Patrick Deneen’s provocative 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed deepened and brought to a focal point a long-running debate among American conservatives. No, not about why FDR-LBJ-Obama-style liberalism had failed—on that American conservatives agreed. The long-running debate was over classical liberalism, the sort associated with John Locke. The questions were first, how much this tradition of thought influenced the founding and sustaining of America, and second, whether this tradition of thought was something to be celebrated. Does America equal Locke? And is Lockean liberalism a friend or foe to authentic human flourishing? You’ll find these two questions running throughout much of the conversation about liberalism.

One of the early rounds of exchanges on these topics at Public Discourse took place eight years ago, with a series of essays between professors Phillip Muñoz (Notre Dame), Patrick Deneen (Notre Dame), and Nathan Schlueter (Hillsdale). Muñoz launched the discussion with his essay “Why Social Conservatives Should Be Patriotic Americans: A Critique of Patrick Deneen.” Muñoz argues that while Deneen’s arguments may be sound as applied to Thomas Hobbes and John Rawls, the Founders were neither Hobbesians nor Rawlsians. Instead, Muñoz argues the liberalism of the Founders was marked by commitment to truth and nature. Therefore, a more conservative response to present day challenges would be to conserve that founding tradition, rather than attempt a new revolution. Muñoz explains:

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.

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Deneen’s response, “Better than Our Philosophy: A Response to Muñoz,” points out that his critique of liberalism isn’t limited to Hobbes and Rawls, but centrally to Locke, and thus to the natural rights tradition that Muñoz proposes as an alternative. For at the heart of the Lockean natural rights tradition is a social contractarian view of sociality that Deneen argues dissolves real human sociality. Deneen stresses “the way that political voluntarism eventually pervades all human relationships, including those of family, locality, and religion, as well as the baleful consequences of a philosophy that grounds the attainment of human freedom on our ability to master and conquer nature. . . . Under liberalism, our basic outlook becomes one in which all relationships are subject to the perpetual calculus whether they will redound to my personal benefit.” Deneen points out that for most of American history, “Americans talked like Lockeans, but they acted like Christians.” No more. Which leads to his stark conclusion, particularly prophetic in 2012:

We are becoming more consistently Lockean, and less Christian, with every passing year. I am a patriot for what Americans have been, not for what we are becoming. I increasingly fear that Americans will have to break with America, and seek to re-found the nation on better truths—ones that have perhaps never been self-evident, but rather hard-won, and which are far better than our philosophy and increasingly better than ourselves.

While Muñoz judges Lockean thought good, and America to be Lockean, Deneen argues that Lockean thought is the problem, and that as we become more Lockean the problems grow. A return to the Founding—understood as a return to Locke—is simply to add fuel to the fire.

But perhaps both Muñoz and Deneen are wrong about the nature of the American founding. Nathan Schlueter joined the Public Discourse discussion by suggesting Locke wasn’t at the heart of America, but that the natural law tradition is. In “Sustainable Liberalism,” Schlueter proposes that “The solution to the political and moral crisis of our time does not lie in abandoning liberalism or in defending Lockeanism. It rests in the recovery of natural law liberalism—a sustainable public philosophy that is true to reason, to nature, and to Christian belief.” Schlueter agrees with Deneen about Locke, writing: “Deneen is right in his reply to Muñoz: If American liberalism is primarily Lockean, then American social conservatism is in serious trouble.” But he disagrees with Deneen about Locke’s role on America, writing: “Fortunately American liberalism is not primarily Lockean.” For Schlueter, American liberalism

does not rest upon the writings of a single theorist, but draws from the best thought of the western tradition of right, classical, medieval, and modern, in a way that is still genuinely liberal. Elements of both social contract theory and classical liberalism are there, but their foundations rest upon the metaphysical realism and ethical framework of the pre-modern tradition (Aristotle and Cicero).

This he describes as “natural law liberalism.” And he proposes it as the path forward: “The Founders, C. S. Lewis, Leo Strauss, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI find in natural-law liberalism a public philosophy that is true to reason, to nature, and to Christian belief. Only this kind of liberalism is truly sustainable.”

But does “natural law liberalism” exist? Deneen has his doubts. In “Beyond Wishful Thinking: A Response to Schlueter,” Deneen notes the long and distinguished pedigree of Schlueter’s basic view, “one that began with Orestes Brownson, was further developed by John Courtney Murray, and is today advanced by Catholic scholars such as Peter Augustine Lawler.” But ultimately, he judges it misguided. Detailing the differences in political thought between Aristotle and Aquinas on the one hand, and American liberalism as embodied in the Declaration of Independence on the other, Deneen concludes: “Schlueter’s natural law liberalism, then, is a chimera, a combination of parts of fundamentally different creatures that does not and cannot exist in reality. The two are, in fact, contradictory and mutually exclusive. One wishes their union was an option, but wishful thinking is not a substitute for political philosophy.”

