Patrick Deneen is a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame who is an adherent to a form of conservatism at war with modernity in all its forms. Just to be clear what this means, Deneen’s conservatism has little in common with versions adopted by today’s Republican Party, including, or so I surmise, the Trumpian one. To Deneen, much of today’s conservatism—not only Paul Ryan’s crush on Ayn Rand, but also the “American greatness” yearnings of William Kristol and David Brooks—is one or another form of liberalism. Unfortunately Deneen never tells us what genuine conservatism means, although there are hints ranging from twelfth-century conceptions of natural right to the agrarian writings of the contemporary neo-Rousseauian Wendell Berry. It would have helped this reader if Deneen had talked more explicitly about the conservatism against which liberalism was a reaction.
In spite of this conceptual neglect, I found myself surprised by the number of points on which Deneen and I agree. He claims, against both libertarians and welfare-state defenders, that the “classical liberalism” of free markets lies along the same path as the “modern” liberalism of active government involvement. That accords with my own position that Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes belong in the same political camp. We both consider John Stuart Mill a liberal par excellence. Deneen argues, again I believe quite correctly, that the liberal arts in most colleges and universities have run their course and that few contemporary students ever receive full exposure to the glories of the humanities. Liberalism, in his view, prioritizes culture over nature; I agree. Liberalism’s goal is to free human beings from artificial constraints that prevent them from realizing their full potential; I also agree with that.
In pursuing his argument, Deneen should have one advantage: unrestrained by any hint of academic caution, he writes in the style of an eighteenth-century pamphleteer, making dramatic claims and hoping that his eloquent prose will carry the case. Even with respect to this rhetorical approach, we are not that different. I also try to write in a style suitable not just to academics and I have been known to be a bit polemical. Reading Deneen, I found myself thoroughly engaged and I wish more books like this would come from the editorial offices of university presses.
The only major difference between us, alas a rather significant one, is that for Deneen liberalism is one of the great horrors of world history; its failure is so complete that it will soon (if it has not already) lose all its adherents while creating one disaster after another. I believe that liberalism, in spite of the rightwing nativism currently fashionable in one liberal democracy after another, still has a great deal to achieve before it runs its course, and that there is no existing alternative political philosophy that can rival its staying power.
Why Liberalism Failed, moreover, does have its share of problems. For a phenomenon alleged to be so destructive, I do not know precisely what Deneen means by liberalism. At times it means the ideas of great liberal thinkers. That is all well and good, but the ideas of thinkers have only a tangential relationship, at best, with what decision-makers carry out in their name. By themselves, liberals have not done all that much damage and I do not believe, although Deneen holds the opposing viewpoint, that divorce is common because John Locke argued that marriage is a form of contract or that “our default condition is homelessness” because liberals imagined a state of nature. I can think of only two exceptions, two liberals who had a direct impact on history. One is Keynes, whom Deneen ignores. The other is John Dewey and his writings on pedagogy, and while Deneen does discuss Dewey, he pays little or no attention to his views on education.
In contrast to liberals, Deneen is a fan of those writers who condemn the kind of lives most of us modern people lead. Deneen’s reasoning runs like this: liberalism in theory worships science, technology, and profit; in the quest for all three, chemical companies have developed new ways of growing crops; the use of such artificial technologies has destroyed both the crops themselves along with the entire environment of family farms and holistic agriculture that once accompanied them; and if we do not stop soon, all human beings will become genetically modified organisms. There is thus a direct line from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal writers to human cloning.
This chain of reasoning is not convincing, at least to me. Liberalism is indeed compatible with science and technology. Everything else is problematic: liberalism is generally sympathetic to free markets but not to monopolies such as chemical companies that rig the market; some liberals might defend genetically modified crops but nearly all liberals abhor them; one can find as many liberals active on behalf of local communities as conservatives, if not more; and it is a giant step, and one most liberals would never take, to move from manipulating crops to manipulating DNA.
It only adds to the confusion that Deneen argues that what killed liberalism was, of all things, liberalism itself. If this sounds vaguely Hegelian, that is because it is. Like Hegel’s student Karl Marx, Deneen believes in the dialectic. But unlike Marx, who praised capitalism as a prelude to denouncing it, Deneen only denounces liberalism without ever quite praising it. I should qualify that statement. After retelling one horror story after another, he writes toward the end of his book that, “like all human projects, liberalism is not without its achievements.”