This essay is part of a series on Liberalism. See the full collection here

In his response to my critique of his First Things article “Unsustainable Liberalism,” my colleague Patrick Deneen says I do not adequately address his primary criticism of liberalism. Let me try again.

Deneen traces the ultimate cause of America’s problems back to the belief that political legitimacy is derived from the voluntary choice of citizens. “Political voluntarism,” he writes, “eventually pervades all human relationships, including those of family, locality, and religion.” Under liberalism, he continues, “our basic outlook becomes one in which all relationships are subject to the perpetual calculus [of] whether they will redound to my personal benefit.” In Deneen’s story, the American founders adopted a voluntaristic conception of politics, which, over time, leads us to become calculating utility maximizers incapable of exercising moral virtue, sustaining healthy marriages, or worshipping God properly.

Moreover, liberalism, he says, leads us to fail to recognize and respect nature’s teleological order. It replaces respect for human nature and natural limits with an ethic of technological domination that seeks to dominate nature in the service of material gratification. In Deneen’s retelling, the “joyless quest for joy” becomes the descent into degeneration.

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This is a serious indictment and, if true, one would probably join Deneen’s condemnation of America’s founding principles. In fact, what he says is true . . . of Hollywood. It is not true of America as a whole, and it is certainly not true of our founding principles. Deneen misstates these principles while committing himself to an excessively deterministic view of politics. His misdiagnosis of the causes of our problems leads to his unnecessarily radical, and deeply ironic, call for “vision” and “imagination.” Still, I do believe my good friend offers keen awareness of what troubles our culture and, in his more restrained and moderate recommendations, points the way toward a more sustainable liberalism.

What are Our Founding Principles?

Whether they aim to praise or deplore the American founding, most commentators start with the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal.” Curiously, Deneen’s First Things article and subsequent rejoinders mention the Declaration and equality only in passing. Instead, he contends that political voluntarism is “the most basic and distinctive aspect of liberalism.”

Voluntarism is the dominant conception of liberalism in today’s academy, but it does not fit the liberalism of the American founding. The founders spoke of “consent,” not “voluntarism.” Consent, in their view, followed from the foundational principle of human equality. Since, to quote Jefferson, “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,” government among equals must be established via consent.

But the founders knew that consent alone was insufficient to establish legitimate government. Decent constitutionalism, they understood, ought to respect human equality and the natural rights of mankind. “All too will bear in mind this sacred principle,” Jefferson stated in his first inaugural address, “that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” Jefferson trembled for his country when he reflected that God is just because he knew that slavery, though willed by the majority, was wrong.

Note that the reasoning behind these statements assumes a standard of justice that lies above human willfulness. The same can be said of the Declaration of Independence. If Deneen’s account is followed, the Declaration’s assertion of equality should be interpreted as just that—an assertion of will that is only binding because it was agreed to by the founding generation.

Under his interpretation, the Declaration should be read to state: “All men are equal because we, the founders, have chosen to create them so.” This is a preposterous way to understand the principles of the founding. As Nathan Schlueter nicely puts it in his original article, “No signer of the Declaration of Independence thought that in affirming equality and natural rights he was also affirming a voluntaristic moral philosophy.”

Just as the founders’ recognition of human equality (and the principle of consent that follows from it) was grounded on their respect for nature and the natural order of the Creator, they understood human freedom to be, in the words of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, part of “the plan of the holy author of our religion.” “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God,” because God intends us to be free.

The founders believed liberty was part of the good, but they did not believe it was the only good or the comprehensive good. Recognizing natural rights entailed acknowledging sacred duties. This is most visible in the founders’ philosophical defenses of religious liberty.

In his “Memorial and Remonstrance,” Madison derived the natural right to religious liberty from the duty to worship God. Because it “is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him,” and because it is “a fundamental and undeniable truth, ‘that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence,’” Madison reasoned that every individual has an inalienable right to exercise religion according to the dictates of his “conviction and conscience.” “What is here a right towards men,” he said, “is a duty towards the Creator.”

For the founders, rights and duties were reciprocal. Stating that the primary aim of government is to secure rights does not imply, as Deneen says it does, that in a liberal regime there is no objective “good” and that law does not need to conform to any external standard. To quote Deneen: “Liberalism holds that men are by nature free and that politics is a man-made institution that limits our natural freedom. Human society arises through a contract among autonomous individuals in which its members retain certain rights. Government exists (to quote the Declaration) to secure those rights. Thus, there is no objective “‘good, there is only ‘right,’” and the proper arrangement of institutions and practices that secures rights and corresponding individual liberties. Law in this view is wholly positive, not a reflection of, or needing to be in conformity with, any external standard.” The founders understood freedom as a necessary antecedent to responsibility, and rights as concomitant with duties.

