Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Why Liberalism Failed (2)

The Bondage of the Autonomous Self

"Liberty" is a word of ancient lineage, yet liberalism has a more recent pedigree, being arguably only a few hundred years old. It arises from a redefinition of the nature of liberty to mean almost the opposite of its original meaning. By ancient and Christian understandings, liberty was the condition of self-governance, whether achieved by the individual or by a political community. Because self-rule was achieved only with difficulty--requiring an extensive habituation in virtue, particularly self-command and self-discipline over base but insistent appetites--the achievement of liberty required constraints upon individual choice. This limitation was achieved not primarily by promulgated law--though law had its place--but through extensive social norms in the form of custom. This was so much the case that Thomas Aquinas regarded custom as a form of law, and often superior to formalized law, having the benefit of long-standing consent.  

Liberalism reconceives liberty as the opposite of this older conception. It is understood to be the greatest possible freedom from external constraints, including customary norms. The only limitation on liberty, in this view, should be duly enacted laws consistent with maintaining order of otherwise unfettered individuals. Liberalism thus disassembles a world of custom and replaces it with promulgated law. Ironically, as behavior becomes unregulated in the social sphere, the state must be constantly enlarged through an expansion of lawmaking and regulatory activities. "The Empire of Liberty" expands apace with an ever-enlarging sphere of state control. 
The same dynamic is seen in the economic realm: fulfilling the sovereignty of individual choice in an economy requires the demolition of any artificial boundaries to a marketplace. The market--once a defined and limited space within the city--must ultimately become borderless. The logic of liberalism thus demands near-limitless expansion of the state and the market. A massive state architecture and a globalized economy, both created in the name of the liberation of the individual, combine to leave the individual powerless and overwhelmed by the very structures that were called into being in the name of her freedom. Current electoral discontents within liberal democracies are directed both against titanic economic forces and against distant and ungovernable state structures. Contemporary liberals condemn such "populist" responses, but they are a reaction to the ungovernability of both the economic and political domains and represent a bottom-up effort to reassert political control over an increasingly administrative state and a denationalized economy. While liberals are quick to condemn such populism as "antidemocratic," in fact, for all its evident problems--including its easy manipulation by demagogues--the contemporaneous effort to assert popular control over both centralized state structures and the global market signals a reinvigorated democratic impulse that worries liberals precisely because it is driven by the demos.


1) Many of us are old enough to remember when custom and accepted notions of proper human behavior governed much of social life. Now, however, positive law--promulgated law, as Deneen calls it--is virtually the sole standard in the workplace, in educational institutions, in most public life. The principles of custom are regarded as inadmissible. But positive law as the standard for human conduct is unworkable. Human life is too varied to be regulated in that manner, and the very attempt leads to intolerable tyranny. We even are headed toward speech regulation regarding use of pronouns!

2) Ironically, the liberty of liberalism based on liberalism's central anthropological claim--that the individual is autonomous--leads to suffocating state control--bondage--over the individual. That, in turn, leads to "populist" movements of resistance against the managerial elite who maintain this regulatory bondage over non-elite individuals with non-elite, non-liberal, views.

3) Customary law relies upon the recognition of human nature as a knowable reality. Liberalism rejects the very notion of human nature on philosophical grounds, claiming instead that each individual can choose his own reality. Remember Anthony Kennedy's "sweet mystery of life," lampooned by Justice Scalia? Well, that happens to be the law of the land. What that means is that if human nature is either not a reality or cannot be known in any case, then custom is in principle an unwarranted imposition on the individual. Such thinking is, as Deneen argues, destructive of all social structures in principle--and we are seeing the results. Progressive or Libertarian, the results are basically the same.

4) The vast majority of people do implicitly accept the reality of human nature and the constraints that that reality entails. Liberalism evaded this difficulty by means of a studied dishonesty, that is ever more apparent:

The achievement of liberalism was not [accomplished] simply [by] a whoesale rejection of its precedents [i.e., of earlier Classical and Christian thinking], but in many cases attained its ends by redefining shared words and concepts and, through that redefinition, colonizing existing institutions [think, especially: educational institutions and courts] with fundamentally different anthropological assumptions [anthropological = referring to human nature]. (p. 23)


  1. Liberalism replaces customs and traditions (including cultural folkways), developed, modified, and improved by time and experience, with practices of its own imposition--as if the wisdom of ages were mistaken, in error, wrong.

