'IT IS TASH WHOM HE SERVES': DENEEN AND VERMEULE ON LIBERALISM.
When men and women identify what are in fact their partial and particular causes too easily and too completely with the cause of some universal principle, they usually behave worse than they would otherwise do. --Alasdair MacIntyre (1) I love coming to Notre Dame. Its mores and assumptions about the world feel weird to me, and yet I find them admirable. I love its strangeness, and I particularly love talking about the issues that most divide us. It offers an opportunity to close the "gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul," (2) as Shaw's Henry Higgins put it.
I'm an agnostic, secular Jew. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was just a guy, and I don't believe in God (although, as will become clear, I'm willing to entertain the hypothesis for the sake of argument and draw inferences from it). But I have noticed that many Christians understand aspects of the human condition that secularists tend to overlook. I contemplate your traditions with enormous respect. I once developed a book on religious liberty out of an insight that I got from John Finnis, although I took it in directions that he may not have found congenial. (3)
One reason I like living in a liberal society is that it lets me meet and even befriend people who are so different from myself. I like doing the work of trying to understand them.
That work has a moral dimension. Iris Murdoch observes that it is ethically important to perceive people fairly and accurately, separate from how one behaves toward them. Such perception is "something which we approve of, something which is somehow worth doing in itself." (4) It is a moral activity, and perhaps the necessary substrate of any further moral activity. (5) "The more the separateness and differentness of other people is realized, and the fact seen that another man has needs and wishes as demanding as one's own, the harder it becomes to treat a person as a thing." (6)
On the other hand, Murdoch writes, the chief enemy of morality is "personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what is there outside one." (7) The best art, Murdoch argues, is that which "shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity which startles and delights us simply because we are not used to looking at the real world at all." (8) Such startling experiences are more likely in a liberal society. That is part of the moral case for liberalism. The encounters that freedom forces on us make us better, less solipsistic people.
I worry that some recent Christian criticisms of liberalism are the kind of fantasy that Murdoch warned about, caricaturing what they purport to oppose. They are also ominously vague about what would replace it. Both writers echo earlier Christian flirtations with Marxism: philosophical errors lead idealists to gullibly embrace authoritarian kleptocrats who do not give a damn about the people the idealists are trying to help.
I will focus on the work of Patrick Deneen, with some reference to the more abbreviated but similar critiques of liberalism by Adrian Vermeule. Both claim that liberalism's relentless logic tends to destroy communities and traditions. The alleged mechanism is underspecified. Deneen offers more detail, emphasizing the harm that neoliberal economics has done to working class incomes, and the harm that the sexual revolution has done to working class family structure. In both cases, he is unfamiliar with the pertinent social science and so misdescribes the mechanisms at work. These ills certainly exist, but abandoning liberalism is a quack remedy.
I'm one of the liberals they oppose. I have defended aspects of liberal practice that they find especially odious: abortion, (9) gay rights, (10) drug use, (11) and pornography. (12) I have also argued, however, precisely as an inference from liberalism, that religious people like them who reject all these things ought to be able to live out their ideals unmolested by the majority, for example when they decline to facilitate same-sex weddings. (13) I don't recognize myself in their claims that liberals aim to bully religious conservatives to the margins of society. (14) Some on the left concededly do. They aren't liberals. The insouciant enthusiasm, in factions on the left and the right, for dismantling American political institutions calls to mind Roger Scruton's observation that genuine conservatism "tells us that we have collectively inherited good things that we must strive to keep," and that it understands "that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created." (15)
I have worked very hard to understand the views that oppose mine. Reading them, I find little evidence that they have given liberals like me the same courtesy.
WHAT IS LIBERALISM?
It is not clear what they think they are attacking. Deneen says he supports many "institutional forms of government that we today associate with liberalism," (16) notably "constitutionalism, separation of powers, separate spheres of church and state, rights and protections against arbitrary rule, federalism, rule of law, and limited government." (17) Vermeule cites with approval legal constraints on the administrative state. (18) So what exactly is bugging them?
Deneen writes that liberalism aims at "the greatest possible freedom from external constraints, including customary norms." (19) It is self-defeating, because "[d]emocracy requires extensive social forms that liberalism aims to deconstruct, particularly shared social practices and commitments that arise from thick communities." (20) Yet liberalism cannot help itself. "Liberalism's internal logic leads inevitably to the evisceration of all institutions that were originally responsible for fostering human virtue: family, ennobling friendship, community, university, polity, church." (21)
Vermeule similarly cites "the relentless aggression of liberalism, driven by an internal mechanism that causes ever more radical demands for political conformism, particularly targeting the Church." (22) He claims that liberalism is based upon "the fateful thought that the autonomy of the individual, of the individual's reason and desires, is of paramount importance." (23) Progressivism, which he understands as "[l]ate-stage liberalism," (24) is "rooted in a particular mythology of endless liberation through the continual overcoming of the reactionary past." (25) Its aim is to instrumentalize law "to serve the will of individuals who seek liberation from any and all unchosen constraints." (26) Citing Deneen with approval, (27) Vermeule claims that "the progression (as it were) from one form of liberalism to another unfolds by a logical dynamic, an inner necessity." (28)
All this talk of relentless logic and inner necessity promises that we will be given some account of the alleged mechanism. The language of historical inevitability is reminiscent of Marx. He developed a detailed, articulate account of the alleged inner logic of capitalism, in order to show that it would inevitably alienate and immiserate the working classes. Marx turned out to be wrong. But at least one could tell what he was claiming.
Deneen is clearer than Vermeule on this issue. He offers a definition of liberalism, albeit an idiosyncratic one that would astonish most liberals: "Liberalism is most fundamentally constituted by a pair of deeper anthropological assumptions that give liberal institutions a particular orientation and cast: 1) anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature," (29) Liberalism's catastrophic end is inevitable because those assumptions, he thinks, are unsustainable. It is not possible to "perpetually enforce order upon a collection of autonomous individuals increasingly shorn of constitutive social norms." (30) Nor is it possible, in a world of limits, to "provide endless material growth." (31) His account depends on the idea--a very old one--that liberalism tends to destroy communities and isolate people. (32) (Its relation to the separation from nature is less clear.) But it is obscure how that anthropological individualism could lead the liberal state to deliberately attack communities, as he alleges. (33)
These portraits, which echo Hegel's account of the aimless destructiveness of the French Revolution, misunderstand liberalism at a fundamental level. (34)
Edmund Fawcett observes that liberalism was a political practice before it was a theory, and that it is at the level of practice that it should be judged. (35) Vermeule sometimes focuses on "[l]iberalism as a concrete sociopolitical order." (36) He thinks that this order is fundamentally unsound, because it "rests upon a series of invisible hand systems: free competition in explicit economic markets, free competition in the marketplace of ideas, institutional competition among branches of government, and so on." (37) He declares that "liberal faith in these systems far outruns any of the social-scientific mechanisms or evidence adduced to support them." (38)
The evidence is so massive that it is hard to imagine how he fails to notice it. I am writing these words on a computer, in a secure and well-constructed home with reliable electricity and plumbing, unafraid of detention without trial or destruction by war. Those desiderata are shared by Vermeule, and also by the custodian who cleans his office.
Free markets, free speech, and democracy made all this possible. (39) I am surrounded by comforts that were unimaginable for most of human history, comforts now available to most Americans and an increasing proportion of the people in the world. All three of my children have survived to adulthood. Since liberalism arrived, the world has become a far better place for human beings to live. (40) It is one of the peculiarities of linguistic drift that those who are eager to trash this inheritance are given the label...
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