The founders spoke of the “blessings of liberty” because they understood freedom to be a constituent part of the human good, a good that was established by “nature and nature’s God.” One might contend that the founders were wrong, that human liberty is not a part of the good, that natural rights do not exist, and that the idea of rights, in fact, is necessarily opposed to the existence of duties. (I wonder if these are Deneen’s considered judgments.) But to conclude that, in their commitments to natural rights and political liberty, the founders adopted moral voluntarism is not only to fail to understand the founders as they understood themselves; it is to fail to understand the founders at all.

Deneen’s Excessive Determinism and Ironic Radicalism

Deneen’s misreading of America’s founding principles is compounded by a peculiar determinism that pervades his analysis. In his account, not only did the founders adopt moral voluntarism; their political philosophy unavoidably comes to dominate and ultimately undermine every aspect of American life. “The liberal experiment,” he writes, “contradicts itself” because it “draws down” on the “pre-, non-, and anti-liberal institutions and resources” needed to sustain itself. This “drawing down,” he says, “is not contingent or accidental but in fact an inherent feature of liberalism.” Thus he concludes, “a liberal society will inevitably become ‘postliberal.’”

Aristotle and Tocqueville clearly inform Deneen’s thought, but his thesis that liberalism will inevitably decline on account of its self-contradictions has a Marxist pedigree. One wishes that Deneen had been more faithful to Aristotle and Tocqueville and their teachings about moderation. All regimes have their particular tendencies, Aristotle teaches; democracies, for example, tend toward an excess of equality. But Aristotle never presents the tendencies of a regime as all-powerful forces that cannot be moderated. Nothing in his political thought is categorically inevitable, which is why Aristotle’s political science assumes that a prudent legislator, guided by a wise political scientist, can temper the excesses of any regime.

For a quasi-Aristotelian analysis of America, we have no better guide than Tocqueville. But instead of following Tocqueville’s example of working within American democracy to improve it, Deneen calls for us to overthrow our liberal patrimony so we can embark on constructing a “postliberal” order with vision and imagination. “Hope” and “Change” look stodgy by comparison.

The irony of Deneen’s radicalism is that he repeatedly emphasizes the need for moderation and limits on our choices, and the importance of respecting the communities in which we find ourselves. Given these stated principles, one would think Deneen would be the last to call for a project of imagination that aims to replace the country’s long-held beliefs with vague notions of a hopeful neo-communitarian future. His own counsel might suggest a more sober appreciation of the dangers of political experimentation, not to mention a more sympathetic disposition toward the political community to which we belong.

In Deneen’s initial response to me, he suggests that given America’s liberal heritage, it is a contradiction to be a “conservative” and a “patriot.” James Madison certainly did not think so. One might start with Federalist No. 49 to see how American conservatism is possible and nurtured through the Constitution. And even if one concluded that Madison is wrong and America is ill-founded, a Deneenian approach would still suggest finding those aspects of our tradition that could support a more sustainable liberalism. It would look more like Tocqueville and less like Marx.

Deneen’s Sage Advice

Perhaps my criticisms are a bit too harsh, because, aside from his misreading of the founding, Deneen offers much insight into our current pathologies and makes many sensible recommendations. The voluntaristic liberalism that animates academic progressives is, as he says, corrosive of healthy civic life. It is unsustainable to purport to be neutral toward the good and to adopt public policies that are indifferent to moral virtue and community. Technology and scientific experimentation divorced from a proper understanding of nature are likely to erode human nature and the natural environment. Liberalism does encourage loose connections.

Political science as a discipline might become useful if it took up the themes of Deneen’s articles and asked questions such as: What are the tendencies of democratic regimes? What moral foundations are required for democracies to flourish? How do public policies nurture or undermine the institutions and associations that help to build a healthy civic life?

Deneen’s original article sketches sensible answers to many of these queries. He calls for a reinvigoration of family, neighborhood, and community (no doubt filled with front porches), along with a renewed commitment to thrift, frugality, saving, hard work, stewardship, and care. His appeal for a return to a more robust federalism suggests that he sees this, wisely, as a project for local governments, civic associations, and individual families, and not for Washington, DC. I could go on but one should just return to Deneen’s article and consult the writers he favorably cites.

America Is Not Doomed to Failure

America is and always has been the experiment of whether a people in a large and diverse republic can embrace freedom and virtue, wisdom and consent. By no means is that experiment foreordained to be successful—for all their brilliance, the founders couldn’t solve the intractable problem of slavery, and their political edifice nearly collapsed. But neither is America necessarily doomed to failure. Success and failure are both possible. The most favorable path toward success, I believe, is not to follow Deneen’s misconceived critique of our founding principles, but rather to adopt his sensible recommendations, which, in truth, are perfectly consistent with America’s liberal tradition.