The following is a response to Patrick J. Deneen’s Unsustainable Liberalism. The other response, by Daniel J. Mahoney, can be found here .


Patrick Deneen’s stimulating paper provides both a diagnosis of liberalism’s decline and a prediction of what will rise from its ashes. After his initial descriptive analysis, a tone of lament begins to be heard. He bemoans the wreckage liberalism has caused through “cultivating a culture of consumption, appetite, and detachment” and depleting “age-old reservoirs.” It isn’t dead, but it has killed or is killing lots of things that ought to be kept alive. In so doing, it has removed, and is removing, the conditions of its own possibility.

In the face of liberalism’s self-destruction, he argues, we ought to preserve the essential features of our political and economic institutions but learn to understand them differently; we must learn to see liberty as meaning “self-governance and self-limitation” rather than limitless autonomy. If we do that, Leviathan will retreat into the distance, belching fire still, no doubt, but far enough away now not to scorch us; we will be left free to cultivate our local virtues, happily inhabit our mediating institutions, and engage in “local self-government by choice.” This is Wendell Berry for paleoconservatives.

Deneen is, in my judgment, altogether too confident in the capacity of political theory to address or understand political problems. This confidence is widely shared among political theorists and the commentariat; it is itself, perhaps, one of the constitutive features of liberalism, though one apparently not evident to Deneen. How does that confidence show itself? Typically by doing just what Deneen does: You begin by showing the deep grammar of a political ideology (in this case liberalism); then you depict the nature of political institutions predicated upon this deep grammar; and then, if you don’t like one or another thing about those institutions, or about the effects you take them to have, you suggest some tweaks to the grammar.

Deneen tweaks the autonomy/mastery element in liberalism’s grammar. Once tweaked, he thinks, there will be concomitant adjustments in political institutions, and things will be better. Leviathan retreats, federalism is reborn, and we all (gradually) become virtuous, self-disciplined locavores who may well also go to church occasionally.

This is a rough and polemical sketch of this way of thinking. Allow me now to suggest in more detail an alternative and in my view much better way of thinking about liberalism and what may come after it. The fundamental intuition here is that political discourse after liberalism ought to be vastly less theoretical-diagnostic-nostalgic than what Deneen offers and vastly more particular and data-responsive. Political discourse after liberalism ought also to be political discourse after political theory, another interest of liberalism that Deneen fails to identify. A properly postliberal political theory ought, to the extent that it is postliberal, occupy a place much lower down the theory ladder than it does in Deneen’s discourse. The six axioms that follow will show what political advocacy looks like if Deneen’s theory bedazzlement and nostalgic longings are properly moderated.

First, the fundamental political question is: What ought I advocate as a political remedy for the principal ways in which the citizens of this nation are failing to flourish? Second, answering that question in particular cases requires data, and we have good-enough, broadly statistical measures to determine the ways in which the citizenry is failing to flourish.

Third, political discourse ought not stray far from, and certainly should never forget, the data. Theoretical analysis of the sort that Deneen offers diverts the gaze, systematically, from attending to such data and therefore to the question of what political remedy should be pursued. It is a mechanism for self-blinding, because it operates at the wrong theoretical level. Fourth, in any state, whether a pagan late-capitalist constitutional democracy like the United States or some other, there will be some broad agreement about what constitutes a failure to flourish (such as death by violence, a preventable disease, or starvation; illiteracy; and incarceration) and some particular disagreements about that same matter (such as atheism, vowing oneself to a celibate and solitary life, and the choice to have many children).

Fifth, in answering the fundamental political question, first consider remedies for those failures to flourish that the citizenry widely acknowledges as such. All forms of political advocacy ought to stay as close to the ground as possible, and ought not to be predicated upon claims of certainty regarding any particular result. Reason is incapable (and unaware of its incapacity) of assessing the outcome of adjusting complex systems. Sixth, political advocacy ought therefore to be understood principally as a lens to focus the gaze, not as a theory. Political advocacy so understood is fundamentally different from the understandings of political advocacy that belong to liberalism”and, usually, to critiques of liberalism.

A primary political need, then, is good statistical information about widely agreed failures to flourish. The relevant data needs to be expressed both in raw numbers (for example, how many Americans are at the moment incarcerated? How many died by violence or starvation?) and as proportions of the population. If the data is to be used comparatively, it also needs to be expressed relative to some economic measure, such as Gross Domestic Product.

The first political importance of data like this is that it provides a profile of the extent to which a nation’s citizens are failing to flourish, and does so without adverting to questions of cause or to political partisanship. It is politically relevant (indeed, I’d say, essential) to learn that almost one in every hundred American citizens is currently incarcerated; that approximately one in seventy is functionally illiterate in any language; that one in every twenty thousand or so was murdered in 2010 (a figure not, of course, counting abortions); that one in every five or so adults of working age at the moment has no regular gainful employment. Contemplating these facts as facts, without at first adverting to cause, justification, or explanation, is the first thing to do, politically speaking. It yields a picture of what’s wrong.

