Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Failure of Deneen and Dreher in Their Critique of Liberalism

Last year, I wrote a series of posts on Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option and Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed (herehereherehere, and here).  I argued that their critique of liberalism failed at three levels.  They failed to provide an accurate interpretation of liberal political theory.  They failed to analyze the factual evidence of liberalism's performance.  And they failed to provide any attractive illiberal alternative to liberal social order.

Recently, their books have been published in paperback editions with new forewords.  I assumed that they would use these new forewords to answer their critics.  I was disappointed when I saw that they had decided not to do that.  Deneen's foreword does end with four pages under the title "Responding to Some Critics" (xx-xxiv).  But he responds in only a very general way without any detailed responses to the particular criticisms that I and others have offered.

My first criticism--their inaccurate interpretation of liberal theory--is mentioned briefly by Deneen in saying that "the book has been criticized for an inaccurate or unfair depiction of 'classical' liberalism" (xx).  But he and Dreher are completely silent about my specific claim that they have failed to develop any good interpretation of John Locke's liberalism.  This is important because they agree that Locke is "the first philosopher of liberalism" (Dineen, 32).

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, Locke insists, 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, violence, and corrupt manners of medieval pre-modern Europe.  Deneen and Dreher are silent about all of this.

They are also silent about my second criticism--their failure to survey the factual evidence of liberalism's performance.  They say nothing about how the empirical indicators of human freedom correlate with the indicators of human happiness.  They say nothing about the historical evidence that modern liberal cultures have inculcated virtues of self-control that account for the stunning decline in violence over the past 500 years.  They say nothing about how the empirical evidence denies Deneen's claim that liberalism produces "titanic inequality far outstripping the differences between peasant and kind" (139): this historical evidence shows that rigid inequality was far higher in medieval Europe than it is today.  They also say nothing about the evidence for social connectedness--social bonds within families and voluntary associations--being high in liberal social orders.

Rather than looking at the empirical evidence of what liberalism has done, Deneen and Dreher employ a distinctive rhetorical strategy: they find authors who agree with them in criticizing liberalism, they summarize what these authors say, and then they conclude that this proves that liberalism has failed.  They do not even ask the question of whether the empirical evidence supports what these critics of liberalism say.  And whenever one of their favored authors says something positive about liberalism, they are silent about this.  Deneen's selective reporting of Charles Murray's research is an example of this.

My third criticism--the failure to defend any illiberal alternative to liberalism--is acknowledged by Deneen (xxii).  But he doesn't offer any clear answer to this criticism.  My point here is that both Deneen and Dreher are incoherent in that while they profess to reject liberalism, they actually embrace the fundamental principles of liberalism--such as voluntarism and religious liberty.

Radical Catholic traditionalists like Edmund Waldstein who defend Catholic "integralism" have recommended a return to the medieval theocratic kingdom of Saint Louis IX in 13th century France.  But both Deneen and Dreher reject the medieval illiberal order because of the corruption of the medieval Church, its violent exercise of power, and its failure to secure liberty, equality, and justice.

Deneen and Dreher agree with Alasdair MacIntyre's recommendation at the end of After Virtue that we need "the construction of local forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness."  For Deneen the best example of such "local forms of community" is the Amish communities.  For Dreher such communities can arise whenever families form households organized around private religious schools and traditionalist Christian churches.

All of this depends on religious liberty.  Dreher explains: "Religious liberty is critically important to the Benedict Option.  Without a robust and successful defense of First Amendment protections, Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and values" (84).  But in their appeal to this liberal principle of religious liberty, Dreher and Deneen contradict their claim to be anti-liberal.

Deneen does say in his new foreword that the political history of the past two years--particularly, the populist revolts against liberal democracy in the United States and Europe--suggests that within the next few years we will see the emergence of a "postliberal political theory," perhaps developed in a book written by one of the young readers of Deneen's book (xxiii-xxiv).  But what will make this new political theory postliberal?

Deneen explains: "the achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged, and the desire to 'return' to a preliberal age must be eschewed.  We must build upon those achievements while abandoning the foundational reasons for its failures.  There can be no going back, only forward" (182).

