The liberalism that Patrick Deneen writes about in his recent book, Why Liberalism Failed, is the set of principles upon which liberal democracies are built. This set of principles encompasses the classical liberalism favoured by many who would like to reduce the dependence of citizens on government, as well as the progressive liberalism of those who see a role for government in supporting emancipative values.
In my view Deneen makes many good points. Having just finished reading and writing about The Meaning of Democracy by Vincent Ostrom I welcome Deneen’s further reminder that citizens of the United States (and other liberal democracies) no longer display the intense commitment toward democratic citizenship at a local level observed by Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited America in the 1830s. I welcome Deneen’s view that “politics and human community must percolate from the bottom up, from experience and practice”. I welcome his support for practices “that sustain culture within communities, the fostering of household economics, and ‘polis life’, or forms of self-governance that arise from shared civic participation”. I welcome his acceptance that the achievements of liberalism “must be acknowledged” and that we “must build on those achievements”. I also welcome that Deneen’s book is much easier to read than Ostom’s book.
Unfortunately, Deneen’s book is based on a monstrous error. The error I refer to is not directly linked to his criticism of globalization and technological progress, his forecast of growing inequality, or his fears about “rapacious exploitation of resources”. Some of what he writes on those topics is in error, but in my view those errors are balanced to a large extent by insightful comments about education and politics, and his acknowledgement that “there can be no going back”. (Deneen’s negativity about the modern world leaves me with a strong desire for an antidote. My desire to read Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker’s latest book, has suddenly become more urgent.)
Deneen’s monstrous error stems from his mis-reading of John Locke:
“Both Hobbes and Locke—but especially Locke—understand that liberty in our prepolitical condition is limited not only by the lawless competition of other individuals but by our recalcitrant and hostile natures. A main goal of Locke’s philosophy is to expand the prospects for our liberty—defined as the capacity to satisfy our appetites—through the auspices of the state. Law is not a discipline for self-government but the means for expanding personal freedom: ‘The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom’.” (p 47-48).
Deneen has taken the quoted sentence about the “end of law” from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. However, in the paragraph from which the quoted sentence is taken, Locke was actually writing about the discipline of self-government rather than law provided “through the auspices of the state”. The paragraph begins:
“The law, that was to govern Adam, was the same that was to govern all his posterity, the law of reason”.
Locke goes on to imply that everyone has to learn “the use of reason” before they can know where their “proper interest” lies. It is in the context of writing about “the law of reason” that Locke notes:
“the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: for in all the states of created beings capable of laws, ‘where there is no law, there is no freedom’ for liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others”.
Locke implies that “the law of reason” is linked to norms of reciprocity: “for who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him”. See: Second Treatise of Government, para 57.
In The Nature and Purposes of Government: a Lockean View, Linda Raeder has carefully noted the vast difference between Hobbesian and Lockean views of the state of nature. While Hobbes saw the state of nature as a “war of all against all”, Locke saw it as being governed by natural law. Linda Raeder notes that Locke’s particular formulation of the law of nature “carried forward a longstanding tradition that ascribes an intrinsic moral dimension to human nature”. According to that view all humans “possess an inherent ability to distinguish between right and wrong” and “every human being knows, as Locke says, that he is obliged, ‘as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind’.” (Raeder, loc 465)
Why do I view Deneen’s mis-reading of John Locke a monstrous error? If Deneen had read Locke more carefully he could not claim:
“Liberalism rejects the ancient conception of liberty as the learned capacity of human beings to conquer the slavish pursuit of base and hedonistic desires” (p 37).
Nor could he claim:
“Liberalism’s ascent and triumph required sustained efforts to undermine the classical and Christian understanding of liberty, the disassembling of widespread norms, traditions, and practices, and perhaps above all the reconceptualization of primacy of the individual defined in isolation from arbitrary accidents of birth, with the state as the main protector of individual rights and liberty” (p 27).
If Deneen had not misread Locke his central thesis about the contradictions inherent within classical liberalism would fall apart. He could not claim:
“Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded. As liberalism has “become more fully itself,” as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology” (p 3).
If we want to understand why liberal democracy is becoming “a war of all against all” we need to understand why the norms underlying it are breaking down, despite the efforts of classical liberals to uphold them. Why is it that people now exercise less restraint in the demands that they make on others through the political process? Why is it that those whose tax payments fund transfers through the political process increasingly consider themselves to be exploited? We can’t blame John Locke, or his classical liberal followers for the failings of liberal democracy.
Despite my misgivings about Why Liberalism Failed I am grateful to Patrick Deneen for drawing attention to the importance of the exit rights advocated by classical liberals. In discussing how self-governing communities might emerge, he writes:
“For a time, such practices will be developed within intentional communities that will benefit from the openness of liberal society. They will be regarded as ‘options’ within the liberal frame, and while suspect in the broader culture, largely permitted to exist so long as they are nonthreatening to the liberal order’s main business” (p 179).
That is hardly a ringing endorsement for the exit rights that Locke and Jefferson helped to have recognized as core values of western civilization. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the opportunity to note that the author is pointing to a means whereby liberalism could transform itself rather than fail.