Patrick Deneen has written a very ambitious book, Why Liberalism Failed, in which in several respects he makes a compelling case that its founding ideology was destined to fail because it was built upon a foundation of a number of contradictions. He opens the book as follows: “A political philosophy conceived some 500 years ago, and put into effect at the birth of the United States nearly 250 years later, was a wager that political society could be grounded on a different footing.”
This wager was contingent on the success of rights-bearing individuals under a social contract to which newcomers could subscribe, ratified by free and fair elections of responsive representatives under limited government, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary. In other words, a bet on the validity of a regime grounded in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.
Most observers would say that the wager on this regime, in spite of all of its sins and flaws, has been a rousing victory in what it has meant to the advancement of mankind. But then he says this: “Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It failed because it succeeded…….it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology,………..including titanic inequality, forced uniformity, material and spiritual degradation, and the undermining of freedom.”
He actually agrees that the fundamental wager was a winning one, which he describes as follows: “The replacement of one unequal and unjust system with another system enshrining inequality that would be achieved not by oppression and violence but the the population’s full acquiescence, premised on the ongoing delivery of increasing material prosperity along with the theoretical possibility of class mobility”. In this success he believes is grounded the failure of the liberal faith.
His chapters cover a lot of ground in exploring the successes and resulting failures of the various aspects of the liberal order that our founders put in place—the impact on liberty of technology and globalization; encroaching statism; the degradation of citizenship; the breakdown of particular cultures; what he calls the “new aristocracy”; the relentless conquest of nature; and the rise of the autonomous self. But his chapter on education provides the centerpiece of his argument and the one that resonated most with me, in which he says that liberalism “undermines education by replacing a definition of liberty as an education in self-government with liberty as autonomy and the absence of constraint. Ultimately it destroys liberal education, since it begins with the assumption that we are born free, rather than that we must learn to become free”. This is the area described in his argument in which we are threatened the most, because it is the means by which we convey our heritage and our culture to the next generation and in which we desperately need and should be able to fashion a repair and recovery project to rescue us from liberalism’s deficiencies.
This is a complex book and one that demands at least a second reading to fully understand his message. On balance, he makes a number of insightful arguments on the current fragility of the republic on which there are reasons to be pessimistic, but I believe he sells our founders short in their genius and the compelling arguments that they have made in the grounding of the republic and that what we need is more implementation, not less, of the founding ideals.