The following is a response to Patrick J. Deneen’s “Unsustainable Liberalism.” The other response, by Paul J. Griffiths, can be found here .


Patrick Deneen has written a thoughtful and provocative critique of the “deeper anthropological assumptions” underlying philosophical liberalism”namely, its anthropological individualism and its belief in the human separation from and opposition to the natural order. But he goes too far in assuming that our political and social order is simply an embodiment and reflection of these modern philosophical assumptions. Liberalism in theory and in practice is far more variegated than he suggests.

Deneen is at his best in showing how, in a certain version of philosophical liberalism, “voluntarist logic ultimately affects all relationships.” As he shows in his reading of the sixth chapter of Locke’s Second Treatise, the great English theorist of constitutionalism and limited government redefined the family to be an essentially voluntary association. The mutual responsibility of children and parents ends when a child comes to maturity. Human beings are free to completely make or remake their fundamental commitments to their family and patrimony, their nation and religion. Consent trumps nature, and gratitude is subordinated to a radical autonomy that survives Locke’s hypothetical state of nature. There is something terribly cold and loveless in this account of human things.

Alexis de Tocqueville was the first political philosopher to appreciate how a certain version of contractual liberalism would be applied beyond politics in the narrow sense of the term. He saw that in a liberal democratic order the principle of consent would be applied not just to the political order but to the better part of human life. The early modern liberals thought the state of nature something human beings left behind when they entered civil society. Tocqueville’s sobering insight captured fully the splintering effect of democratic individualism. Over time, the human beings who inhabit democracies become free and equal individuals, increasingly estranged from those humanizing ties that bind human beings to each other. Tocqueville feared the reduction of the human world to the twin poles of the state and the individual. He saw a possible world where the state and the individual alone would have ontological reality.

But Tocqueville was not as fatalistic as Deneen seems to be. Liberalism can indeed become dehumanizing when it attempts to liberate individuals from all authoritative forms of human association. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville suggested that the “art” of liberty could modify the “nature” of democracy, checking its propensity to dissolve human ties and recast human relations. Active citizenship and local self-government”the prodigious art of association that Tocqueville saw on display in America”were both ends in themselves and also means to elevate and humanize democratic political life.

It is for this reason that Tocqueville called himself a liberal, albeit one of a “strange kind.” He was a conservative liberal who knew that a liberal order depended upon a soul that both recognized superintending principles above the human will, and hence a sense of limits, and had confidence or even pride in the capacity of human beings to govern themselves.

Tocqueville held that the “spirit of religion” properly understood can elevate the station of the human race even as it resists the modernist temptation for human beings to confuse themselves with gods. In fact, he believed that Christians had traditionally understated the dignity of political liberty, associating it with the deadly sin of pride. Christianity is better on limits than on pride, and the “liberal” Tocqueville tried to get the balance between pride and liberty just right. It is in this limited sense that he was a precursor of liberal Catholicism, or the “Christian democratic” current in modern politics.

The American founding also has a more complicated relationship to philosophical liberalism than Deneen suggests. Prominent founders such as Alexander Hamilton and James Wilson made clear their contempt for the atheism and impiety of Thomas Hobbes. The young Hamilton disapprovingly wrote in 1775 that Hobbes “disbelieved” in “the existence of an intelligent superintending principle, who is the governor, and will be the final judge of the universe.” Hobbes, Hamilton wrote, falsely believed that “moral obligation . . . derived from the introduction of civil society.”

As for our founding document, there is sufficient ambiguity in the Declaration of Independence for this great statement to be read in light of John Locke’s liberalism or an older tradition of natural law and natural justice. There is still much truth in the old proposition, first stated by the American Catholic bishops in Baltimore in 1881, that the American founders “built better than they knew.” Why not emphasize this other, “second voice” (the phrase is that of Deneen’s teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams), which refuses to follow philosophical liberalism down the road of the “active destruction” of the moral contents of life? There is in Deneen’s essay an admirable emphasis on limits but not enough emphasis on pride. Americans need pride, in themselves and in their tradition, a tradition that is not reducible to philosophical liberalism.

Deneen is certainly right that one does not need liberalism in order to affirm the dignity of the human person or to recognize the imago Dei in each human being. But even he grudgingly acknowledges that liberalism is often better in practice than in theory. It has in important respects enhanced our understanding of the dignity of the human person. Why not theorize that achievement, a theorization that would indeed be postliberal but not antiliberal? Liberalism is not exhausted by Hobbes’ materialism and anthropological individualism. This is John Courtney Murray’s project in We Hold These Truths, a project that in my view has not yet exhausted its promise.

On the economic front, Deneen is eloquent on the necessity for both self-limitation and self-command in a life worthy of human beings. In the spirit of classical philosophy, he reminds us that self-government depends on the government of the self. He also reminds us of the elementary truth that true choice is indistinguishable from the distinction between good and bad choices. The hedonism of modern political economy, the identification of reason with the thing chosen, cannot do justice to the objectivity of human values.

But I am not convinced by his implicit case for a zero-growth economy. It would require draconian restrictions on population growth and a diminution of opportunities for the poor. Whether we like it or not, the “science of wealth,” as Bertrand de Jouvenel called it, is the “master science of modern society.” Without economic growth and technological innovation, the engines of modern society would grind to a halt.

As Jouvenel also suggested, our task is necessarily a paradoxical one. We are obliged to be moderns who reluctantly concede that it is a good thing on the whole for modern men and women to obtain more and more goods and services. But as he adds, we must side with the classics against the relativists who “hold that there are no values other than the subjective.” Like Jouvenel, I am convinced that we are obliged to be both ancients and moderns on the question of public choice. We must think about the good life appropriate for a dynamic society and not dream about an austerity that can be honored only in the breach.

Setting that disagreement aside, I am relieved that Deneen does not want to jettison the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He and I fully agree that those documents should not be understood in light of the “logic” implicit in philosophical (i.e., Hobbesian-Lockean) liberalism. The Constitution properly understood is indeed compatible with federalism and with “greater local autonomy in establishing and cultivating local forms of culture and self-governance.”

I began by stating that I found myself in agreement with many of Patrick Deneen’s insights even as I reject his radical critique of liberalism. I do not want to jettison political liberalism even as I fully appreciate its limits. We need an approach that is more dialectical than the one Deneen suggests. The future must be both liberal and postliberal”we must above all reconnect choice to the ends and purposes of human freedom. Hobbes and Locke do not provide anything like an adequate foundation for a liberty worthy of human beings who are made in the image and likeness of God.

The task of thinking “after liberalism” indeed does require “vision, imagination, and construction.” But it will not require the end of our regime or our commercial way of life. This project of reconstruction already has deep roots, and lively intimations, in our liberal republican order. We need to draw on them even as we chart a course forward.

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Articles by Daniel J. Mahoney

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