Thursday, March 22, 2018

On Deneen (3): Does Liberalism Create a New Aristocracy Based on an Ignoble Lie?

Yes, Deneen claims, liberalism necessarily creates what he calls a "titanic inequality" (3, 139-40), which allows a small elite group of people with great wealth, power, and status to rule over society in a way that makes it impossible for those outside the ruling class to improve their desperately impoverished lives.

This new aristocracy or "liberalocracy" (152) depends on liberalism's ignoble lie.  In Plato's Republic, Socrates thought the legitimacy of the perfectly just city would depend upon teaching a noble lie:  people must believe that all people in the community are naturally equal in that they have all been born into the same family, but they are also naturally unequal in that each person has been endowed at birth with different talents and propensities corresponding to different metals in their souls: gold for the ruling class, silver for the soldiers and public officers, bronze and iron for the workers.  As Deneen explains in a recent article in First Things (April 2018), this is a noble lie, because it teaches noblesse oblige--the obligation of the nobility to rule for the common good of all and not merely for the selfish interests of the ruling class.  This is the teaching that supported the legitimacy of the older aristocratic order in medieval Europe: in the ancient regime, the hereditary aristocracy was supposed to rule for good of the whole community. 

By contrast, the new aristocracy of liberalism rules by an ignoble lie, because the liberal elites have been taught that they can pursue their own self-interest with no obligation to serve the lower classes.  But at the same time, the liberal ruling class has been taught that it is not really a ruling class, and so they must profess belief in radical equality and denounce the evils of "elitism," while hypocritically refusing to acknowledge their own elite status.  And so, for example, we see privileged students at the most elite universities violently protesting against speakers on campus whom they think are perpetuating inequalities of race, gender, and class, while ignoring the fact that their elite universities are themselves bastions of inequality.

Deneen suggests that Plato's noble lie is actually a truth, at least insofar as it recognizes "the fact of inequality" (First Things, 28).  Human beings really are unequal in their innate and acquired capacities and inclinations, and consequently every society will be unequal in its structure: some people will have greater wealth, power, and status than others.  The great political problem is how to prevent this inequality from causing class conflict by arranging the social order so that the ruling class and the underclass can cooperate for the common good of all.

In his article for First Things, Deneen explains how Plato's noble lie achieves this:
"Only if each group accepts each part of the 'lie,' as Socrates explains, is a kind of social contract achieved.  Elites and commoners both accept the part of the myth that does not appeal to them for the sake of the part that does.  Elites are distinguished in a society that justifies inequality; commoners are best off in a society that compels service of elites for the whole.  Instead of acting as warring parties, both sides work for the good of all."
As Deneen indicates, the ancien regime was an attempt to achieve this kind of social contract.  Can it work?  Deneen gives contradictory answers.  Sometimes he says yes, the ancien regime--or a "Burkean society"--can work:
"A Burkean society is organized for the benefit of the ordinary--the majority who benefit from societal norms that the strong and the ordinary alike are expected to follow.  A society can be shaped for the benefit of most people by emphasizing mainly informal norms and customs that secure the path to flourishing for most human beings; or it can be shaped for the benefit of the extraordinary and powerful by liberating all from the constraints of custom.  Our society was once shaped on the basis of the benefit for the many ordinary; today it is shaped largely for the benefit of the few strong" (148).
Here it seems that in arguing against the liberal social order, he is also arguing for the illiberal social order as the alternative to liberalism.  But elsewhere in his writing, he contradicts this, because he says that the illiberal social order--the ancien regime or Burkean society--fails.

The illiberal regime fails, Deneen admits, because its ideal social contract cannot be achieved in practice.  He agrees with a remark in Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century--quoted both in his article and as the epigram for his book--as saying that the aristocratic rulers of the Middle Ages failed to abide by their chivalric code of public service: "In practice, they were themselves the oppressors, and by the 14th century the violence and lawlessness of men of the sword had become a major agency of disorder.  When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down."

Deneen also observes: "A vast disconnect once existed between the philosophy of the West and its practices.  The ideals of liberty, equality, and justice coexisted with extensive practices of slavery, bondage, inequality, disregard for the contributions of women, and arbitrary forms of hierarchy and application of law" (185).  So here Deneen actually agrees with liberalism's criticism of the ancien regime's social contract as a failure.

And yet while admitting the failure of the illiberal social contract, Deneen insists that the liberal social contract is also a failure, which leaves his reader frustrated by a negative critique without any positive recommendation.

But then the reader might wonder whether Deneen's negative critique of liberalism is supported by the empirical evidence.  As Deneen says, the Lockean liberal social contract depends on showing how equality and inequality can be combined in a society in a way that serves the good of all classes of people.  On the one hand, everyone should be equal in their natural liberty to pursue their happiness as they please, so long as they do not coercively impede the equal liberty of others to pursue their happiness.  On the other hand, this equal liberty will allow the differences in people's talents and inclinations to be expressed, so that there will be inequality in social outcomes: some people will have more property, power, and prestige than others.  This need not cause class conflict as long as there is enough equality of opportunity to bring about social mobility upward and downward, and as long as those people in the lower classes see ever growing improvement in the conditions of their life, so that they can live happy lives.

This Lockean liberal social contract contains at least four empirical claims about how inequality in a liberal social order will serve the common good of all.  Deneen argues that all four of these claims have been proven false.  But in making this assertion, he does not survey all of the pertinent evidence. In fact, he is completely silent about much of the evidence.


The first empirical claim is that the inequality in a liberal society will not be so great as to totally separate the ruling class from the underclass and thus create class conflict with no sense of a shared common good.  Deneen asserts that this is a false claim, because liberalism actually creates "titanic inequality--far outstripping the differences between peasant and king" (139).

Deneen does not present any historical evidence to support this assertion.  Actually, the evidence gathered by economic historians suggests that he is wrong about this, because the inequality in pre-modern illiberal societies was generally greater than in most liberal societies today.  Much of this research has been surveyed by Milanovic, Lindert, and Williamson (2011), and it has been presented graphically by Max Roser here.

