On Public Discourse, Vincent Phillip Muñoz responds to his colleague Patrick Deneen’s critique of liberalism (“Unsustainable Liberalism,” which appeared in our August/September issue). He says he’s “largely sympathetic” to Deneen’s views, yet disagrees with him about the root causes of and proper solution to contemporary liberalism’s problems:
Deneen sees the pathologies of modern life as liberalism’s effects. But I wonder if instead we have departed from a healthy and proper understanding of liberalism and succumbed to temptations [such as anthropological individualism and a rejection of the idea of human nature] that liberalism makes possible.
These temptations, in my view, are not themselves a necessary product of liberalism. Moreover, let me also suggest that the path to a healthier and more sustainable society is not imaginative innovation or the development of a new political philosophy, but rather a return to our founding principles, principles grounded on truths about and a deep respect for nature.
Muñoz goes on to argue that America’s historical liberalism does not embody but in fact rejects the distortions of liberalism that Deneen rightly criticizes.
Deneen, replying on the same site, believes Muñoz ”avoids responding to the core of [his] argument, because to do so would force him to admit that there is no way to avoid the Lockean (and founding) sources of these pathologies.” He continues:
What Muñoz neglects is that the liberal invocation of individual rights, voluntarism, and self-ownership—while useful as an appeal against practices such as slavery—unavoidably also undergirds the tendencies and practices that are at the heart of my critique [of liberalism], namely the tendency toward the expansion of voluntarism into all spheres of life and the effort to conquer nature so as to satisfy all human appetites and intentions that arise from an unconstrained human will.
Broadly speaking, I am (like Muñoz) sympathetic to Deneen’s views, but I’m curious about the closing lines of his response:
I increasingly fear that Americans will have to break with America, and seek to re-found the nation on better truths—ones that have perhaps never been self-evident, but rather hard-won, and which are far better than our philosophy and increasingly better than ourselves.
What would this refounding look like, and if it becomes necessary, how would we achieve it? Through devoting our energy to the family, the Church, and the local community (to use a phrase beloved of an old professor of mine) rather than on maximizing personal wealth and freedom? Through greater enforcement of duties to the family and more aggressive regulation of the market?
Or would it involve something more drastic, like a wholesale rejection of our current forms of democracy and capitalism (since the two arguably embody the voluntarism underlying our current problems)? Need we reject most forms of technology, return to the land, and become independent farmers?
I don’t intend to ridicule anyone who holds these views, as I share the concerns that inspire them. Yet if the “self-aggrandizement, individualism, willfulness, and liberty defined as the absence of constraint achieved through the conquest of nature” that Deneen rightly criticizes are inextricable from today’s political and economic institutions, then refounding the nation on better truths would be a radical proposal and a painful process indeed.