Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed should have remained an obscure academic publication discussed on web sites such as Public Discourse. But Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition published favorable reviews. Now second hand dealers in ideas, especially preachers, will read it and its fallacies will show up on in the sermons and Facebook pages of popular socialist evangelists such as Russell Moore, Rod Dreher, Ron Sider and Jim Wallace.
Deneen is an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. Most of the opposition challenges Deneen’s depiction of the founding fathers of the US even though Deneen spent little ink on that subject. Deneen devoted his book to listing the tragedies of modern life and laying the blame on the rise of liberalism in the West.
Typical readers will cheer the book’s title because liberalism today means progressivism, which is a flavor of socialism. All libertarians and conservatives know the damage that kind of liberalism has caused and Deneen does a good job of repeating them. But Deneen refers to classical liberalism as well, the father of conservatism and libertarianism. The professor acknowledges that classical liberalism preceded modern liberalism and that modern liberalism is different from the original. But where conservatives and libertarians would rightly claim that atheist socialists hijacked the term “liberal” in order to better peddle their ideology, Deneen asserts that classical liberalism chased its own tale, caught it, devoured itself, and morphed into modern socialist liberalism.
The major fault with the book is that when Deneen claims to describe classical liberalism he instead depicts the socialist liberalism that began in the “Enlightenment.” Nowhere in the book does Deneen do an honest job of handling classical liberalism. Students who might read only Deneen’s book will have no idea what classical liberalism was about. The best short description of classical liberalism is FA Hayek’s essay “Individualism: True and False.” I opened it again after finishing Deneen’s book and it reads as if Hayek had anticipated Deneen and written the best review of his book 73 years ago.
Deneen doesn’t recommend socialism as a cure for what ails us. He correctly sees modern liberalism as a form of socialism. But his criticisms of modern liberalism read like a laundry list of socialist complaints. Since they lost the economic debate with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China, socialists have relied on environmental horror stories, fear of globalization, race baiting, inequality and technophobia to push their ideology. Deneen microwaves them and serves them as new dishes he has discovered.
As socialists do, Deneen exaggerates those problems. Exaggeration is necessary for good comedy, but to work it has to keep one foot grounded in the truth. Deneen is not amused or amusing and his amplifications of problems go so far beyond reality as to be total fiction. At best, Deneen is guilty of malpractice. Still, even with such hyperbole, I couldn’t help wonder how those issues might be viewed in Africa or Latin America, especially Venezuela. At their worst, the problems Deneen writes about are those of spoiled, rich Westerners that the rest of the world would greedily exchange for their own real problems.
The true story of liberalism is that it was founded on Christian individualism, which insisted that God created humanity with rights against which the state could not trespass – essentially the rights to life, liberty and property. Classical liberalism arose as the Church sought to instantiate those principles in politics through limited government, free markets and respect for commerce. Being Christian in origin, classical liberalism also placed great emphasis on family and church.
Did some people abuse their new freedom? Of course! God has given humanity no gift that it has not abused, sex being a prime example. Atheists and deists in the “Enlightenment” abused their freedom to rebel against Christianity and morality, as Hayek explains in his Counter-revolution in Science. They gave birth to the slaughter of the French Revolution and socialism. Americans followed Edmund Burke’s classical liberalism for most of the 19th century, but as they turned from Christianity to modernism near the end they also embraced socialism. Knowing that the atheism of socialists would frighten most Americans, they labeled it “liberalism” and “progressivism.”
Oddly, Deneen never offers a solution. He follows Marx’s cowardly example and refuses to speculate about what a better society might look like out of fear that opponents would shred his vision. Economists would destroy it with ease as they destroyed Marx. He warns against trying to recapture the past or inventing a new ideology to replace modern liberalism.
He hints at Wendell Berry as a guide. Berry wants us all to abandon the cities and go back to subsistence farming the way it was done in the 19th century before mechanization. Deneen clearly is ignorant of the fact that feeding horses took up half the farmland back then and kept food prices high. The low productivity of subsistence farming would make prices higher and cause people to starve after droughts, floods and locust infestations. We would be too poor to afford healthcare of any kind and would suffer from many infant deaths. Without farming for the market, which Berry abhors, no one would be able to live in a town because everyone would have to produce his own food.
Deneen’s book contains a lot of fallacies, but he goes wrong most egregiously in the silent premise that supports his book: society makes the person. Atheists and deists in the “Enlightenment” fabricated that nonsense. Christianity has always assumed the opposite, that the choices of individuals determine culture and institutions, that is, society. Family and church can influence individual choices, but not perfectly. Only God can save mankind by changing human nature. Deneen perpetuates the atheist error by claiming that a “liberal” society makes people immoral while a society organized to suit Berry will perfect people.
Read Deneen’s book so you will know how the evangelical left will be attacking capitalism in the future. Then read Hayek’s books to know the truth. Or you can read my summaries here.