So what are "the foundational reasons for its failure" that must be abandoned, but without abandoning the "achievements of liberalism"?  Are they the liberal principles of "anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice" (Deneen, 31)?  But as I have pointed out in my previous posts, what Deneen and Dreher scorn as atomistic individualism--human beings living as completely solitary creatures with no social bonds--is rejected by liberals like Locke, Adam Smith, and Friedrich Hayek as "false individualism."  Liberal individualism is actually a communal individualism in which human beings as naturally social animals live as family members, as friends, and in voluntary associations such as schools, churches, and other groups.

Or would Deneen and Dreher say that what must be rejected in a "postliberal political theory" is "the voluntarist conception of choice"?  Deneen observes: "Ironically, given the default choice-based philosophy that liberalism has bequeathed to us, what might someday become a nonvoluntary cultural landscape must be born out of voluntarist intentions, plans, and actions" (192).  What is he saying here?  Is he saying that what start out as voluntary associations must eventually become coercive?  So, for example, while children in Amish communities are now free to choose as adults whether they will stay or leave the community, the "postliberal political theory" of the future will coercively enforce their staying in the community?  Would there be a multiplicity of different communities, in which people would be forced to stay in whatever community in which they were born?  Or would there be only one comprehensive community--perhaps a theocratic Catholic Church--that would constitute the "nonvoluntary cultural landscape"?  So at some point, the Benedict Option will no longer be optional but coercively enforced by law?

But surely this cannot be what Deneen and Dreher are suggesting, because this would abandon "the achievements of liberalism" that come from the voluntarist principle of free choice.  So we are left in a state of total confusion as to what they mean by "postliberal political theory."

As an alternative to Deneen and Dreher, one should consider another modern defender of Christian orthodoxy--C. S. Lewis.  As I have indicated in a previous post (here), Lewis was a Lockean liberal who rejected theocracy as a form of tyranny, who believed that government should not have the power to legally enforce Christian morality, and who thought the only proper aim of government was to secure individual liberty from legal interference except when necessary to prevent harm to others.
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Deneen and others have recently launched a new journal--Postliberal Thought--that will be published both online and in print.  One of the introductory articles is "The Postliberal Moment" by Andrew Willard Jones, which concludes:

"Christianity has deep resources from which to draw. Christianity has the depths from which to offer a meta-critique and the solutions that can save all that was good and right in modernity. If modernity is indeed a Christian heresy, then orthodoxy contains its strengths and even its pathos, but without its exaggerated errors. Within a recasting of the liberal lexicon in terms of a Christian lexicon, liberalism itself, like the Christian heresies that have come before it, is capable of some measure of redemption."

"We are launching Postliberal Thought in order to provide a place for this work. We understand the project to be the work of generations and we are fully aware that by breaking free from the dominant paradigm, we thrust ourselves into areas of intellectual instability and obscurity. Much of what we propose will often no doubt turn out to be mistaken; many of the roads we go down will no doubt turn out to be dead-ends. Postliberal Thought is therefore a place for open-minds and forgiving spirits. We hope to forge a community of Christian thinkers who are animated not by certainty concerning what to do or what to think, but by the hope that we, humbled in prayer before God, will find a way forward."

I find it hard to understand what he is saying, because, like Deneen and Dreher, he seems to be caught in the incoherent position of both denying and affirming liberalism.  Jones is the author of a book--Before Church and State--defending the "Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX" in 13th century France as "the most Christian kingdom."  Wouldn't his position be more coherent if he simply argued for the illiberal regime ruled by Saint Louis as being the model of the best regime designed to secure both the temporal and eternal ends of human life?

In identifying liberal modernity as a "Christian heresy," is he referring to Protestant Christianity?  Would postliberal thought require the persecution and suppression of all thought contrary to medieval Catholic social thought, which would deny Vatican II's affirmation of religious liberty?  Would communitarian Christian groups like the Amish have to be persecuted because they arose from the heresy of Anabaptism, which interprets the New Testament as teaching separation of Church and State ("Render unto Caesar . . .") and religious liberty, so that Christian communities must be based on the voluntary consent of the adult members?

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