is Deneen’s Liberalism America’s Liberalism?
This is a devastating critique of much of our contemporary culture, and I am largely sympathetic to it. I wonder, though, if Deneen has accurately identified the root causes of the problems he rightfully laments.
Deneen criticizes liberalism generally. He speaks of the “liberal project” and recommends that we begin to theorize what a “postliberal” polity might look like. If I understand him correctly, he is not calling for a return to liberalism properly understood or restrained, but rather for an intellectual revolution: a fundamental change in our conception of society and its proper ordering, constructed on a new political philosophy.
Here, I think, is where Deneen and I part company. I am not against revolution per se, but I think we should return to the principles of our first one. Deneen sees the pathologies of modern life as liberalism’s effects. But I wonder if instead we have departed from a healthy and proper understanding of liberalism and succumbed to temptations that liberalism makes possible.
These temptations, in my view, are not themselves a necessary product of liberalism. Moreover, let me also suggest that the path to a healthier and more sustainable society is not imaginative innovation or the development of a new political philosophy, but rather a return to our founding principles, principles grounded on truths about and a deep respect for nature.
Patrick identifies Thomas Hobbes by name and John Rawls implicitly for his understanding of liberalism. But it’s not obvious to me that, if we want to understand American liberal democracy, this is where we should start.
America’s liberal tradition begins with the Declaration of Independence. When we turn to the Declaration, we don’t find a defense of the primacy of choice and opposition to nature—the twin pathologies of liberalism that Patrick identifies. The philosophy of the Declaration, instead, begins with an assertion of truth: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Moreover, the truth held is a truth about nature—“that all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
When asked to explain the meaning of equality in the Declaration, Jefferson said the following: “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”
Jefferson turns to nature and the natural order created by God to identify America’s first and most fundamental political principle. The truth of human equality is not true because we have chosen it or asserted it. Rather, it is a truth we recognize, accept, and make the pillar of our political institutions. It is a truth that guides and limits our choices. Or, I should say, it is a truth that should limit our choices.
The greatest crimes against humanity that America has committed are slavery and abortion. Slavery was defended in the nineteenth century primarily as a matter of choice—not the choice of individuals but the choice of local communities to decide for themselves which domestic institutions they would have. Stephen Douglas put it this way in an 1858 speech in Chicago:
It is no answer to this argument to say that slavery is evil, and hence should not be tolerated. You must allow the people to decide for themselves whether they desire a Maine liquor law or not; you allow them to decide for themselves what kind of common schools they will have; what system of banking they will adopt, or whether they will adopt any at all; you allow them to decide for themselves the relations between husband and wife, parent and child, guardian and ward; in fact, you allow them to decide for themselves all other questions, and why not upon this question? When you put a limitation upon the right of the people to decide what laws they want, you have destroyed the fundamental principle of self-government.
Long before Rawls, Douglas and other defenders of slavery advanced the idea that the right is prior to the good. Today, just take Douglas’s quotation and substitute the word “abortion” for “slavery” and replace “individual” for “people” and you have Joe Biden’s defense of his pro-choice position.
Why do I bring up Stephen Douglas and Joe Biden? It is because they have both advanced an impoverished understanding of the principles of American democracy. They have failed to recognize that America, properly understood, is committed to the truth of human equality, a truth established by nature and nature’s God. What’s frustrating about Deneen’s essay is that he accepts Douglas and Biden as authentic representatives of America’s liberal tradition.
That, I believe, is an error. I think it is an error of intellectual history. It is a particularly unfortunate error because it leads us astray from finding within our tradition the principles that would help us return to a proper understanding of liberalism.
Rather than trying to create something new, I would direct us to the more modest task of recovering something we have unfortunately lost. America’s true liberal heritage is not to be found in Hobbes or Rawls, but rather in the natural rights philosophy of our founding fathers and in the natural rights statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln.
In our natural rights tradition, we can find a commitment to truth and a profound respect for nature and the natural order created by God. I also believe it offers our best hope for a more sustainable liberalism.
This essay is adapted from a lecture delivered at the 2012 Annual Center for Ethics and Culture Fall Conference at the University of Notre Dame.