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

“The one principle of Hell is ‘I am my own,’” declared Scottish poet and pastor George MacDonald in the nineteenth century. MacDonald’s quip brings to mind the famous words of Milton’s Satan, describing the silver lining of being cast into Hell:

. . . Here at least  . . .We shall be free;
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Freedom, choice, ambition . . . these are enticing ideas for modern man and woman. But what sort of freedom? The word can have two radically different meanings. The first, voiced by Milton’s Satan, condemned by Macdonald, and put to song by Frank Sinatra, refers to the freedom to do what we want, whatever that is. The alternative meaning is a tethered freedom, a freedom to become what we ought to be, according to standards that we may choose to embrace but do not author ourselves.

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Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is a provocative portrayal of how this ancient tension has played out in liberal modernity, especially in the United States. Deneen’s primary thesis is not only that American society has come to be completely dominated by the devil’s version of freedom, but that it was orchestrated that way from the beginning by the founders of modernity and the United States. John Locke was the serpent in America’s garden.

Part jeremiad, part political philosophy, part cultural criticism, and part call for renewal, Deneen’s book has achieved something even rarer than philosophers becoming kings: an academic book published by an academic press that has nevertheless sold out of its first run and is taking the high- and middlebrow literati by storm. Deneen’s book has captured an anxiety about our current moment that transcends left and right, (politically) conservative and (politically) liberal, religious and secular. One mark of the book’s success is that it has elicited so many reviews from so many different outlets and voices. It’s a nice twist of irony that Deneen’s book has done so well, and been so widely reviewed online, given his criticism of capitalism and warnings about technology.

One way to understand what Deneen is up to is to frame his book with three questions he addresses. What is our current predicament? What is the origin of our situation? What does it look like to move forward from here?

Our Predicament

Deneen draws on Plato’s allegory of the cave to illustrate why we are so uneasy in modern America. We are fooled by the trinkets and gadgets that keep us mesmerized by the images, screens, and shadows in front of us. Yet, despite all the persuasive might that liberal apologists like Steven Pinker can muster, we have a nagging sense that something is rotten.

Liberalism comprises two core beliefs about human nature: first, that we are beings characterized by an “anthropological individualism” coupled with a “voluntarist conception of choice,” and second, we are separate from and opposed to nature. Deneen describes liberalism as an “anticulture,” promoting what one of its prophets referred to as the heart of liberty: “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Anything that threatens or undermines that right threatens liberty itself, and thus must be vanquished.

Liberalism teaches that we are not naturally social beings but atomistic individuals yearning to be free of external constraints: tradition, family, nature, God, and so on. We chafe against thick bonds linking us to each other, and to nature, time, and place. “Conservative” liberals seek to free us to pursue our unfettered choices in the modern economy, commodifying any and every thing short of our own bodies. “Progressive” liberals make up a second wave that sees no reason to stop at bodies, fully embracing the sexual revolution and seeing the traditional family as one more obstacle to achieving our “freedom.” Deneen claims that the right’s push for economic freedom and the left’s campaign for personal and sexual freedom are two sides of the same liberal coin, leading to increasingly autonomous lives that require an ever-growing and omnicompetent government to pick up the messy pieces that result from our poor choices. “Liberalism thus culminates in two ontological points: the liberated individual and the controlling state.”

Liberalism’s Origin Story

In Deneen’s narrative, the philosophical founders of liberalism are the usual suspects. Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke play the central roles in liberalism’s attempt to free us from the arbitrary restrictions of custom, place, and religion.

In an interpretation that has been contested at Public Discourse previously, Deneen argues that liberalism’s ascendancy was only possible because the philosophical grounding was channeled into the political accomplishments of the American founders. Deneen rests his case primarily on readings of Jefferson and Madison, who channeled Locke. He finds Jefferson’s Lockean Declaration telling, as well as his belief that the central right of liberal man is “the right to leave the place of one’s birth.” Madison’s language about “ambition countering ambition” and the Constitution’s encouragement of “useful arts and sciences” show that the American founding was intended to be the political engine whereby the philosophical vision of Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke would be put into practice.

This did not happen all at once. As Deneen notes, there were pre-liberal traditions in America that provided the resources that liberalism would eventually deplete. However, over time, the seeds planted by the philosophers and the practitioners have taken root, and the current predicament Deneen paints so vividly is the fruit of an experiment gone terribly wrong. The Founders did not build “better than they knew.” No: they built worse than we could have imagined, and they did so on purpose. Those of us who are sympathetic to the Founding are watching shadow puppets on the wall. We are victims of an earlier version of false consciousness and the most successful noble lie ever constructed.

Why Liberalism Failed is meant to be a lantern in our American cave.

Steps toward a Post-Liberal Future

If Deneen is right, the one thing we cannot do is imagine that liberalism holds the answers to our current problems. If liberalism is as he describes it, then answering liberalism’s problems with more liberalism is akin to trying to save a burning house with kerosene. Liberalism is finished. Instead, in the book’s most conciliatory chapter, Deneen concludes with three steps to take toward a post-liberal future.

