Patrick Deneen responds to a series of three critiques of his book Why Liberalism Failed.
I am honored that Commonweal has invited three thoughtful and eloquent thinkers to reflect on my book, Why Liberalism Failed. Each poses significant and important challenges to a number of claims in my book, yet each acknowledges that liberalism’s defenders must take seriously the challenges that I pose regarding its inherent flaws. It is any author’s wish for such engagement, and one’s hope for acknowledgement at least of the importance of one’s book’s claims, even amid anticipated criticism. I thank Commonweal for the opportunity to respond briefly to these important reflections.
Two of my respondents—Samuel Moyn and Bryan Garsten—strive to defend liberalism by using Tocqueville against me. Garsten cites Tocqueville’s admiration of America in Volume One of Democracy in America, while Moyn offers a reading of Tocqueville according to which it was liberals who “rescued the kernel of the Christian project for secular times.” To quote Moyn against himself, if you squint, that’s one way to see it. Both authors invoke an “optimistic” Tocqueville who believed (to quote Moyn) “remedies are possible within modern liberalism to bring out its virtues and contain its vices.” Both ignore Tocqueville’s insistence—especially in Volume Two of Democracy in America—on the inexorable logic of “democracy” toward individualism, materialism, “restlessness,” short-term thinking, and a kind of civic infantilism fostered by a tutelary state. Insofar as there are “remedies” for these things, Tocqueville argued, they mainly include non-liberal and pre-modern inheritances, such as: a non-liberal definition of liberty derived from Christianity; religion as the main carrier of that definition; a dedication to common law that is protected by elites (lawyers, no less) who maintain stability and tradition; strong local and associational liberties that flourish largely due to the irrelevance of, and disinterest in, national politics; and, potentially, philosophers and statesmen who, with the cooperation of the citizenry, resist democracy’s inherent tendencies. Yet Tocqueville is clear that each of these “remedies” is subject to liberal democracy’s corrosive logic, and mainly recommends that one should seek to retain what liberalism has not made, since liberalism will not have the resources to reconstitute such counterweights. A sound reading of Tocqueville forces us to face the difficult question: Once all Tocqueville’s “remedies” have been destroyed by the logic of liberal democracy, what can be done? The answer is much more difficult than these Yale scholars suggest.
Largely agreeing with Moyn and Garsten, Matthew Sitman writes, “I still want [liberalism’s] best ideals to be realized.” Like Moyn, he points to neoliberalism and libertarianism as the main challenges to liberalism, but expresses the hope that if these bad forms of liberalism could simply be excised—preferably through the establishment of economic socialism—liberalism would be saved. What strikes me in these identical arguments is how exactly they mirror the claims with which I am frequently confronted by “conservative” liberals. Countless reviews by conservatives have insisted that liberalism can be saved if only we excise the socialist impulse and reject “progressivism” in favor of the verities of classical liberalism. This argument reflects a cottage industry of contemporary conservatism: the effort to salvage liberalism by rooting out an unnatural and eliminable tendency, the “progressivism” that arose due to the baleful influence of historicist German philosophy. Strikingly, these essays in Commonweal exhibit the same tendency among progressive liberals: liberalism can be saved by correcting a recent deformation. In this case, the deformation has been dubbed “neoliberalism” in order to mask the fact that its basic premises have been part of the liberal tradition from its very outset. There is nothing “neo” about this development: it is, simply put, a constitutive element of liberalism.
One of the more insistent claims throughout my book is that these two “sides” of liberalism—“conservative” and “progressive”—are really just different expressions of the same phenomenon. They advance together, and they both garner adherents by opposing themselves to “bad” liberalism. Part of liberalism’s success has been the ongoing belief that its pathologies could be solved by “perfecting” liberalism through elimination of its “bad” side, while in fact our politics have simply been an oscillation between conservative and progressive flavors of liberalism, each “side” gaining the upper hand when the proposals of the other side appear to fail. The consequence of each advance is the further enlargement of each side’s preferred impersonal mechanisms—the state for progressive liberals, the market for conservative liberals—both acting as a solvent on human relationships, civic capacities, and a shared sense of our common fate.
A growing number of Catholics—particularly younger Catholics—have concluded that liberalism in both forms is based upon a false conception of human nature, as the church understood from liberalism’s very outset, though some hoped that the church’s understanding of the human person could moderate and even correct liberalism’s falsehoods. These new Catholic critics of liberalism tend to be drawn to one of two opposite positions—either toward a form of withdrawal from allegiance to the liberal state, as proposed by Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option, or toward a Catholic “takeover” of the liberal state, as proposed by Adrian Vermeule. While apparently opposed, these two positions are both predictable responses to a growing Catholic rejection of liberalism. Among some on the Catholic Left there is the appeal of socialism—articulated most artfully by Elizabeth Bruenig, who understands that Catholicism fundamentally rejects liberalism’s premises, even as she avoids confronting head-on the Catholic teaching against socialism.