Liberalism Has Not Failed | Opinion

Let me start with a concession: Things are not going great right now in America. I feel this needs little elaboration, so I will just assert it. I do so to grant that this is not the ideal time for a conservative like me to disagree with a conservative like Patrick Deneen on the comparative merits and successes of Liberalism.

Now, of course, what we mean by Liberalism here is not progressivism, woke-ism, or anything else your typical right-wing radio host—or left-wing MSNBC host—means by liberalism. That's why, for clarity's sake, I'll use a capital "L" for the Liberalism we associate with John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume and aspects of the various social transformations that fall under the all-too-capacious catchall label, "the Enlightenment." (There were many Enlightenments—English, Scottish, French, American and even German—and not all of their contributions were equal or necessarily positive. But I'll use the catchall term regardless, for the sake of simplicity.)

Deneen begins his book, Why Liberalism Failed, by stating that Liberalism is "A political philosophy conceived some 500 years ago, and put into effect at the birth of the United States nearly 250 years later." I might quibble with the date on the birth certificate, but we can work with this. In short, Deneen believes a bad idea was born five centuries ago, and that America made a grave mistake by running with it around the time of the Enlightenment.

We tend to use the term Enlightenment figuratively—humanity "saw the light," etc. But it's worth remembering that before the Enlightenment, things were dark—literally dark. The year 1520 was, like the 500,000 years before it, a time when "the world was lit only by fire," to borrow a phrase from William Manchester. When the sun went down, the only way to artificially illuminate the darkness was with fire—which was actually quite expensive. So nighttime reading was a rare luxury, made rarer still because 90 percent of Europeans still couldn't read. This probably wasn't that much of a burden, given that most Europeans spent their days in backbreaking labor and were probably too tired to read anyway—even if they could afford a book (another luxury).

Life expectancy in England improved from around 30, at the beginning of the 1500s, to nearly 40 by the end of the century. The numbers for child-aged deaths climbed to more than a third by the age of six, and a heart-wrenching 60 percent by the age of 16. Women, who by all rights should live longer than men, died younger because of the dangers of childbirth. "On her wedding day, traditionally, her mother gave her a piece of fine cloth which could be made into a frock," Manchester writes of a typical woman of the time. "Six or seven years later, it would become her shroud."

As bleak as things were 500 years ago, it's worth noting they weren't that much better 250 years later, when Deneen argues we took a wrong turn. At the time of the Founding, life-expectancy and literacy had improved, but if I ran through the numbers, it would still sound like I was describing an extremely poor third-world nation today. That's because nearly everything we associate with a halfway-decent quality of life burst onto the scene in a relative blink of an eye. Until Liberalism—free markets, limited government, democracy and individual rights—the average human being lived on roughly three dollars a day. You can quibble with the math, but no economist would dispute the basic point: From the Agricultural Revolution about 12,000 years ago, all the way up until three centuries ago, the typical human lived in crushing poverty and died at an early age from violence or, more likely, some bowel-stewing disease. As economist Todd Buchholz puts it, "For most of man's life on earth, he has lived no better on two legs than he had on four."

This strikes me perhaps the single most consequential point imaginable in any discussion today of political history, and yet at times it seems like an afterthought for Deneen. Some argue that credit for our deliverance from grinding poverty and physical misery should go to the Scientific Revolution. The problem is that without Liberalism, the Scientific Revolution would have been a short-lived revolt. Many civilizations had amazing moments of scientific advancement and innovation. Yet each time new strides were made, the illiberal Powers-that-Be—in China, the Middle East or even in the Venetian Republic—suffocated innovation as an illegitimate threat to their rule. It was only optimistic Liberalism that changed the equation so that freedom—economic, political, social and scientific freedom—was recognized as a good in and of itself because the individual was sovereign.

The arrival of Liberalism, first in England and Holland and then in the New World, changed the human experience from one defined by scarcity and survival to one defined by occupations and endeavors ready for the choosing.

That last word—choosing—illuminates perhaps Deneen's greatest peeve with Liberalism. He argues that John Locke and a handful of ideological co-conspirators convinced everyone that humans are "non-relational creatures, separate and autonomous" who should make decisions based upon "calculations of individual self-interest without broader considerations of the impact of one's choices upon the community, one's obligations to the created order, and ultimately to God."

I think this is a bit of a straw man, given how actual Liberals live (I've yet to meet one who doesn't care about how his or her decisions affect others). Regardless, I am happy to concede that Deneen makes many trenchant points that, as a conservative, I agree with to one extent or another. There are a myriad downsides to radical individualism. America's troubles today are inextricably linked with the breakdown of the family, local institutions, communities, organized religion and social trust. Such deterioration is driven, at least in part, by the relentless individualistic logic of Liberalism and the market (Joseph Schumpeter made this point about markets as far back as the 1940s).

