Introduction to Why Liberalism Failed
At times, it can be difficult to describe what it feels like in the world today. Like in Atlas Shrugged, there seems to be a sort of dread hanging over most people. Sure, it’s elating when Trump completes another policy objective or the era of interventionism finally starts to wind down. But, if you think something about our politics has seemed off recently, you’re not the only one. In the brilliant Why Liberalism Failed, author and professor Patrick J. Deneen sums up the angst many feel; according to him, liberalism has failed.
Summary of Why Liberalism Failed
Before beginning Why Liberalism Failed, I was a bit apprehensive. I thought it would be just another tirade against Trump and Brexit. Fortunately, it is far from that. Deneen began it before the Trump Presidency and the contentious Brexit process, so those two topics are mentioned rarely at most. Instead, Why Liberalism Failed is a mostly conservative take on the inherent flaws and self-destructive nature of liberalism.
For those that don’t know, liberalism, in this case, refers to a deep respect for individual rights. Not the co-opted, modern version of “liberal,” which basically means progressive. So, in Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen points out how liberalism’s triumph over the failed ideology of socialism proved to be its undoing. According to Deneen, socialism leads to lost freedoms, so it fails, but the extravagant individual freedoms and lack of corresponding responsibility caused by liberalism have also led to liberalism’s undoing.
Liberalism’s Successes and Failures
That isn’t to say that Deneen thinks liberalism was a failure of an ideology. Conversely, it has been incredibly successful.
Capitalism, the economic force behind liberalism that was laid out in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations around the time of the American Revolution, has been incredibly successful. It has created vast sums of wealth for the best and brightest in society, lifted billions out of poverty because the rising tide of capitalism lifts all boats, and, because of its focus on consent, has led to a degree of economic mobility and freedom that was never before present in society.
And the political system of liberalism ushered in through the American Revolution has been equally successful in the western world. Most Arab states have rejected democracy, as described in The Great War for Civilization. China has also rejected it. But for most other states, democracy and liberalism have ushered in an era of unbelievable political freedom and opportunity.
Political freedom and economic freedom are closely intertwined, and liberalism has boosted both tremendously.
However, in Deneen’s view, that profound success has led to problems that have led to the collapse of liberalism. He makes many good points about that in Why Liberalism Failed, but I think the most effective ones are the ones that focus on how liberalism’s successes have dramatically changed things for the worse.
One such point is about democracy. A close reading of The Federalist Papers or The Anti-Federalist Papers shows that the Founding Fathers never intended for America to be a democracy. They understood the vast importance of voting and only wanted those invested in the political process to be able to change it. That is why they made America a republic rather than a democracy; they wanted voting to be a deeply respected responsibility rather than an occasionally exercised right. Unfortunately, liberalism’s success in freeing the individual meant that our republic has quickly transitioned to a democracy. The result is that people like Hank Johnson, the congressman who thought Guam would tip over, are continuously elected and reelected to Congress.
Another point Deneen makes is that liberalism’s focus on freeing the individual has had sometimes disastrous consequences. Yes, we are free to speak our minds (except on college campuses) and live our lives how we please. That is wonderful, there is no longer an oppressive clergy or government controlling our lives. Well, at least there wasn’t until Big Government stepped in to handle the Chinese flu pandemic.
But, it has unintended consequences that have eroded the public’s faith in liberalism. Being free from moral law means people can use drugs without feeling like they are crossing a moral line; the results are well-documented in Coming Apart, Dreamland and Narconomics. The enhanced level of freedom without a similarly heightened level of responsibility has led to misplaced priorities in our materialistic and hedonistic society.
Additionally, the focus on the individual means that the societal institutions that once supported our small government are quickly decaying. The era between the Jefferson Administration and the end of the Gilded Age, as described in The History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and The Republic for Which it Stands, respectively, were marked by small government. But, as liberalism triumphed and freed the individual, that freedom meant the government felt the need to step in and begin to regulate.
The results were Prohibition, deficits and debt, and Big Government. Deneen emphasizes that the expansion in individual rights that the 20th Century became known for also led to a marked and rapid expansion in the government. That increase in the size of the government has led to the decline of liberalism because liberalism is dependent on individual rights and a small government.
While more examples of liberalism’s successes leading to its failures are present in Why Liberalism Failed, I think those are the most effective arguments Deneen made. Yes, the individual is generally more free, but the government is much larger.
The End of Liberalism
So what is Deneen’s conclusion? Buy and read Why Liberalism Failed to find out. He presents it in a much more effective way than I ever could, so I won’t spoil it for you. But, I will say that I found his argument compelling. Liberalism overturned a millennium of historical norms and precedents, and you can read about how it did so in Civilization: The West and the Rest. In doing so, it set us free. But it also has made us cynical, lonely, and angry at liberalism. Read Why Liberalism Failed to find out more!
My Analysis of Why Liberalism Failed
It’s a rare feat for a political book to be glowingly reviewed by both the American Conservative and The New York Times. Deneen somehow managed that with Why Liberalism Failed and I think that that is a testament to the thought-provoking, well-written and researched nature of the book.
Despite its somewhat dense nature, I wasn’t bored for a minute while reading Why Liberalism Failed. In fact, I couldn’t put it down. I was fascinated by Deneen’s argument and found it quite compelling. Although I am still slightly skeptical that liberalism has completely failed (I think people will wake up and realize its successes), I agree that something seems deeply wrong with politics today.
By that, I don’t mean I find anything especially wrong with parties fighting and seeming childish. While it’s unbecoming, it’s been a facet of American politics since The Founding. What I mean is that it seems incredible to me that a system that has delivered so many beneficial things to our country seems simultaneously hated by everybody. Perhaps that is because few people in America today understand that the natural other side of liberty is that there are consequences for their actions. As a result, whenever their poor choices catch up with them, they are quite upset and blame “the system” rather than their own actions.
Capitalism has delivered unparalleled success in lifting people out of poverty, yet modern socialists hate and don’t understand capitalism. They want a return to the profoundly immoral, violent, and illiberal system of socialism that has always failed. Simultaneously, liberalism has given almost everyone the right to vote, which is unprecedented. Yet demagogues rule and people want a strong man.
Why Liberalism Failed is such a great book because Deneen explains those incongruous phenomena in it. To do so, he not only gives his opinion but also uses dozens of references to other works. He uses everything from Plato’s Republic to modern political and sociological works like The Shallows to explain and flesh out his argument. And I found that very compelling.
If you want to understand why our politics seem to be failing, you should read Why Liberalism Failed. It’s not a rant against Trump nor a partisan piece of yellow journalism about the greatness of the Republican party. Instead, it’s a conservative, even-handed and well thought out argument about how liberalism’s many successes have led to its decline and failure. He discusses everything from multiculturalism, to technology, to the decline of liberal arts in colleges. And of course, everything discussed in the body of this article. It’s as wide-ranging as it is brilliant. Enjoy reading it!
By: Gen Z Conservative