Political advocacy takes on a peculiar hue in the picture I’m sketching. It is directed first toward particular instances or kinds of failing to flourish and is intimate with the problem addressed; it is skeptical about its capacity to predict the outcome of what it advocates; and it is, therefore, steadfast in its advocacy, not discouraged by claims as to likely failure of outcome. It is, therefore, in almost every interesting respect different from political discourse, whether that of advocates or theorists, in a late-capitalist democracy like the United States.

Here are two brief illustrations of such advocacy. First, incarceration is a failure to flourish. Rates of incarceration in the United States are spectacularly high, both in comparison with our own past and in comparison with other nations (we are without peer in the world now); such rates are striking evidence of systemic failure in our political, judicial, social, educational, and penal systems. I advocate public policy directly addressed at reducing incarceration rates, both by reconfiguring the legal system so that fewer offenses carry with them the penalty of incarceration and by releasing a high proportion of prisoners currently incarcerated. I advocate these things because they are a direct and intimate response to the problem; I do so with deep skepticism as to my or anyone else’s ability to predict the outcome of implementing these recommendations; and I do so without being discouraged by arguments that it cannot be done.

Second, there are more than a million abortions in this country each year. Among the things I advocate with respect to that spectacular failure to flourish is the overturning of Roe v. Wade, because its interpretation of the Constitution is the principal public evidence that abortion is not the taking of human life. In advocating that Roe v. Wade be overturned, I am discouraged neither by the claim that doing so would not reduce the number of abortions (I have no idea whether that’s true, and neither do you) nor by the claim that it’s a waste of time to advocate such overturning. Both objections misconstrue the nature of my efforts: I advocate for the overturning of Roe v. Wade because such advocacy is the appropriate correlate to the patterns of reasoning evident in that Supreme Court decision. That decision depicts free access to abortion as a nonnegotiable constitutionally guaranteed right; I advocate a reading of the Constitution that refuses to categorize any taking of human life in that way. This is a peculiarly pure form of the kind of advocacy appropriate to a rightly construed postliberal political sphere.

If it is among liberalism’s defining features to think that political discourse ought to be largely theoretical”that it ought to provide Deneen’s deep-grammar construal of the nature of human persons and of the political arrangements that support their flourishing”then I hope that it might become characteristic of political discourse after liberalism to attend rather to observable realities. Deneen says that ideas have consequences, and no doubt that is true in a generic sense. But in the case of political discourse it is also true that we have shown ourselves very bad at assessing in advance just what the consequences of a political idea are likely to be.

If we are interested in thinking about and addressing what actually frustrates human flourishing, we won’t succeed by contrasting one political theory with another. For example, constitutional democracies, with respect to measurable indices of their citizens’ flourishing, have no clear advantage over polities ordered by Sharia. The failures to flourish are simply distributed differently.

Deneen’s essay is a good specimen of its kind, and I suppose it may, in its own terms, be right”though I blanch at the thought that a properly ordered federalism could significantly contribute to making us more virtuous than we are now; to suggest this is, as John Henry Newman wrote in another context, to suggest that one might quarry the granite rock with razors. But his prescription for postliberalism is not the kind of thing we need now. It remains subject to liberalism’s most peculiar flaw, which is the overestimation, to the point of farce, of reason’s capacity to discern how political life should be ordered and to assess the outcomes of ordering it in this way or that.

The depiction of the saeculum in Augustine’s City of God, and of how Christians should respond to and live in it, offers something very different from what Deneen provides. For Augustine, the saeculum was a realm of blood, and he does not tell the Christians of his time how to make Rome better politically and Romans more virtuous. No, he encourages them to lament the bloodlettings they see around them and are inevitably implicated in, but not to think that such things can be ended or even significantly ameliorated. Bloodlettings are to the political life of the saeculum as habitual sin is to the post-baptismal life: a feature of it, but one to be lamented.

That is the structure of the position I’ve sketched. For Catholics, political advocacy here below is best understood as a kind of lament, which is one reason it must be mirror-close to, and as clear-eyed as possible about, what it laments. What we do by way of political advocacy in the public sphere is in many important ways homologous with what we do in the confessional. For Catholics, it is always important to remember that the principal civitas here is the ecclesia Christi and the principal earthly sovereign the bishop of Rome, and lament the principal note of our response to other earthly sovereigns. That is what frames and makes sense of political advocacy.

Paul J. Griffiths is the Warren Professor of Catholic Theology at Duke University’s Divinity School.