These scholars have estimated inequality across individuals within each of the 28 pre-industrial societies for which data were available, and they have compared these estimates with inequality in modern societies.  These pre-industrial societies did not have the sort of income distribution data that we have today.  But it is possible to gather data through constructing "social tables," where economic classes are listed with their estimated average incomes and population sizes.  This data can then be used to estimate a Gini coefficient of inequality--a statistical scale where 0 represents complete equality of wealth (no one having a bigger share than others) and 1 (or 100%) represents maximum inequality (one person having all the wealth).  Gini coefficients below 30 are considered indicators of low inequality.  Gini coefficients above 50 are considered indicators of high inequality.

If Deneen were right, we would expect to see a much higher Gini for the modern liberal societies than for the pre-modern illiberal societies.  But that's not what we see.  For the Roman Empire in the year 14, the Gini is 39.4.  For Italy in 2000, the Gini is 35.9.  For England and Wales in 1688, the Gini is 45.0.  For the United Kingdom today, the Gini is 32.4.  For France in 1788, the Gini is 55.9.  For France in 2000, the Gini is 31.2.

As compared with the pre-industrial societies, the modern liberal regimes here do not show "titanic inequality--far outstripping the differences between peasant and king."

Another way of judging Deneen's assertion is to look at the contemporary cross-country data on inequality.  Oddly, while Deneen claims to show the failure of liberalism around the world, he looks almost exclusively at the United States, making no attempt to look at evidence from other countries.  But if he is right about liberal inequality, then he should predict that the most liberal countries will have the highest Gini scores.  The evidence suggests otherwise.

As I have indicated in other posts, we can take the Human Freedom Index as an index of liberalism, because it measures both economic and personal freedom, with freedom defined as negative freedom (absence of coercion).  So we can look at countries ranked highest on the Human Freedom Index to see if this is correlated with high Gini scores.

Here are the rankings on the Human Freedom Index for the top 10 countries (with the Netherlands and the UK tied for 10th) and the United States.  The numbers in parentheses are the Gini scores, which I have taken from the CIA's World Factbook.

1. Switzerland (29.5)
2. Hong Kong (53.9)
3. New Zealand (36.2)
4. Ireland (31.9)
5. Australia (30.3)
6. Finland (21.5)
7. Norway (26.8)
8. Denmark (28.5)
9. Netherlands (28.6)
9. United Kingdom (32.4)

17. United States (41.0)

Now look at the list of the top 10 countries with the highest Gini scores--showing the greatest levels of inequality--with their rankings on the Human Freedom Index in parentheses.

1. Lesotho 63.2 (96)
2. South Africa 62.5 (68)
3. Micronesia 61.1 (no HFI ranking)
4. Haiti 60.8 (78)
5. Botswana 60.5 (78)
6. Namibia 59.7 (69)
7. Zambia 57.5 (112)
8. Comoros 55.9 (no HFI ranking)
9. Hong Kong 53.9 (2)
10. Columbia 53.5 (93)

Notice that 5 of the countries on the top 10 ranking for freedom have unusually low Gini scores (below 30).  Finland's Gini score (21.5) is the lowest Gini score for all 159 countries in the world!  Hong Kong is the anomalous case--ranking in the top 10 for both freedom and inequality.

Notice that of the 10 countries with the highest Gini scores, all--with the exception of Hong Kong--have very low rankings on the Human Freedom Index.

Here the empirical evidence for a high correlation between liberalism and low inequality seems clear.

There has been some degree of inequality in every human society that has ever existed.  Even the nomadic foraging bands famous for their egalitarian ethos show some inequality.  Some anthropologists have noted that while hunter-gatherers show little inequality in material wealth (such as household goods and land), they do show some inequality in embodied wealth (such as weight and hunting success) and social wealth (such as reputation and the size and quality of social networks), which can be transmitted by inheritance (Smith et al. 2010).  The anthropologists studying this have estimated that this creates a high bias in the life chances according to the parent's wealth: a child born into the top 10% in wealth of the population is five times as likely to remain in the top 10% as the child born into the bottom 10%.  They have estimated that the average Gini coefficient for these foraging bands could be around 25, which is similar to the Gini scores for liberal countries today.  So we might conclude that liberal societies are restoring the level of inequality found in the prehistoric bands that dominated most of our evolutionary history.

Deneen might want to dispute this evidence.  But we don't know, because he says nothing about any of this evidence.


The second empirical claim of liberalism that Deneen denies is the idea that a liberal society with equality of opportunity will allow people to move up and down the social structure, so that people will not be permanently fixed at the top or at the bottom.  On the contrary, Deneen believes, "liberalism and market capitalism perpetuate titanic and permanent forms of inequality that might have made dukes and earls of old blush" (140).

Deneen explains:
"Liberalism was justified, and gained popular support, as the opponent of and alternative to the old aristocracy.  It attacked inherited privilege, overturned prescribed economic roles, and abolished fixed social positions, arguing instead for openness based upon choice, talent, opportunity, and industry.  The irony is the creation of a new aristocracy that has enjoyed inherited privileges, prescribed economic roles, and fixed social positions" (135).
Just two pages before this passage describing "fixed social positions," however, Deneen speaks about "both upward and downward movement" in liberal societies that "leads all classes to share a pervasive anxiety," because "social status" is always "insecure" (133).  I see no way to resolve this contradiction.  But generally he seems to deny that there is any social mobility in a liberal regime.

As I have argued in other posts, the empirical data for economic inequality does not necessarily show a lack of equal opportunity for social mobility, because there can be a lot of mobility into and out of the top economic ranks of society.  Economists who study this have shown that over 50 percent of American households will be in the top 10 percent of income-earners for at least one year in their lives.  Over 11 percent of Americans will be among the top 1 percent of income-earners (people making a minimum of $332,000 per year) for at least one year in their lives.  94 percent of the Americans who join the top 1 percent group will keep that status for only one year.