Portrait of John Locke
Portrait of John Locke Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

But what is to be done about it? A first step would be to get the diagnosis right. I find Deneen's attempt to blame it all on John Locke & Co. deeply unpersuasive. And the shortcomings of this argument lead him to faulty conclusions. It's as if he believes that if he can just persuade everybody—including the billions of people who don't know who Locke was—that Locke was wrong, some idealized society will emerge to fill the void. For starters, Liberalism did not spring forth from Locke's brow like Athena from Zeus'. Locke himself was a product of England's liberal culture, and in many respects he was simply synthesizing ideas and norms that were in the air for quite a while.

Liberalism's English roots stretch back a millennium before Locke was born. Take, for instance, the very Liberal Fourth Amendment protection against unwarranted intrusion by the state: This idea stretches back to the quirky English custom that "a man's home is his castle." Some scholars trace it as far back as 1066 or earlier, and it can be found in the 14th century English legal text known as the Mirror of Justices. This longstanding tradition culminated in William Pitt's forceful defense in 1763, a century after it was already enshrined in common law: "The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail—its roof may shake—the wind may blow through it—the storm may enter—the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter."

Similarly, the checks and balances of the American constitutional system probably owe more to England's geography than to Montesquieu's (or Locke's) political thought. As an island nation, England did not need standing armies. Without standing armies, the king was reliant on nobles to make war and stay in power. That's why the Magna Carta was possible some five centuries before Locke was born. The point is that Locke, like so many intellectuals credited with some startling philosophical innovation, was in many respects a lagging indicator, synthesizing ideas and concepts already in wide use.

If America should become some new illiberal dystopia, future historians might credit Patrick Deneen's book. But a closer study would reveal that, for all of Deneen's brilliant insights, he was merely advancing an argument already in the groundwater.

If Locke had never have been born, the American Revolutionaries would still have argued for their "ancient English liberties" and invoked the principles of the Glorious Revolution. Alexis de Tocqueville would still have described the American as "the Englishman left alone." Indeed, the Protestant Reformation and the printing press that made it possible are vastly more important to the evolution of Liberalism than are the writings of Enlightenment political theorists. Any attempt to fix, never mind replace, Liberalism with something else needs to take all of this into account. Americans may be ignorant of Liberal theory, but they are enamored with Liberal culture and practice.

Let me head off an objection. I do not think Liberalism is good simply because it delivers the material goods—though liberating humanity from privation and disease is obviously a good thing. Still, man lives by more than bread—and antibiotics, lightbulbs and air conditioning—alone. Deneen's oddly Rousseauian rejoinder to this is that all we've done is replace one form of bondage with another. For instance, in his book, he is almost silent on the emancipation of women wrought by Liberalism except to decry the fact that "liberalism posits that freeing women from the household is tantamount to liberation, but it effectively puts women and men alike into a far more encompassing bondage."

It's true that if you see the market as a form of bondage, you're going to object to Liberalism. It's also true that every illiberal order ever known required people to work, too—it just didn't give them much choice in the matter. What I don't understand about this line of thinking is how little use it has for human agency, and for people exercising individual rights to pursue happiness as they see it. I'm all for elevating the status of stay-at-home mothers (or fathers), but that option already exists. Right now, there is nothing stopping anyone who hates the abundance of choices provided by the market from exiting it. You will have to sacrifice a certain quality of life, but if you want to retreat from liberal democratic capitalism and party like it's 1499, you can. The Amish made something like this choice, and I respect them for it, as does Deneen. What I object to is people who want to make that choice for others.

Deneen's examples of alternatives to Liberalism are closed, small communities in which individual choice is circumscribed. There's much to be said for such communities, so long as their inhabitants have the right to leave them. But the right to exit is precisely at the heart of Deneen's indictment.

And that's what makes all of this so confusing. There is an odd tendency among today's critics of Liberalism to denounce it for the very things they would like to do themselves, just on their terms. They often decry "cancel culture" for me, but want it for thee. They despise their opponents in the culture war for trying to impose their values on us, but write eloquently about the need to impose our values on them. In this, there's an interesting symmetry in the mobs on the Left literally tearing down statues and the more rarefied and polite cadres on the Right figuratively doing the same thing.

An illiberal order that allows people to say and think what they want, innovators to create what they want and citizens to maintain loyalties to things other than the perpetuation of the regime is an oxymoron. Which is why I would rather live in a society that often fails to live up to its Liberal ideals than in one that succeeds in forcing me to bow down to illiberal ones.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch, an American Enterprise Institute fellow and author of Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy.