But under the influence of Machiavelli and Locke, the men who founded our system made two fateful errors. First, they came to reject the classical and religious idea that people are political and relational creatures. Instead, they placed the autonomous, choosing individual at the center of their view of human nature.
Furthermore, they decided you couldn’t base a system of government on something as unreliable as virtue. But you could base it on something low and steady like selfishness. You could pit interest against interest and create a stable machine. You didn’t have to worry about creating noble citizens; you could get by with rationally self-interested ones.
Newsletter Sign UpContinue reading the main story
Sign Up for the Opinion Today Newsletter
Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, the Times editorial board and contributing writers from around the world.
Thank you for subscribing.
An error has occurred. Please try again later.
You are already subscribed to this email.
When communism and fascism failed in the 20th century, this version of liberalism seemed triumphant. But it was a Pyrrhic victory, Deneen argues.
Liberalism claims to be neutral but it’s really anti-culture. It detaches people from nature, community, tradition and place. It detaches people from time. “Gratitude to the past and obligations to the future are replaced by a nearly universal pursuit of immediate gratification.”
Once family and local community erode and social norms dissolve, individuals are left naked and unprotected. They seek solace in the state. They toggle between impersonal systems: globalized capitalism and the distant state. As the social order decays, people grasp for the security of authoritarianism. “A signal feature of modern totalitarianism was that it arose and came to power through the discontents of people’s isolation and loneliness,” he observes. He urges people to dedicate themselves instead to local community — a sort of Wendell Berry agrarianism.
Deneen’s book is valuable because it focuses on today’s central issue. The important debates now are not about policy. They are about the basic values and structures of our social order. Nonetheless, he is wrong. Liberal democracy has had a pretty good run for 300 years. If the problem were really in the roots, wouldn’t it have shown up before now?
The difficulties stem not from anything inherent in liberalism but from the fact that we have neglected the moral order and the vision of human dignity embedded within liberalism itself. As anybody who’s read John Stuart Mill, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, Vaclav Havel, Michael Novak and Meir Soloveichik knows, liberal democracy contains a rich and soul-filling version of human flourishing and solidarity, which Deneen airbrushes from history.
AdvertisementContinue reading the main story
Every time Deneen writes about virtue it tastes like castor oil — self-denial and joylessness. But the liberal democratic moral order stands for the idea that souls are formed in freedom and not in servility, in expansiveness, not in stagnation. It stands for the idea that our covenantal institutions — like family, faith, tradition and community — orient us toward higher loves and common dreams that we then pursue in the great gymnasium of liberty.
Yes, liberalism sometimes sits in tension with faith, tradition, family and community, which Deneen rightly cherishes. But liberalism is not their murderer. Right now, there are community healers in towns and cities concretely living out the liberal democratic vision of the good life — deeply embedded in their communities, surrendered to their ideals, reaching out to other communities, growing in their freedom.
We don’t have to settle for smallness.