December 9, 2018


Why Liberalism's Critics Fail: a review of  Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen  (Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Summer 2018, Modern Age)

The main body of thought overlooked by anti-liberalism of all sorts, then, from Deneen's gentle communitarianism to fascism and communism, is economics after the 1860s and an economic history after the 1940s that uses economics. Deneen, like most of our deep social thinkers, has not opened a book of economics since Marx or of economic history since Polanyi. Like most intellectuals, therefore, he does not understand how a market economy works and what its actual history has been. The facts and logic adduced from the elderly or tertiary books on which he relies are regularly nonfacts, nonlogic, fake news.

Deneen believes, on the contrary, that the poor have become immiserated. But, like Marx, he is mistaken. "Inequality" is the fashionable cry, which of course Deneen echoes. But according to careful statistical studies, world inequality among individuals has declined radically in the past thirty years. And even in rich countries, the inequality we hear so much about has been grossly mismeasured. For example, measures of inequality of wealth, such as Thomas Piketty's, ignore the largest source of modern wealth: human capital. For another example, the alleged decline of the middle class in the U.S. turns out to be mostly a rise into the upper middle class, not a fall into social classes C, D, and E. For still another--the examples are legion--the quality of goods has risen sharply, making "stagnant" money earnings more valuable. Think, to take a plebian example, of modern auto tires or, of course, the amazing power of the modern smartphone, owned now even by the plebes.

During all the millennia before 1800, income per person in today's prices for the average human bumped along at about $2 or $3 a day. It was tough, at the present level of Mali and Afghanistan or of the hard-socialist regimes. Furthermore, hierarchy prevailed. Born a milkmaid, you died a milkmaid. Doubly tough. Your smart option therefore was to look inside, following Stoic and Christian and Buddhist teaching, to take up your cross, or prayer wheel, and quit whining. You'll get pie in the sky when you die, and anyway you might acquire along the way true enlightenment.

By now, however, income per person in the same prices is about $33 a day worldwide, the condition of Brazil. And the liberalism invented in the eighteenth century has partly eroded hierarchy, the condition of Australia. This amazing fact is unknown by most intellectuals damning capitalism and is unappreciated by them even when by some chance they catch wind of it.

One is led to wonder if the two events are connected, the Great Enrichment and the inclusive liberalism Deneen dislikes. They are. In a country like Japan or Sweden or the U.S. that has embraced liberalism most warmly, incomes per person as a whole-population average have risen from the old and ancient $2 or $3 a day to anything from $90 to $120, and much more if the person is highly skilled--sufficient, say, for a condo on Printer's Row in Chicago and a trip to watch birds in Antarctica. The increase is 3,000 percent in the median or average. And the poorest have gained the most. The very rich get another diamond bracelet. Splendid. But the poor get food, housing, antibiotics, and education denied to most people during all of history but the liberal era. By now, descendants by the billions of illiterate slaves and milkmaids have acquired the instruments for full human flourishing. They may not all take it. But that merely suggests that we join Deneen in preaching to them to leave off reality TV and Fritos and get to work on their Greek and Beethoven piano sonatas.

Yet the fact that liberalism resulted in billions of people having full lives does not move Deneen, or other right conservatives and left environmentalists, who fiercely attack a "consumerism" that has in truth characterized human life always. Deneen will have none of it. He wants us to go back to Brook Farm. my grandfather who worked 16 hours a day in the coal mine and died at 42....

Glad they finally posted this because it's the best review I've read of Mr. Deneen's book.

Russ Roberts had a, typically, good conversation with him, EconTalk Podcast: Patrick Deneen on Why Liberalism Failed (Russ Roberts, Jul 9 2018)

Political Scientist and author Patrick Deneen of the University of Notre Dame talks about his book Why Liberalism Failed with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. By liberalism, Deneen means the modern enterprise--the push for self-actualization free of the constraints of tradition, family, and religion that typifies modern culture. He argues that both the left and the right have empowered the state and reduced liberty. He argues for a smaller, more local, more artisanal economy and a return to the virtues of self-control and self-mastery.

Does liberalism deserve to be saved?: Patrick Deneen asserts that the natural endpoint of liberalism is desire rampant and tyrannical, while Jonah Goldberg argues that these outcomes are not liberalism, but its betrayal. (Nathanael Blake, June 28, 2018, Catholic World Report)

The authors agree that liberalism, understood as it is broadly instantiated in the liberal, democratic capitalist West, is in crisis, but diverge regarding its nature and their prescriptions.

Goldberg claims that the happy combination of political liberty, representative government, free markets and technological creativity resulted in what he considers the "Miracle" of liberal democratic capitalism, which has provided previously unimaginable wealth, comfort, freedom and security. But if this is so, then why is the liberal West in danger of committing suicide? He asserts that it is not only because complacency, boredom and ingratitude induce us to forget how much liberalism has done for us, but also because liberalism is unnatural.

We may live in a liberal culture and polity, but we have not significantly evolved from our tribal, stone-age ancestors. Tribal chiefs and divinely-ordained leaders are more natural for us than democratic self-government and freedom. Liberalism, in Goldberg's account, does not give us an all-encompassing identity that provides a sense of meaning. And so many people are readily tempted back to our natural tribalism, which promises to reunite the fragments of the fractured liberal self.

Although Deneen is not insensate to the positives of liberalism, from rising standards of living to the freedoms liberal regimes promise, he fears that as liberalism becomes more dominant and therefore more pure, the blessings that it has provided will either be lost or prove not to be worth their price. The core of Deneen's argument is that liberalism carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and thus is failing because it has triumphed--it betrays itself as it fulfills itself. As liberalism muscles out older traditions and practices that had restrained its excesses, it becomes increasingly self-destructive and, ironically, illiberal. At the heart of this phenomenon is liberalism's determination to liberate human appetite.

For Deneen, liberalism is primarily a philosophy of individual emancipation, with an emphasis on human control of nature as a means to achieve this. Instead of controlling our appetites, we indulge them. Instead of seeking our place in family, community and creed, we seek liberation from their constraints. Instead of accepting a place in the order of the cosmos, we seek dominance. Technological prowess is put in the service of fulfilling our desires. But the scientifically-aided liberation of human appetite makes us slaves to our passions, unable to sate our inflamed desires.

And in the end, it makes us slaves to the state as well. 

The implicit core of this critique is that Man was better off when he was a slave to an economic master than as a "slave" to a participatory republic (if we allow the epithet).  One would bet that the actual men of the former would all prefer the latter.

Posted by at December 9, 2018 8:47 AM