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.

The New York Times has created some vivid charts on economic mobility in America based on a study of 20 million American children from 1980 to 2015, which shows movement up and down the class structure.

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's report of Murray also engages in a complete reversal of what Murray actually says.  Here's what Murray says: "A great many people, especially in the new upper class, just need to start preaching what they practice," that is, the moral virtues of stable family life (Murray, 305).  Here's what Deneen reports: "Fishtown is descending into social anarchy.  Murray has argued that Belmont simply needs to practice what it preaches--extol the virtues of virtue" (Deneen, 149).  Deneen's report is exactly the opposite of what Murray actually says!  I have no idea why Deneen does this.

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


W. Bond said...

A great series of posts.

Glenn said...

Great work.
I don’t know how Deneen can consider himself an honest scholar. I started the book yesterday and was appalled in five minutes: On page 4 of the Intro he explicitly attributes to the founders - in direct quotes - a description of the Constitution as “a machine that would go of itself.” That’s actually a phrase from James Russell Lowell in 1888! He’s engaging in misrepresentation by page 4!