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.  Thus, Deneen never considers the possibility that the fundamental liberal principle of voluntarism should be understood as a melding of individualism with community, so that people can live as independent persons in voluntary communities.

While Deneen often cites Tocqueville, he 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

1 comment:

John Barr said...

Thanks Larry. Well done.