What Why Liberalism Failed Is About
The title is provocative for those who are politically inclined. How could anyone think that liberalism has failed? But Patrick Deneen isn’t talking about liberalism in the sense that we most often use it – as political and cultural progressivism. No, in Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen has set his sites on the entire political theory of liberalism, which is the very foundation of the American political system. This sort of liberalism is a political theory based on the premises that individuals should have the liberty to make autonomous choices about their lives, and that human beings must conquer nature in order to thrive.
The first premise, what Deneen calls “anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice,” is a radical redefinition of the word liberty. In classical thought – including Christian teaching – liberty was the power to rule oneself, to demonstrate the virtues over against the baser appetites. These lower desires, particularly those for food, drink, and sex, were understood to be tyrannical, and a man could not be free unless he was able to exercise self-control, or what the classical philosophers called temperance. Temperance was understood to be the true liberator, and a society could only be free insofar as its leaders exercised self-control.
Temperance was understood to be the true liberator, and a society could only be free insofar as its leaders exercised self-control.
Liberal theory turns this on its head, and posits that liberty is experienced only to the extent that individuals are free to make the choices they desire to make. “Liberal philosophy rejected [the] requirement of human self-limitation. …Liberalism instead understands liberty as the condition in which one can act freely within the sphere unconstrained by positive law.” (35-38) The only laws that liberalism allows are those which prevent us from directly harming other people. All else is permissible.