Moreover, the factors that explain higher household incomes among Americans are not fixed over a lifetime, and they are to some degree a matter of personal decisions, which means that people are not forced to remain in one income bracket for their whole lives.  American households with higher than average incomes tend to be households where the members are well-educated, in their prime earning years (between the ages of 35 and 64), working full-time, and are in stable marriages.  Households with lower than average incomes tend to be households where the members are less-educated, outside their prime earning years, unemployed or working only part-time, and they are likely to be unmarried.

Deneen is silent about this evidence.


The third empirical claim of liberalism about inequality denied by Deneen is the argument that liberal inequality improves the economic life of everyone: the rich get richer, and the poor get richer.

Contrary to what Deneen says, the evidence supporting the liberal claim is overwhelming.

People live in absolute poverty when their income is so low that they cannot live a dignified life, because they live in grinding poverty.  For most of human history prior to 1800, almost all human beings lived that way.  Increasingly, very few people in liberal societies today live in such destitute conditions.  But even when those people with the lowest income in a society are living much better than the poor of the past, they can be living in relative poverty in that their income is much lower than others with higher incomes.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the median American household income increased 5.2% in 2015 over 2014, which is the largest one-year increase since record-keeping began in 1967.  This increase in 2015 is shown at all income levels, including the middle classes and the poor.  From 2014 to 2015, there was a 1.2% decrease in the poverty rate, which is the largest annual percentage drop in poverty since 1999. So, on average, everyone's economic condition is improving.  Although the rate of economic improvement for the lower and middle classes in America has slowed somewhat over the past 30 years, there has still been improvement, and so everyone really is on average better off today than they were a few years ago.

In liberal societies, the number of people living in such destitute conditions of poverty that they cannot live dignified lives is approaching zero.  And so absolute poverty has been almost completely abolished.  This is happening around the world, as the level of global poverty moves towards zero.

The empirical evidence for this is summarized by Pinker in Enlightenment Now, by Deirdre McCloskey in her books on the "bourgeois virtues," and by Max Roser here.

Deneen ignores this evidence.


The fourth empirical claim by liberalism denied by Deneen is the idea that the inequality in a liberal regime need not impede the pursuit of happiness by those in the lower classes. 

Deneen assumes that inequality must make people in the lower ranks of society unhappy.  But this ignores the empirical evidence gathered by various scholars that people prefer unequal societies (Starmans, Sheskin, and Bloom 2017).  Laboratory studies, cross-cultural research, and experiments with babies and young children indicate that human  beings naturally favor fair distributions, not equal ones, and that they prefer fair inequality over unfair equality.

Moreover, data from the pooled World Values/European Values Surveys, with 169 representative national samples in 68 nations, 1981 to 2009, and over 200,000 respondents indicate that inequality does not reduce happiness in advanced societies, and that inequality might actually be beneficial in developing countries (Kelley and Evans 2017).

Deneen does not look at any of this evidence.  He does consider, however, the evidence on happiness and social class in America gathered by Charles Murray in his Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  But even here, Deneen is selective in his reporting of Murray's empirical research, because Deneen is careful not to report points where Murray contradicts Deneen's argument.

As indicated in my previous post on Murray's book, he makes an Aristotelian and Thomistic argument that the end of all human action is happiness, and that we pursue happiness by satisfying our natural inclinations.  In applying this idea to America, Murray makes three general points.

The first point is that Murray shows how the American founders were successful in framing a liberal government that would secure the conditions for people at all levels of American society to pursue their happiness.  Up to the 1960s, Murray argues, the American pursuit of happiness was the same for all classes.  All were able to attain happiness by their accomplishments in the four major domains of life--family, vocation, community, and faith. 

Murray's second point is that beginning in the 1970s, there has been a divergence among white Americas. Those in the upper classes (identified by Murray as "Belmont") were still happy because they were successful in those four domains of life, but those in the lower class (identified as "Fishtown") were not as successful.  Those in Fishtown had higher rates of familial instability, joblessness, drug addiction, crime, and disorderly neighborhoods.  As a consequence, people in Fishtown were less likely to report being "very happy."

Murray's third point is that this gap between Belmont and Fishtown narrows or even disappears as the people in Belmont and Fishtown become similar in their achievements.  Among those with high work satisfaction and good marriages, 45% of those in Belmont and 30% of those in Fishtown report being "very happy."  Among those who also report high social trust and weekly religious worship, the difference totally disappears--both in Belmont and in Fishtown, 60% of these people report being "very happy."

Deneen reports the second point, but he is silent about the first and third points.  He does not report Murray's first point, because Deneen believes that the American founding--beginning with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution adopted in 1789--established a liberal regime that made it impossible for Americans to properly pursue true happiness (101-102, 141-42, 161-73,188-89).  And so he doesn't want to recognize Murray's evidence that the American founding secured the conditions for people in all social classes to pursue and attain their happiness.

Deneen does not report the third point, because he does not want to consider the evidence for Murray's claim that the gap between Belmont and Fishtown can be closed when people in Fishtown develop the same social virtues as the people in Belmont.

Deneen must pass over Murray's first and third points in silence, because Deneen is trying to argue that the social disorder in the lives of many people in the white underclass of Fishtown is the inevitable condition for all people who live in a liberal regime like America.

Deneen's story about the America family is very different from Murray's.  According to Deneen, the American liberal regime initially destroyed the institutions supporting family life.  This led to "the instability of families regardless of social class," and then "the family could be reassembled along liberal lines," so that "the liberal family is reconstituted to serve as the launching pad for the autonomous individual" (150-51).  But this reconstructed "liberal family" can be achieved only among those very few elite Americans who live in the aristocratic families of Murray's Belmont.  The majority of Americans, who are not in the liberal ruling class, cannot enjoy the benefits of a stable family life.

Deneen's story is hard to understand, because if liberalism necessarily destroys all family life, as he says, then it is hard to see how there can be a "liberal family," which would seem to be a contradiction in terms.  Murray thinks a "liberal family" is possible, because he thinks that a liberal society allows for the cultivation of those social virtues that sustain successful family life.  As I indicated in my previous post, John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education shows how liberal parents can cultivate those virtues in their children.

