Patrick Deneen and the Problem with Liberalism

May 15, 2018 by

by Samuel Gregg, Public Discourse:

Patrick Deneen poses good questions but begs others. The second installment in the Public Discourse symposium on Why Liberalism Failed.

For some time, I’ve regarded the word “liberalism” as an expression now invested with so many contradictory meanings that it has become useless as a way of describing a consistent set of principles with particular implications for political order. The twentieth-century philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick were typically described as “liberals.” Yet their positions on, for instance, questions of political economy were light years apart.

In his book Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen outlines a very specific understanding of liberalism and why he thinks it’s a problem. Liberalism, he writes, is an ideology that, like any ideology, is concerned with remaking society in ways at odds with the truth about man. According to Deneen, many of America’s present problems, ranging from higher education’s ongoing crack-up to the emergence of transhumanist fantasies, mirror the triumph and internal contradictions of liberalism-as-ideology.

Reading through Deneen’s book, I found myself agreeing with many points. He correctly underscores, for instance, the deep chasm between the way that certain Greeks and Romans, the Hebrew prophets, and (small “o”) orthodox Christianity understand freedom, and the conception of liberty-as-autonomy articulated by liberals ranging from John Stuart Mill to Richard Rorty. The distinction lies, Deneen specifies, in “fundamentally different anthropological assumptions”—most of which, I would argue, reflect different views of the nature of human reason and the will, and of the content of happiness and how it is realized.

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