“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”
These famous lines from the Declaration of Independence capture well America’s most iconic and influential idea, which is that individuals have rights and that one of the government’s most fundamental jobs is to protect those rights. This is the idea that has failed, according to Patrick Deneen’s formidable book.
Professor Deneen believes that this liberal idea, rooted in the philosophy of John Locke, has led Americans to create a giant and ultimately destructive force in social and political life, “the state as agent of individualism.” Other writers blame the Democrats for the growth of the state, but Deneen believes Republicans have been almost as complicit in that development. While each political party emphasizes different rights (civil rights for Democrats, property rights for Republicans), both parties empower the state to defend their favorite rights against interference from families, churches, and traditional communities. Both parties are complicit, Deneen argues, in using the liberal language of rights to justify strengthening the state and weakening the authority of local communities.
When we accept “the state as agent of individualism,” we think we are securing for ourselves the freedom to try to shape our lives as we wish. Professor Deneen warns us that we are only indulging an adolescent desire to become a “self-fashioning expressive individual.” We like to think that we will flourish once we are finally freed from the domineering clutches of tradition and community, but Deneen thinks that we will tend to end up unhappy and unfree. With some caricature, but also penetrating insight, he describes people living under liberalism as morally unserious, unburdened by a sense of duty, quick to disrespect parents and community elders, insensitive to the virtues of traditional religion, and willing to spoil the natural world out of lust for security, comfort, and cash.
For much of our history, Deneen allows, Americans were more “Burkean” than our official philosophy recognized. By this he means that in spite of celebrating the Declaration of Independence every Fourth of July, we were not especially revolutionary in our daily lives. We followed paths cleared by family and tradition and did not insist on rebelling against the authority of custom at every moment. Gradually, however, the philosophy of Locke and the Declaration worked on us. It delegitimized every inherited authority, progressively empowering the government to wean us off our various traditions, loosening us from the support of local communities, leaving each of us nominally freer but in fact more alone, rootless, atomistic, materialistic, and powerless against both state and corporate power.
Deneen seems to think that liberalism necessarily corrodes community. The logic is never spelled out clearly, but it might go something like this. Liberalism asks us to accept only authorities we have chosen. But we can’t have chosen an authority unless we had the option to leave it behind. We can’t truly consent to our house of worship, for example, if we have no chance to leave it. Liberalism therefore tends to produce menus of options. Even in the realm of religion we are treated to a marketplace of denominations, congregations, and sects. Once we find ourselves in a market, it is hard not to always be looking over our shoulders for better opportunities. (“I heard the congregation downtown has a better choir—should we give that one a try?”) The liberal principle of choice requires that we have escape options, and seeing those possibilities sparks second thoughts about whether we are satisfied with our current situation. In liberal societies we are therefore surrounded and lured by alternative ways of life, and we spend our time shopping for better communities rather than working to improve the ones we happen to find ourselves in. Deneen suggests that a social world designed to protect our rights of free choice tends to make us impatient with the inherited and lasting ties that human beings need to live well with one another.
These complaints about liberalism have a long lineage on both sides of the political spectrum. In 1832—just as liberalism came into the lexicon as a political alternative—Pope Gregory XVI launched an attack in Mirari vos, an encyclical condemning “Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism.” Gregory condemned the freedoms of conscience, opinion, speech, and the press, as well as the separation of church and state, portraying the whole package of liberal rights as a recipe for anarchic egoism.
Just eleven years later Karl Marx hit some of the same themes from the other side of the political spectrum in his own critique of rights, an essay titled “On the Jewish Question.” Like the pope, Marx thought that individual rights sanctified selfishness. More fundamentally, he thought that the U.S. Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man stranded individuals from one another, leading them to relate to one another indirectly (by asking the state to enforce rights claims against one another) rather than to deliberate with one another directly. Some readers may be surprised that Professor Deneen’s book has gained an appreciative audience on the left as well as among traditionalists on the right, but Deneen’s complaint about “the state as agent of individualism” is a recognizable variant of Marx’s critique of the liberal state. Pope Gregory XVI wanted to go back to traditional authority while Marx wanted to move forward toward a new, more democratic social authority, but both objected to liberalism for roughly the reason that Deneen does: both thought that governments devoted to protecting individual rights destroyed communal social life.