Deneen presents no empirical evidence to show that his story about the American family is correct, and Murray's is wrong.


Kelley, Jonathan, and M. D. R. Evans. 2017. "Social Inequality and Individual Subjective Well-Being: Results from 68 Societies and Over 200,000 Individuals, 1981-2008." Social Science Research 62: 1-23.

Milanovic, Branko, Peter H. Lindert, and Jeffrey G. Williamson. 2011. "Pre-Industrial Inequality." The Economic Journal 121: 255-72.

Smith, Eric Alden, et al. 2010. "Wealth Transmission and Inequality among Hunter-Gatherers." Current Anthropology 51: 19-34.

Starmans, Christian, Mark Sheskin, and Paul Bloom. 2017. "Why People Prefer Unequal Societies." Nature Human Behaviour 1: 1-7.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

On Deneen (2): Does Liberalism Make Us Lonely?

Yes, Deneen claims, liberalism has made us all desperately lonely. 

For Deneen, this illustrates how liberalism has failed because it has succeeded.  Liberalism teaches a false individualistic conception of human beings as naturally solitary and autonomous beings, who naturally seek to be free from the constraints of any social bonds.  Insofar as liberalism has succeeded in destroying all forms of social connectedness--including family life, friendship, and all kinds of voluntary associations--human beings are free to live solitary lives, and consequently there are only two units of society: the individual and the state.  And thus liberalism promotes both individualism and statism.  But since human beings really are naturally social animals, who yearn for social bonding in families, friendships, and social groups, people in liberal societies who live as solitary individuals suffer an unhappy loneliness.  In this way, the success of the liberal project shows the failure of liberalism to give us the happiness we desire.

Is Deneen correct in his interpretation of liberal political theory?  And is he correct in his empirical claims about the disastrous consequences of liberalism as he interprets it?

In developing his argument, Deneen employs a distinctive rhetorical strategy.  He looks for books and articles that agree with his position.  He then paraphrases and quotes from those writings.  Finally, he endorses the authors' conclusions.  But he never weighs the empirical evidence for and against what the authors are saying.  He never considers what the critics of those authors have said.  And sometimes he selectively reports what the authors have said to hide points where they disagree with him.

This rhetorical strategy is evident in how Deneen argues for his claim that liberalism has made us all lonely.  To support this claim, he appeals to four books and two articles, which I list here along with the pages in his book where they come up:

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to our Brains (15-16, 94)

Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (15-16, 94-95)

Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community (59-61)

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (74-75)

Stephen Marche, "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely" (103-104)

Richard Thomas, "From Porch to Patio" (105)

Let's consider both the empirical evidence and the theoretical interpretations related to Deneen's use of these texts.

Deneen cites these six authors as testifying to the pervasive loneliness of Americans as created by liberalism, and he cites Carr, Turkle, and Marche as testifying to the fact that in recent decades American loneliness has been intensified by the use of the Internet and cell phones, which isolates people in depriving them of face-to-face social interactions.

Deneen is completely silent, however, about the extensive evidence that Americans are not suffering from an epidemic of loneliness, because they are just as socially connected as they have always been.  If ties to family and friends are especially important to people, because they have natural desires for sexual mating, parental care, familial bonding, friendship, and social status--five of the twenty natural desires on my list--then one would expect that people will respond to changing circumstances--technological, demographic, economic, and cultural changes--by adapting in ways that preserve those social relationships.  Claude Fischer (2011) has summarized the evidence--mostly from survey research--that this happened in America from 1970 to 2010.  In response to great social changes in this period, Americans have adapted their lives to preserve their valued ties to family and friends.  Deneen says nothing about this evidence.  (Fischer has written a brief statement of his reasoning in an online article.)

For example, there is evidence from time-budget studies that American parents were spending more time with their children after 2000 than in the decades before.  Although American parents and children might have fewer at-home activities together, they have more out-of-home activities, as parents spend more time accompanying their children to their playdates, sports practices, and on grocery shopping trips.  Family meals at home have declined slightly, but family meals in restaurants have increased.

In a 1964 survey, the proportion of respondents (53%) who said they saw their relatives for a social evening several times a month or more was a little lower than the average for the 2000s.  Surveys also indicate that Americans saw their friends in person about as often in the 2000s as in the 1970s.

For over fifty years, surveys have asked people whether they have anyone--a relative or a friend--whom they could count on to help them with their personal problems.  Only about 2% said "no one," and only about 3-4% named only one person.  Over 90% said that they could rely on personal material or psychological support from relatives or friends.  This has remained steady over the decades.

The World Values Survey have asked people to rate aspects of life as "very important," "rather important," "not very important," or "not at all important."  In 1990, 92% said their family was "very important." In 2006, 95% gave this answer.  In 1990, 54% said their friends were "very important."  In 2006, 60% gave this answer.

Asked whether they believed it is generally a good idea for older people to share a home with their grown children, 35% said yes in 1970, 50% said yes in 2010.

In America, about 75% of young adults report receiving financial help from their parents, and a great majority of adults report helping their elderly parents.

Changing circumstances have brought changes in the way people connect to their family and friends. Since the 1950s, for example, many more women have become college students, and many more have joined the workforce.  A growing proportion of women are even going to advanced professional schools (law schools, medical schools, business schools, and graduate schools). Consequently, women might spend less time at home making contact with their neighbors.  But at the same time, women in college and professional schools develop social networks at school, and working women can connect with people they meet at work.

Deneen asserts that women suffer from this, because working outside the home is a form of slavery:
". . . All but forgotten are arguments, such as those made in the early Republic, that liberty consists of independence from the arbitrariness not only of a king but also of an employer.  Today we consider the paramount sign of the liberation of women to be their growing emancipation from their biology, which frees them to serve a different, disembodied body--'corporate' America--and participate in an economic order that effectively obviates any actual political liberty.  Liberalism posits that freeing women from the household is tantamount to liberation, but it effectively puts women and men into a far more encompassing bondage" (187).
So anyone who works for an employer is a slave?  Is Deneen implicitly appealing to George Fitzhugh's argument that slaves in the American South were better off than the "wage slaves" in the North?  He presents no evidence to support this.  Nor does he mention the evidence that far from seeking "emancipation from their biology," educated women with careers have been raising their birth rate.  As I noted in another post, the percentage of American women ages 40 to 44 who are mothers has risen to 86% in 2016 from a low of 80% in 2006, and thus moving close to the high of 90% reached in 1976.

Compared with earlier periods, more American adults are living alone.  But researchers have discovered that people who live alone, on average, are as or more active in their social lives than those who live with others.

Perhaps the biggest technological change in social life has been the development and expansion of the Internet, social media, and cell phones.  This has made it easier than ever before for people to remain in contact electronically with their family, their friends, and others that they might meet online.

Deneen objects, however, that the impersonality of electronic social networking fosters social isolation and loneliness rather than the real social bonding that comes only from face-to-face interaction.  He cites the writings of Carr, Turkle, and Marche as supporting this conclusion.

But, following his regular rhetorical strategy, he is completely silent about all of the empirical evidence that online electronic communication really has deepened and expanded human social connectedness in America and around the world, which shows how human beings employ new technologies to satisfy their deepest natural desires for social bonding.

In 1998, Robert Kraut and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University reported one of the first studies of the social effects of using the Internet.  They reported that heavy Internet users felt increased loneliness and depression, and the size of their social networks declined.  This was widely covered in the news media, including a front-page article in the New York Times.  But immediately many scholars questioned the methodology of the study.  And three years later, Kraut and his colleagues reversed their conclusion, because they reported that heavy Internet users actually experienced increases in their social involvement and well-being (Kraut et al. 2002).  Stephen Marche--in the article cited by Deneen--refers to Kraut's 1998 article but is silent about Kraut's retraction in 2002.  Deneen says nothing about this.

Continuing research study over the past 20 years, as Internet use exploded, has confirmed this conclusion.  So, for example, it has been found that when Facebook users receive targeted, composed communication from their family and strong friends this improves their social well-being.  This effect does depend, however, on the personality traits of users.  Intensely introverted people can use social media to isolate themselves, while extraverted people can use it to connect themselves to others (Burke and Kraut 2016).

Far from the Internet making all of us lonely, as Deneen insists, online dating provides some of the most dramatic evidence for how electronic social networks can extend and deepen human social connectedness.  There is evidence now that over one-third of marriages in America now begin online, and that marriages that began online are slightly less likely than those that began offline to end in divorce or separation (Cacioppo et al. 2013).

Another remarkable consequence of online dating leading to marriage is that this has contributed to the sharp increase in interracial marriage.  In the past, most people married people to whom they were somehow connected--friends of friends, schoolmates, neighbors--who were likely to be similar to them, and thus they were likely to marry people of their own race.  Now, online dating brings together people who are complete strangers, and thus more likely to be from different races.  Here then is an expansion of social connectedness across the races (Ortega and Hergovich 2017).

Deneen says nothing about any of this evidence. 

By the way, the last time I checked, Deneen's Twitter account has 5,406 tweets, 5,890 followers, and 12,300 likes! 

And we know that his Internet use has not make him lonely, because his "Acknowledgments" in his book include over 55 friends, 3 children, and 1 wife (xvii-xix).  This tribute to his family, his friends, and his academic colleagues shows that the American liberal order has been very good to him in allowing him to live a richly satisfying social life.  And then he shows his ingratitude by writing a book denouncing American liberalism!

The theoretical side of Deneen's argument depends on his interpretation of the texts of liberal political philosophy--with John Locke being particularly important as "the first philosopher of liberalism" (32).  His primary interpretive claim is that Lockean liberalism teaches the "prehistoric fantasy" (16) of a "state of nature" that promotes a "disfigured view of human nature" (188) as atomistic individualism, in which human beings are said to be naturally solitary  and autonomous beings with no social bonds, who impulsively and selfishly seek the satisfaction of their appetites with no concern for the good of others. 

Although he does not mention Leo Strauss, Deneen has clearly adopted Strauss's interpretation of Locke in Natural Right and History.  Oddly, Deneen asserts this interpretation without offering much textual evidence to support it, and without responding to the many critics who argue that this is a false interpretation of Lockean liberalism.

Consider, for instance, Friedrich Hayek's argument in "Individualism: True and False" (1948).  Hayek identifies "false individualism" as the belief that individualism postulates "the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society" (6).  This is the view of individualism that Deneen attributes to liberalism, but which Hayek denies as "false individualism."

By contrast, Hayek explains that liberalism embraces the true individualism that recognizes the natural sociability of human beings as expressed in the natural propensity of individuals in a free society to live in families and voluntary associations:
". . . the deliberately organized state on the one side, and the individual on the other, far from being regarded as the only realities, while all the intermediate formations and associations are to be deliberately suppressed, as was the aim of the French Revolution, the noncompulsory conventions of social intercourse are considered as essential factors in preserving the orderly working of human society. . . ." (22)
"That true individualism affirms the value of the family and all the common efforts of the small community and group, that it believes in local autonomy and voluntary associations, and that indeed its case rests largely on the contention that much for which the coercive action of the state is usually invoked can be done better by voluntary collaboration need not be stressed further.  There can be no greater contrast to this than the false individualism which wants to dissolve all these smaller groups into atoms which have no cohesion other than the coercive rules imposed by the state, and which tries to make all social ties prescriptive, instead of using the state mainly as a protection of the individual against the arrogation of coercive powers by the smaller groups" (23).
Hayek identifies the intellectual tradition of true individualism as beginning with Locke and continuing with thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Smith, for example, one of the premier liberal individualists, affirmed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments the natural sociality of human beings, whose moral sentiments are shaped by the social order of families and voluntary associations; and he saw his moral theory as corresponding exactly to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.  Burke then praised Smith's book as "one of the most beautiful fabrics of moral theory, that has perhaps ever appeared."  Deneen says nothing about Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments or about this tradition of liberal conservatism based on true individualism, because this contradicts his assumption that all liberal thought is based on what Hayek calls false individualism.

Deneen does often cite Tocqueville.  But Deneen never mentions Tocqueville's praise of America for how it uses voluntary associations to organize social life through individual consent to social forms.  Deneen cannot mention this without contradicting his claim that America liberalism has destroyed all of the intermediary associations between individuals and the state.

In speaking about the dangers of individualism, Deneen quotes Tocqueville as warning: "Each man is forever thrown back upon himself alone, and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart" (Deneen, 75).  This is the last sentence of Tocqueville's chapter "Of Individualism in Democracies" in Democracy in America.  Deneen does not quote, however, Tocqueville's remark in this chapter that individualism embraces the "little society" of "the circle of family and friends."  So even the most narrow individualism in America includes the social bonds of family and friends.

What then about Locke--"the first philosopher of liberalism"?  In asserting that Locke's "fantasy" of the state of nature depicts human beings as completely solitary animals, Deneen says nothing about Locke's account of the "law of nature" in the state of nature and family life as the "first society."  Deneen briefly mentions only once Locke's reference to the American Indians as living in the state of nature (136), but Deneen never recognizes that the natural history of hunter-gatherer bands like the Indians was a highly social life governed by moral norms of proper conduct.  Nor does he consider the possibility that modern evolutionary anthropology confirms the truth of Locke's state of nature, which I have written about in some posts here and here

Strangely, Deneen does not recognize that asserting that human beings were originally purely solitary individuals corresponds not to Locke's state of nature but to Rousseau's (as I have indicated in a previous post).

While Deneen insists that Lockean liberalism teaches "pursuit of immediate gratification" (39) and the "absence of restraints upon one's desires" (116), he says nothing about how Locke contradicts this claim in Some Thoughts Concerning Education.  In that book, Locke stresses the importance of parents educating their children so that they have a sense of shame in caring about their good reputation (secs. 56, 61, 78).  Locke says that "the great principle and foundation of all virtue and worth is placed in this, that a man is able to deny himself his own desires, cross his own inclinations, and purely follow what reason directs as best though the appetite lean the other way" (sec. 33). "It seems plain to me that the principle of all virtue and excellency lies in a power of denying ourselves the satisfaction of our own desires where reason does not authorize them" (sec. 38). Children must be taught that "covetousness and the desire of having in our possession and under our dominion more than we have need of" is "the root of all evil" (sec. 110). 

Above all, children must be taught and habituated to show "civility"--respect and good will to all people (secs. 66-67, 70, 109, 117, 143-44). Here Locke's emphasis on the need for "civility" is part of what Norbert Elias identified as the "civilizing process" promoted by early modern liberalism to overcome the incivility and bad manners of medieval pre-modern Europe.  (I have written a post on "Lockean Liberalism as Symbolic Niche Construction.")

Deneen is silent about all of this.

I will be writing at least four more posts on Deneen's book--on inequality, liberal education, the liberalism of the Amish, and the illiberalism of Catholic Integralism.


Burke, Moira, and Robert Kraut. 2016. "The Relationship Between Facebook Use and Well-Being Depends on Communication Type and Tie Strength." Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 21: 265-281.

Cacioppo, John T., Stephanie Cacioppo, Glen Gonzaga, Elizabeth Ogburn, and Tyler VanderWeele. 2013. "Marital Satisfaction and Break-Ups Differ Across On-Line and Off-Line Meeting Venues." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110: 10135-10140.

Fischer, Claude S. 2011. Still Connected: Family and Friends in America Since 1970. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Hayek, Friedrich. 1948. Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kraut, Robert, Sara Kiesler, Bonka Boneva, Jonathan Cummings, Vicki Helgeson, and Anne Crawford. 2002. "Internet Paradox Revisited." Journal of Social Issues 58: 49-74.

Locke, John. 1996. Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and Of the Conduct of the Understanding. Edited by Ruth Grant and Nathan Tarcov. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Ortega, Josue, and Philipp Hergovich. 2017. "The Strength of Absent Ties: Social Integration via Online Dating." arXiv:1709.10478v1

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On Deneen (1): The Liberalism of Happiness and Declining Violence

Steve Pinker's Enlightenment Now and Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed seem to belong to two different worlds. 

Pinker argues for the stunning success of the Liberal Enlightenment as shown by massive factual evidence (conveyed in 73 charts of statistical data) of human progress over the past 200 years: because of liberalism today more human beings are living longer, healthier, wealthier, freer, safer, more stimulating, and happier lives than human beings have ever lived at any time in history. 

Deneen argues for the utter failure of liberalism as shown by cultural critics of the liberal order:  because of liberalism today human beings are living lonely, resentful, alienated, boring, meaningless, and generally desperately unhappy lives.

You see what I mean by two different worlds--the world of liberal progress and the world of liberal failure?  Actually, Deneen's world is paradoxical in that he argues that liberalism has failed because it has succeeded: the successful triumph of liberalism in the modern world has manifested the destructiveness of the logic of liberal thought in abolishing the healthy practices and institutions of traditional forms of social life in promoting the degrading life of materialist individualism.

To settle this dispute, we need to judge the three levels of argument in this debate.  The first level of argument is about how to interpret liberal political theory.  The second level is about analyzing the factual evidence of liberalism's practical performance--its success or failure.  The third level is about assessing the illiberal alternatives to liberal order.

In this post, I will consider the second level--the factual evidence.  In subsequent posts, I will consider the other two levels of the debate.

Pinker relies much more on factual evidence than does Deneen, which shows the differences in their academic positions.  As a professor of psychology at Harvard who sees himself as a natural scientist, Pinker believes that the best source of knowledge is the modern scientific method of testing hypotheses by how well they explain the empirical data of human experience of the natural world.  He must also study the history of political philosophy in developing his argument for the classical liberal political philosophy that culminated in the Enlightenment, but he sees that philosophic position as making empirical claims about human nature and human history that must be tested by scientific research.

