Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed” is just what the philosophical doctor ordered to address the present disarray within the conservative intellectual movement: It is a prescription that requires going back to the very basics.

Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen (Yale University Press, 2018)

Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is just what the philosophical doctor ordered to address the present disarray within the conservative intellectual movement: It is a prescription that requires going back to the very basics.

The author’s first shock treatment is to define conservatism as “first-wave liberalism” and then to launch this insight into the cerebral stratosphere. He ends with a more familiar Tocquevillean localism guided by natural law, but there is a great deal of reentry disturbance in between.

The book starts with a curious front-piece quotation by Edward Gibbon from Barbara Tuchman’s classic A Distant Mirror, which sets a theme regarding the gap between the ideal and real in history, using Gibbon’s “malicious levity” to prick Christian hypocrisy in regard to its ideals vis-a-vis Roman Empire practice (which Tuchman further applied to fourteenth century medievalism). But Dr. Deneen’s ellipsis omits her related criticism of Gibbon for not seeing that Christians recognized the impossibility of the ideal but “tried to uphold it” imperfectly for “more than a millennium” anyway.

Dr. Deneen begins his history with John Locke as “the first philosopher of liberalism,” the one who initiates the individualism and choice that undermined the essential institutions of family, community, and natural law—even though Locke died a century before the term “liberalism” was conceived. The author’s “second-wave” liberalism does start closer to that date with Rousseau, but focuses upon Marx, J. S. Mill, John Dewey and Herbert Croly. He concedes that second-wavers were the ones who adopted the term “liberal,” but he insists on treating first-wave conservative and second-wave progressive liberalism as at root one-and-the-same.

The argument is that both “liberal” waves emphasize individualistic choice and both end up promoting state control. That statism claim is unarguable for the second wave, but Dr. Deneen makes the case that first-wave Lockean conservatism is guilty too. Yes, conservatives talk about limited government, but they do not act on this idea once in power. Moreover, the freedom they proclaim undermines social order, and that inevitably leads to government replacing the social order with massive state welfare, an opening that progressive liberals merely exploit to their common end. Still, Dr. Deneen undermines the charge by conceding that Locke only “eventually” ends in the idealistic state-planning—aimed at achieving human perfection—of Mill and Dewey/Croly.

Dr. Deneen is too good a political scientist not to acknowledge that the disruptive, self-interested individualism he finds to be the cause of liberal failure actually long preceded Locke. He notes that “pre-liberal Christianity” was the first to undermine the traditional family by individualizing marriage as an agreement between spouses, rather than being controlled by patriarch or state. In fact, Jesus went much further, saying that choosing family over Him was not worthy of Him. Jesus even made salvation itself individual, and analogized love of neighbor to love of oneself.

In another place, Dr. Deneen concedes that “liberalism’s appeal lies in its continuities with the deepest commitments of the Western political tradition, particularly to secure liberty and human dignity through the constraints of tyranny, arbitrary rule and oppression” that were “developed over centuries of classical and Christian thought and practice.” Moreover, “moving beyond liberalism is not to discard” these but merely to reject its “false turn” into an ideology, rejecting even “better theory” in favor of “better practice,” although a concluding section does propose building “new forms of culture, household economics and polis life” that could “ultimately emerge” into “a better theory of politics and society.”

This is where fusing the first and second waves flounders. Was it not the second-wavers Rousseau, Marx, Mill, Dewey, and Croly who turned from these limited-government values and made the false turn? Why throw Locke and the other first-wavers into the indictment? Interestingly, only a few other first-wavers are cited, such as James Madison. F.A. Hayek is only mentioned as “echoing Locke.” Thomas Hobbes is equated with Locke at one point but is called merely a “protoliberal.” Locke’s link to Christian thought is minimized, and Dr. Deneen gives prominence to tracing positive first-wave accomplishments to “antiquity” instead.

Dr. Deneen equates Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ views of natural law and argues that rejecting them was the false turn. Yet the latter’s view was informed by revelation and was clearly was a major turn, a fact recognized by first and second-wavers from Locke to Rousseau. Yes, Dr. Deneen’s criticism of individualism and choice cannot be considered an indictment of antiquity, the polis, or Aristotle, but neither can it absolve Aquinas and Christianity. The two philosophers are not “alike,” as Dr. Deneen claims, with the latter fundamentally extending the former. Does Dr. Deneen’s recommendation for a return to “polis life” even implicitly recognize this by implying a return to pre-Christian civic life?

It is puzzling that Why Liberalism Failed is not aimed at the second-wavers who actually made the fatal turn, and that the book is instead intent on co-indicting conservative classical liberals—including Locke, who influenced the American founding—and most self-defined American conservatives today. This brings to mind a similar device in Jacob T. Levy’s thoughtful study, Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom. It is merely guesswork, but one suspects that, as both authors hail from the academy, they both recognize the total dominance in their universities of Dr. Deneen’s second-wavers and Dr. Levy’s similar rationalistic-liberals, a fact that requires that any criticism of the left be balanced by an equally critical stance against conservatives.

This is a reasonable strategy for the academy, but many reviewers on the right seem to be taken in by Dr. Deneen’s (and Dr. Levy’s) paradigm, with some buying into the idea of fusing the two waves and with others rejecting the whole endeavor. But Dr. Deneen obscures the fact that what he seems to want to preserve in liberalism is mostly the first wave and what he wants to reject is mostly the second. Surely, there is already sufficient confusion on the right to justify rejecting his uniting two very different philosophies as a means to highlight the jewels hidden within the pages of the book.

Despite the above criticisms, Why Liberalism Failed is highly recommendable as a useful way to work through Dr. Deneen’s logic, to understand where we truly went wrong, and, finally, to agree with Dr. Deneen that a turn towards localism, guided by Alexis de Tocqueville, is the proper antidote to our troubles.

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The featured image (detail) is “A Capriccio of Roman Ruins, with Arch of Constantine, Trajan’s Column, the Colosseum, and the Statue of Marcus Aureliusin” (1751), by Joseph Nickolls. It is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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