The first of these is recognizing all the good things that liberalism has provided and building on them. There is no going back to a pre-liberal golden age. Readers may be surprised by Deneen’s tempered praise of liberalism in this section, given the tenor of what has come before.

The second step is abandoning the quest to solve our problems through the creation of an all-encompassing ideology. Liberalism may have outlasted its other ideological rivals, but in the future we must look to the local and the homegrown. “Politics and human community must percolate from the bottom up, from experience and practice.”

The final step is a counterweight to the second. While we should not construct a new ideology, we can and should seek new political theories—not understood as grand and comprehensive explanations but as ways of seeing what is near and dear and building from there. There are still pockets of healthy virtue thriving within liberalism. Deneen hopes we can learn from those communities how to cultivate the thick bonds necessary for human flourishing without jettisoning the genuine achievements that liberalism helped make possible.

Strengths and Weaknesses

What are we to make of this remarkable book that hands up such a damning indictment of the American political tradition and the deeply disordered culture that has emerged from it? The claims made in this slim volume are the culmination of several years’ work and many previous articles from a lively and incisive critic, and they raise so many questions that any review leaves much by the wayside.

Perhaps the most pertinent question is whether one must endorse Deneen’s genealogy of American liberalism to agree with his take on our present and three steps for the future. I hope not, mainly because I think so much of Deneen’s analysis of the current moment is prescient while finding a great deal of his historical account of liberalism unpersuasive. I find it unpersuasive for a host of reasons, but two stand out.

The first objection is that Deneen’s origin story about liberalism is too neat and too narrow. In his telling, liberalism takes on an anthropomorphic character as it shapes, and molds, and intends various things to take place—a sort of personified zeitgeist guiding the pens of Locke and Jefferson and Madison. Deneen offers us readings of those figures that highlight some putatively problematic passages while ignoring others. When it comes to Locke, Deneen focuses almost entirely on a controversial reading of the Second Treatise while ignoring the book most colonial Americans would have been more familiar with, his best-selling Some Thoughts Concerning Education. This work explicitly names the two different types of freedom, and endorses the freedom to become what we ought. Not only that, Locke also unapologetically insisted that parents must inculcate virtue and combat selfishness in their children: “Covetousness and the desire of having in our possession and under our dominion more than we have need of, being the root of all evil, should be early and carefully weeded out and the contrary quality of a readiness to impart to others implanted.” This is hardly the advice of a prophet of atomistic individualism.

The objection here is not just to the substance of Deneen’s readings but their unevenness. Whereas Locke’s explicit condemnations of sexual immorality go unmentioned, Deneen approvingly cites Wendell Berry’s arguments for nature and place throughout the book without mentioning or reckoning with Berry’s endorsement of same-sex marriage and demonization of those who disagree. Reading Berry with hermeneutical charity allows us to draw from the good things he has to say while remaining critical of his recent puzzling departure from the natural. Surely we can also read Locke and the Founders without shoehorning them entirely into the service of a pernicious liberalism that is only possible when artificially extracted from the particular time, place, and context of the Founding Era.

This leads to the second problem. The debates about getting Locke and the Founders right are of more than mere historical interest. Deneen is entirely right to call attention to how liberalism has subsisted on social capital borrowed from the pre-liberal and primarily religious traditions that characterized the early generations of Americans. In his conclusion, he calls us to consider how we might recapture some of the health and vitality we see in the remnants of those traditions. Yet, if he is right about the origins of liberalism, then the people who then valued virtue and cultivated freedom, rightly understood, are the very same people who saw little conflict between their faith and the political philosophy of Locke and the Founders. How could they have been so blind to what we can supposedly see so clearly now? Why did they make a devil’s bargain?

Perhaps they didn’t. We find a partial explanation of the disconnect between early Americans and Deneen in the fact that Why Liberalism Fails attends to only one of two slippery slopes that are perennial dangers for human society, given human nature. Deneen paints a very convincing portrait of the dangers of individualism’s acidic tendency to weaken the social bonds that matter most. What he leaves out, at least in this book, is the opposite danger: the stultifying tendency of authoritarianism to encourage and maintain unjust and even tyrannical power relations. It is certainly the case that social bonds can be too loose, but it’s also the case that they can be too tight. Those early generations of Americans were primarily concerned with the latter problem, and it is not coincidental that those Americans were overwhelmingly Protestants aiming to protect their local communities, ecclesial and political. Their endorsement of a regime meant to protect individual virtue, liberty, and, yes, property, need not implicate them, or necessarily us, in the excesses of a culture that has now swung too far the other way.

These are arguments worth having, though they should not obscure this remarkable achievement. It is not an accident that a scholar so immersed in the wisdom of the great thinkers of the past has produced such a lightning bolt of a book for the present, one that shockingly illuminates the reality of our dark cultural landscape while offering some beginning steps toward reimagining a healthier future. Such a future will be brighter than it otherwise would be thanks to the labors—past, present, and future—of the provocative Professor Deneen.