Deneen is a professor of political science at Notre Dame who specializes in the study of the history of political philosophy, which he sees as devoted primarily to the interpretation of classic texts of political philosophy from Plato to the present.  But he also recognizes that applying that philosophic knowledge to modern social and political life requires some appeal to empirical evidence for the success or failure of the liberal order and other regimes.

Deneen's book is similar in some ways to Steven Smith's recent book--Modernity and Its Discontents--which I have written about (here).  Like Deneen, Smith makes a Straussian argument against liberal modernity, although Smith is more explicit in his appeal to Leo Strauss.

The thesis of Smith's book is "that modernity has created within itself a rhetoric of antimodernity that has taken philosophical, literary, and political forms" in denouncing the bourgeois life as "a kind of low-minded materialism, moral cowardice, and philistinism" (xi).  He thinks that he proves this thesis by restating what some of the antibourgeois writers have asserted in their attacks on bourgeois liberalism.  But as I have observed, while this proves the existence of an antibourgeois rhetoric, it does not prove the truth of this rhetoric as confirmed by empirical evidence of what life is like in the Bourgeois Era.  Smith says that the goals of bourgeois liberalism are no longer credible, because "leading opinion has increasingly lost confidence in these goals" (4).  But then he never wonders whether "leading opinion" might be wrong.

Similarly, Deneen insists that there is "a long tradition of cultural criticism" directed against liberalism and the liberal view of technology (95).  Deneen cites lots of cultural critics of liberalism--from Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Wendell Berry.  But as with Smith, it's not clear how the mere existence of such anti-liberal cultural critics proves the truth of their criticisms.  Presumably, to show the truth of their claims about the failure of liberalism, we would need to see confirmation by factual evidence.

According to Deneen, liberalism "generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom" (3). Liberalism results in "the depletion of moral self-command and the depletion of material resources" (41).  It depletes material resources such as fossil fuels, and it creates climate change that will destroy human civilization.  It depletes moral self-command by teaching that there should be no moral restraint on selfish individualism in the endless competitive pursuit of hedonistic self-gratification without any concern for the good of others.  It also depletes moral self-command by driving students away from the liberal arts education that has traditionally formed the moral and religious character of a free people through a Western humanistic education. Liberal individualism also breaks all of the social bonds of family life, friendship, and local communities.  But since human beings are naturally social beings, this asocial individualism of the liberal order renders human beings deeply unhappy in their loneliness and social isolation. 

So is this a factually accurate description of life in a liberal social order?


If Deneen is right, then we should expect to see evidence that people in liberal societies today are generally unhappy, because liberalism frustrates the deepest longings of human nature, while people in illiberal societies are generally happy, because those human longings are satisfied.

There are at least four separate analyses of data for measuring human happiness.  The Gallup Organization, the World Values Survey, and the World Happiness Report (found online) present data on countries around the world (see Pinker 2018, 262-89).  The General Social Survey has gathered data for the United States. 

In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray defends an Aristotelian conception of happiness as lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole; and he uses data from the General Social Survey to show that self-reported happiness among Americans is associated with four kinds of virtues--marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity.  I have written about Murray's argument here

Oddly, Deneen discusses Murray's book, in speaking about inequality in America, but without mentioning Murray's analysis of the data on happiness among Americans (Deneen, 134, 149-53).  Deneen endorses Aristotle's account in the Nicomachean Ethics of how the moral and intellectual virtues promote human happiness or flourishing (eudaimonia), but he says nothing about how Murray uses empirical evidence of happiness to support this Aristotelian understanding as applied to the American liberal order (Deneen, 35).

Much of the data on happiness is based on self-reports of well-being: people are asked how happy they are, or they are asked to rank their life satisfaction on a scale from 0 to 10.  Although we might wonder about the reliability of such self-reporting, it does correlate with other signs of happiness, such as smiling, having a joyful demeanor, and judgments by other people.

The World Happiness Report 2017 (WHR) ranks the happiness of 155 countries based on answers from 3,000 respondents in each of those countries.  Respondents were asked to evaluate their lives on a ladder where 0 represents the worst possible life and 10 the best possible.  Three-quarters of the differences among countries were accounted for by differences in six key variables.  "These six factors are GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity (as measured by recent donations).  The top ten countries rank highly on all six of these factors" (WHR, 3).

I have written about the Human Freedom Index (HFI) (here), which applies a classical liberal conception of freedom in measuring human freedom--both personal freedom and economic freedom--for 159 countries.  The strong correlation between the ranking in the HFI and the ranking in the WHR suggests that people in liberal social orders with the greatest levels of freedom are also generally the happiest people.

Here are some of the rankings of happiness in the WHR with corresponding rankings of freedom in the HFI in parentheses:

1.  Norway (7)

2.  Denmark (8)
3.  Iceland (31)
4.  Switzerland (1)
5.  Finland (6)
6.  Netherlands (9)
7.  Canada (11)
8.  New Zealand (3)
9.  Australia (5)
10. Sweden (13)

14. United States (17)

16. Germany (16)

19. United Kingdom (9)

25. Mexico (73)

26. Singapore (18)

31. France (33)

34. Spain (30)

49. Russia (126)

79. China (130)

82. Venezuela (158)

108. Iran (154)

151. Rwanda (65)

152. Syria (159)
153. Tanzania (99)
154. Burundi (150)
155. Central African Republic (151)

This is empirical evidence against Deneen's critique of liberalism, unless he can show that there is something wrong with this evidence.  He has not done that, because he has chosen to remain silent about this evidence.

The general pattern seems clear: the liberal regimes tend to be high in both freedom and happiness, and the illiberal regimes tend to be low.  7 of the countries ranked in the top 10 of the Human Freedom Index are also in the top 10 of the Human Happiness Report.

If Deneen is right about liberalism making people deeply unhappy, one might expect this to be indicated by a high rate of suicide, since this is the most dramatic way in which people express their unhappiness.  And, indeed, some critics of liberalism, like Emile Durkheim, have made this claim.  But as Pinker points out, the data don't support this.  Plotting the data for suicides in England, Switzerland, and the United States from 1860 to 2014 shows that the rate of suicide has declined in all three countries (Pinker 2018, 279).  And remember that Switzerland ranks number 1 on the Human Freedom Index.  For these three liberal countries, suicide was more common in the past than it is today, which is not what someone like Deneen would predict.