    As I may have said previously, the prog-left mantra: "Everything before yesterday is wrong."

    1. Yes. And it's all wrong in principle because it rests on what they see as an "assumption"--that there is such a thing as human nature.

  2. Many conservatives are uncomfortable with a President who insults Democrats. They weren't uncomfortable with him insulting fellow Republicans during 2015/2016 because that was just part of the traditional political process. But Republican Presidents aren't supposed to use insults against Democrats. They're supposed to be "better than that". Meaning they're supposed to be cowards.
    Trump is no coward. Trump is actually trying to roll back the creeping totalitarianism that WE have allowed Democrats to impose on us. Trump is not the man we wanted, but he is the man we needed. Perhaps, by Trump’s example, Republicans will learn to grow a pair and fight to win.

    1. The underlying premise you describe is the expectation for Republicans to follow Queensberry Rules, while Democrats follow Alinsky's Rules.

      Trump seems to be the first (national) Republican to dump Queensberry Rules, while meeting Democrats (and others) on their turf and on their terms--Alinsky's Rules.

  3. Consider the Hegelian Dialectic. Human history develops through sequential steps of

    1) thesis

    2) anti-thesis

    3) synthesis.

    In other words, a social-political pendulum swings back and forth between conservatism and liberalism. In this metaphor, perhaps the pendulum is swing right now from liberalism to conservatism.

    Maybe liberalism "has failed" for now, but it "will succeed" again in the future.

  4. I am currently reading Robert Costain's history book The Conquering Family.

    The book covers essentially the first 150 years following the Norman Conquest of England -- through King John, who died in 1216. During that period, the aristocracy was Norman French, and the population mass was Anglo-Saxon.

    Costain argues that this aristocracy from the European mainland was more dynamic and proficient than island's stagnant, retarded population. However, during those 150 years the Norman aristocracy melded with Anglo-Saxon population.

    We might say that the Norman aristocracy was the "liberals" and the Anglo-Saxon population was the "conservatives".

    King Henry II had two sons who became kings -- King Richard the Lionhearted and then King John. Those two ran the British island's economy into the ground by taxing it to pay for wars in Palestine and France. The barons had to restrict King John by imposing the Magna Carta on him.

    Your articles about liberalism failing have provoked those thoughts in me -- for what it's worth.

    1. My father had all of Costain's books, and I read them--and reread them--as a kid. Now I own them all. Henry II, btw, was a real dynamo, in terms of developing law and administration. Remarkable guy.

  5. Mark -- If the gist of Patrick Deneen's arument is that 21st Century 'progressive' liberalism has failed (or will fail), he'll get no pushback from me.

    I have not had the opportunity yet to study Deneen's thesis in detail, but I think I hear him saying that the political control necessary to manage the all-powerful administrative state and the borderless global market are fundamentally elitist and anti-democratic. I agree. So do Trump, Farage and Johnson, Salvini and many others. Does anybody remember the notorious Committee to Save the World (Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers and Alan Greenspan)?

    I also think I hear you (and Deneen) saying that the libertarian version of conservatism is also too undemocratic. I like to tell me best libertarian friend (and he is a very good friend) that what good is a $200 Chinese flat screen television to me if the price is a hollowed out country which has given up its manufacturing capability (read: jobs) and gotten in return a deadly opioid epidemic.

    I also have to laugh when Progressives argue that it is Trump who is violating the 'norms' of our country with his disdain for the Liberal status quo. To me it is the liberals who regularly resort to legislation and regulation to undermine the 'norms' of perhaps the most highly-developed civilization in the history of the world: ours.

    I'm sure mine is but a very superficial excursion into Deneen's thinking. I look forward to reading his book.

    1. His argument is all that--and more. His basic thesis is that all this is true in principle. In other words, the consequences we see flow logically from those principles, and are forseeable--features, not accidents, if you will.

    2. Part 3 will get into more of your overview.

    3. I ordered Deneen's book last night.

      It arrives tomorrow. Who says America isn't great?

      PS Does Deneen have a crystal ball? Does he know what comes next? Does the pendulum peacefully swing? Or is it something different?