But political philosophy shouldn’t be myopic, either, Schlueter retorts. America is a lot more than the Declaration. In “Natural Law Liberalism Beyond Romanticism,” Schlueter argues that natural law concepts “pervade the writings, sermons, speeches, laws, and political documents of the founding era. They find prominent expression at the national level in the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 . . . , George Washington’s First Inaugural Address . . . , and judicial opinions. . . .” Indeed, Schlueter turns the tables on Deneen asserting the bulk of history is on his own side:

In contrast to the abundant explicit evidence of the natural law tradition in the American founding, there is not even “inchoate” evidence for the beliefs Deneen attributes to the founders, such as that human beings are “autonomous individuals,” that “there is no objective ‘good,’ there is only ‘right,’” and that “there is no possibility of a common good, only the accumulation of individual preferences of members of the polity.”

Phillip Muñoz then jumped back in with his essay, “Sustaining American Liberalism in Principle and Practice.” Muñoz takes aim at Deneen’s claim that the Founders were voluntarists. Natural rights social contract thinking and moral voluntarism are worlds apart for Muñoz. He argues that the Founders took natural equality and natural rights seriously, which then led them to emphasize the consent of the govern. But this is precisely because they didn’t think the will settled these matters:

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.

Muñoz continues in the essay to highlight a variety of ways in which he believes Deneen has gotten the nature of America wrong. In concluding, though, he points out his agreement with Deneen on what is needed now—and how that is consistent with the best of America: “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.”

Rounding out this early Public Discourse exchange, Deneen then replied in “Liberalism’s Logic and America’s Challenge: A Reply to Schlueter and Muñoz.” Deneen highlights the tension between Schlueter and Muñoz:

Schlueter insists that “natural law liberalism” grounds the founding as the continuity of ancient and medieval political philosophy, while Muñoz stresses the revolutionary consent theory of political legitimacy—with its defense of “natural rights”—as the founding’s basis. Schlueter admires the founding for building on a centuries-old development of natural law theory; Muñoz admires it for introducing consent as a new and just way to legitimize governments.

The reality for Deneen is that the “Founders’ vision of the ‘common good’ was not the pre-modern natural law conception of an objective human good, but a conception of ‘mutual advantage’ shaped by the social contract framework. This logic of liberalism has driven our country to its current political and cultural problems.”

Deneen picked the conversation back up at Public Discourse in 2017, replying to a Claremont Review of Books essay by Robert Reilly. In “Corrupting the Youth? A Response to Reilly,” Deneen defends himself against charges of inaccurate quotations and other specifics about James Madison. But he concludes with a section that merits extensive quotation:

The accusation that I am singularly responsible for “corrupting the youth” is, of course, patent nonsense. If there is a growing interest in the ideas of a very few contemporary thinkers whose work seeks to explore the question of whether the basic liberal operating system of America is a root cause for its political and social calamity, it’s because many young (and not a few older) Americans no longer can credit the story that America is basically healthy except for some bad progressive eggs. It’s not because folks like me and Michael Hanby and Rod Dreher have convinced people that things are rotten; it’s because things are rotten, and the existing narrative fostered by massive investment of time, political activism, training, and money over several generations isn’t credible. The idea that we are merely one election or Supreme Court nomination away from restoring the republic rings hollow to many, and many suspect that this not because we have failed to realize the dream of American liberalism, but because we’ve realized it all too completely. It’s a sign of panic that Reilly and his allies think there’s a vast (or tiny) right-wing conspiracy corrupting the youth. We’ve heard that accusation before, and it was intended then as well as now to distract attention from and short-circuit reflection about the shortcomings of the conspiracy theorist’s own views.

Adam Seagrave then joined the discussion, with “Christianity and American Founding Principles: A Response to Patrick Deneen and Robert Reilly.” Seagrave argues that both Deneen and Reilly are right:

Deneen is correct to note the emphasis on the protection of the individual in the dominant political philosophy of the Founding era. This emphasis does indeed tend to encourage the sort of unhealthy individualism, disregard of moral constraints, and inattention to the common good that Deneen bemoans. Reilly, on the other hand, is correct to insist that Founding-era political thinkers and statesmen such as Madison did not themselves contribute to or endorse this practical tendency of their political principles. In fact, they even articulated principles that would clearly reject this tendency.

This prompted Reilly to respond in Public Discourse with a two-part essay, “Fools or Scoundrels? A Response to Patrick Deneen” and “Not Hobbesian but Christian: Why Patrick Deneen’s Misinterpretation of the American Founding Matters.” In the first essay, Reilly argues against Deneen’s basic logic of what the Founders had done, writing “To suppose that the Founders set up a republic to vitiate the virtue on which its existence depended requires the belief that they were either stupid (by creating a Hobbesian regime and not noticing) or immoral (by doing it while cleverly lying about what they were doing).” And in the second essay, Reilly argues that Christianity, not modernity, is the real source of a focus on the private and a limited role of the state: “In my view, the relative primacy of the private came with the advent of Christianity and its affirmation of the inviolable sanctity and intrinsic worth of the individual person made in the imago Dei. Citizenship no longer defined the person, since the state lost its all-encompassing role and status. Christianity forever demoted the res publica and elevated in dignity the private life of man. Nothing has so limited the scope of politics as has Christianity by placing man’s end in the transcendent.”