Deneen claims that in a liberal order, people tend to lack "moral self-command."  One observable manifestation of moral self-command is when people refrain from attacking and killing other people.  Remarkably, Deneen is totally silent about the evidence presented by Pinker (2011) and others (Eisner 2014; Muchembled 2012; Sharpe 2016) that from high rates of violence and homicide in the Middle Ages, there has been a long decline in modern liberal societies, which shows that liberalism actually does promote moral self-command, and that people in pre-modern illiberal societies suffered from a lack of self-control.

One of the best-supported generalizations in the science of criminology is that the propensity to crime--and particularly violent crime--is increased with any loss or weakening of self-control.  And so, for example, young men between the ages of 16 and 30 show on average a higher propensity to violent crime because their impulsive personalities incline them to lose self-control, and any factor that increases that propensity in young men increases the rate of violent crime (Wilson and Herrnstein 1985).  Therefore, if Deneen were right about liberalism promoting a loss of self-control, we would expect a steady increase of criminal violence in the history of liberal social orders.  That we see just the opposite is powerful evidence against Deneen's claim.

Manuel Eisner (2014) is a criminologist who has assembled the History of Homicide Database, which is the most comprehensive collection of quantitative estimates of homicide levels from 1200 to the present.  His data show that the average estimates of homicide rates across Europe from 1200 to about 1450 converge at a rate of about 27 per 100,000 inhabitants.  This average rate then begins to decline: 20.1 (1500-1549), 12.0 (1600-1649), 5.5 (1700-1749), 3.5 (1800-1825), 2.0 (1900-1924), and 1.0 (2000-2012).  So, over a period of 500 years, the peacetime criminal homicide rate in Europe fell by half every century.

Eisner's data also show that most of this decline in homicide rates was due to a fall in lethal male-to-male fighting of about 99%!

Eisner thinks that the best explanation for this dramatic drop in homicidal violence in Europe over the past 500 years is that there was what Norbert Elias called a "civilizing process" (Elias 2000; Linklater and Mennell 2010).  European societies went through a change by which average levels of self-control, standards of decency, and disgust for open displays of cruelty tended to increase, which arose from the move away from the Middle Ages to European modernity. 

Elias presented various kinds of historical evidence for this civilizing process.  For example, he analyzed books on manners to see how these books taught new standards of civilized behavior.  He noted, for instance, that in medieval Europe, ordinary people often stabbed each other over insults at the dinner table; and the new books on manners tried to change this.

Eisner presents quantitative data analysis that supports Elias's theory.  For example, he shows a strong correlation between increasing book production and decreasing homicide rates.  Every 10% increase in book production is associated with a 3.4% reduction in homicide rates, and these two variables share almost 54% of the variance.  The countries that had the highest per capita book production by 1750-1799--England, the Netherlands, and Sweden--had also reached the lowest levels of homicide rates.  By contrast, countries such as Italy and Spain, with lower literacy and book production, had higher homicide rates. Although correlation does not prove causation, one can infer from this that literacy and the reading of books tends to inculcate habits of self-control.

Eisner also presents quantitative data to support the application of Elias's theory to the fluctuations in violent crime rates around the world from 1950 to 2010.  Beginning in the 1960s, there was a steep rise in violent crime across North America and Europe.  Then, in the early 1990s, there began a steep drop in violent crime.  And by 2010, crimes rates were lower than they ever had been.  Some social scientists, such as Fukuyama (1999) and Pinker (2011), have argued that this showed cultural changes in which there was a decline and then a revival of self-control.

To find data on these cultural trends, Eisner has used the Google Books NGAM corpus, which is a database of 8 million digitized books published between 1500 and 2008, with an interface that allows users to track the frequency of any group of words as a percentage of all words in the corpus over a specified period of time.  Eisner tracked three groups of words that might express hedonistic preferences--words concerned with "sex," "drugs," and "narcissism."  He also tracked four groups of words that relate to self-control--words concerned with "shame," "politeness and good manners," "conscientiousness," and "honesty." 

He found that the frequency of the hedonistic words increased during the years that the homicide rate was increasing and decreased during the years that the homicide rate was decreasing.  He found the opposite pattern for the frequency of the self-control words, which declined when homicide rates increased, and increased when homicide rates decreased.  This can be seen as indicating a culture shift that brought declining self-control in the 1960s and rising self-control in the 1990s, which is correlated with crime rates rising and declining.

As another quantitative data base that might show this culture shift, Eisner has used German opinion poll surveys from 1967 to 2010 asking Germans about what values they thought parents should teach their children.  There were three items related to self-control--"politeness and good manners," "doing work diligently and properly," and "being thrifty in money matters."

Eisner found that the endorsement of values of self-control was weak during the years of increasing homicide rates and strong during the years of decreasing homicide rates.

Contrary to Deneen's claim that modern liberalism must destroy the moral virtues of self-control, this historical evidence suggests that modern liberal cultures can and have inculcated habits of self-control that account for the stunning decline in violence over the past few centuries.

In my next posts, I will consider other kinds of evidence relevant to liberalism's influence on social life, education, inequality, and the environment.


Eisner, Manuel. 2014. "From Swords to Words: Does Macro-Level Change in Self-Control Predict Long-Term Variation in Levels of Homicide?" Crime and Justice 43 (2014): 65-134.

Elias, Norbert. 2000. The Civilizing Process. Revised ed. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1999. The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order. New York: Free Press.

Linklater, Andrew, and Stephen Mennell. 2010. "Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations--An Overview and Assessment." History and Theory 49 (October): 384-411.

Muchembled, Robert. 2012. A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present. Cambridge, MA: Polity.

Sharpe, James. 2016. A Fiery and Furious People: A History of Violence in England. London: Random House Books.

Wilson, James Q., and Richard Herrnstein. 1985. Crime and Human Nature.  New York: Simon and Schuster.