In 2018 Public Discourse published a symposium on Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed: Micah Watson’s “Prisoners in the American Cave,” Sam Gregg’s “Patrick Deneen and the Problem with Liberalism,” Anthony Esolen’s “Patrick Deneen, The Little Sisters of the Poor, and Libertas Idiotica,” and Patrick Deneen’s “On Christian Liberty and Lockean Liberty: A Grateful Response to Micah Watson, Samuel Gregg, and Anthony Esolen.” Watson argues that Deneen’s “historical account of liberalism is unpersuasive,” but that “he offers a prescient analysis of the current moment and insightful prescriptions for constructive action.” Gregg points out what he sees as flaws in Deneen’s genealogy of today’s problems, his treatment of markets and communities, and his lack of attention to natural law. Esolen offers profuse praise and shows how Deneen’s analysis could “explain to us why the attack on the [Little] Sisters was so persistent, and why those who call themselves conservative mounted so feeble a defense. This case touches on every one of the neuralgic contradictions that Deneen says have been built into liberalism from the beginning, so that it is no surprise that liberalism advances while actual human liberty recedes.”

Later in 2018, Nathan Schlueter returned to the pages of Public Discourse with “Three Questions for the New Antiliberals.” Schlueter sought to clarify where the disagreements truly lie with these three questions:

  1. Are liberal institutions to blame for the current state of things, or is it the fault of “liberal” anthropology alone?
  2. If the “liberal” anthropology is the cause of our current problems, are liberal institutions supportable by a different anthropology?
  3. If liberal institutions can be supported by a different anthropology, isn’t there sufficient support for it in America’s best tradition?

In 2019, Public Discourse ran a two-part essay from our newest Contributing Editor, Dan Burns. In “The Real Failure of Liberal Theory,” Burns argues that “Conservative critics of ‘liberalism’ are right to identify major flaws in liberal theory.” But, he quickly adds, “Liberal theory is so erroneous that neither the Founders nor any other Americans could ever really put it into practice.” Indeed, according to Burns, few Americans ever attempted to. Thus, “it would be grossly inaccurate to characterize the entire American Founding as a consistent attempt to put liberal theory into practice. One can therefore reject liberal theory without rejecting our political tradition; one simply has to prefer some elements of that tradition over others, as every American eventually does.” Burns explores those other elements of the American political tradition in “The Classical Alternative to Liberal Theory.” There he argues that Americans “should turn back to classical political philosophy, which offers us a deeper understanding of the American tradition and invaluable guidance in reforming our contemporary politics.”

Earlier this year, Public Discourse readers were treated to a pair of essays by Nathaniel Blake. In “Conservative Liberalism, Liberal Despotism: Part 1,” Blake argues that “An oddity about our current debates over liberalism and America is that both sides view the American Founding, and thus America, as fundamentally influenced by classical liberal ideology. They only disagree over whether classical liberalism is good or bad. But the historical record shows that liberal ideology was one influence among many, not that it was the definitive one.” In “Conservative Liberalism, Liberal Despotism: Part 2,” he argues:

Liberal doctrines necessarily require disenfranchising and punishing those who hold rival beliefs. Liberal ideology is jealous, and will have no other gods before it. American conservatives should reject this revolutionary liberalism and the attempts to make it the central principle of our national heritage. We need not deny that liberal ideas influenced the Founding, but we ought to follow our forefathers in tempering them. We should take our stand in defense of our national traditions of liberal practice, whose roots are deeper than this liberal ideology that perverts and poisons them. We can defend our patrimony of liberal practices without bending the knee before Enlightenment liberal ideology.

Which is exactly what Robert Reilly attempts to do in his new book, which Sam Gregg reviewed for Public Discourse earlier this month. Gregg’s bottom line:

Robert R. Reilly has penned what is thus far the most systematic attempt to refute this Founding-skeptic narrative. Reilly does not deny that liberty has collapsed in many Americans’ minds into license. He nevertheless holds that this situation owes little to the Founding. For him, the Founding represents a powerful re-expression of a Western tradition far older than modern liberalism. Its lineage, Reilly says, stretches as far back as the Hebrew Bible and consequently articulates a very different understanding of human freedom.

As for my own contributions to these discussions, see my Public Discourse essay “False Dichotomies, the Common Good, and the Future of Conservatism” and my National Affairs essay with Robert George, “The Baby and the Bathwater.” And of course much of the critique of classical liberalism touches on questions about the role of religion and the relationship of church and state. For more on those questions, see the Public Discourse essays I collected here, with contributions from Joseph Trabbic, Chris Tollefsen, Robert Miller, Thomas Pink, Lawrence King, Mathew Shadle, and Gerry Bradley.