What’s so great about freedom?

Liberalism is the belief that human rights are the most important value.  I have believed this for most of my life..

I just got finishing reading a book, WHY LIBERALISM FAILED by Patrick J. Deneen (2018) that says it is impossible to build a nation or a society on this basis.

And that most of the troubles of the United States today are the result of trying to build a society on this false basis.

Liberalism has failed because it has triumphed, Deneen writes.  Its triumph makes manifest the flaws that were there all along.

He has strong arguments for this (even though, in the last chapter, he halfway takes them back – I will get to this is due course).

He explores the same territory as Chris Arnade, Zygmunt Bauman, Matthew CrawfordRod Dreher and Pankaj Mishra. There’s a lot to think about.

Deneen defines liberalism as the philosophy that says the most important thing is freedom to choose.   One version is classic liberalism, which in the USA is called conservatism, that says freedom means government should not restrict individual freedom of choice.

Another version is progressive liberalism, that says government can and should empower individual choice by promoting education, public health, retirement security and the like.

Classic liberals have not succeeded in freeing individuals from control by a powerful government; progressive liberals have not succeeded in freeing individuals from control by powerful private organizations.  Deneen believes there are systemic reasons for his.

He says both forms of liberalism differ from the older conception of liberty as self-government.  In the older conception, free individuals were those who were in control of their passions, greed, anger and fears, and did not need external control, and a free community was likewise keeping itself in order without external control.

As a wise friend of mine, Michael Brown, once remarked, individualism used to mean self-reliance, and now means self-expression.

Liberal ideas originated in Western culture about 500 years ago with Francis Bacon, according to Deneen; he  thought that the advance of science and knowledge would enable humanity to control nature rather than being subject to it.  Individual people were separate and independent of nature, not part of a great chain of being.



These ideas began to be put into practice about 250 years ago, by thinkers who believed it would be more realistic to found society on the basis of rational self-interest rather than on ideals that were often ignored.

Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty” was an economic system in which entrepreneurs acting out of self-interest competed to serve the common good.  James Madison’s idea of constitutional government was to set up checks and balances so that the conflicting ambitions of politicians resulted in a balance that served the common good.

When Smith, Madison and other early liberals wrote of people acting out of self-interest, they weren’t thinking of sociopaths.  They were thinking of the normal level of selfishness of respectable middle-class British subjects and American citizens.  But the British and American liberals of that day were the heirs of an older moral culture that they took for granted.

The early liberals sought to end the hereditary privileges of kings, aristocrats and established churches, and open up opportunity to what Thomas Jefferson called “natural aristocrats”—people from any walk of life of superior ability and enterprise, not bound by outworn tradition, who move society forward.

The promise was that these “natural aristocrats” would change a static society into a progressive one—one with ever-increasing scientific knowledge, an ever-rising material standard of living, ever-wider opportunities for people to live in the way they wished.

By and large, this promise was kept—at least, the promise was kept for me, personally.  I enjoy a more comfortable and less restricted life than my parents did, and they were better off than my grandparents. This is a fruit of living in a society that honors freedom, reason and tolerance.  I’m not sure, though, that my nephew and niece, and their children, will be better off than I was.

Patrick J. Deneen

Progress had a price.  We live in an impersonal economy. governed by corporations and institutions, often headquartered in distant locations, for our jobs, for our finances and for the necessities of life.

There was a time when bankers, manufacturers and merchants lived in the same communities as did the depositors and borrowers of their banks, the workers in their factories and the customers in their stores.  They dealt with clients, employees and customers face to face.

They went to the same churches, participating in the same civic events and had reason to think that their fates were bound up with the fates of their communities.  They may or may not have been influenced by local public opinion, but they would have been aware of it.

Now most Americans do business with branch banks and shop in chain stores.  It’s rarely the case that the largest local employer is locally-owned.  All this is justified in the name of economic efficiency through free movement of money, goods and services.

Our local governments and community institutions have no control over these powerful outside forces.  So we look to the federal government to defend our rights and give us security, and find the federal government is just one more big impersonal institution that is not accountable to us.

Individualism and statism go together, Deneen writes.  They are not enemies, but twins.

The latest version of liberalism—often called neoliberalism—has generated inequality at least as great as the old aristocracies,   But the people on top believe they are Jefferson’s “natural aristocrats” (my term, not Deneen’s).  They believe they deserve to be where they are because of superior ability and enterprise, or superior educational credentials.

Deneen quotes a book, Average is Over (which I haven’t read) by an economist named Tyler Cowen, who says that only 15 percent or so of the American population have the ability to make a positive contribution to a high-technology economy.

Cowen foresees a day when the “natural aristocrats” have an even greater share of wealth than they do today. The majority of the population will be appeased by means of a minimal guaranteed income, cheap housing and Internet service—the equivalent of ancient Rome’s bread and circuses.

Our American belief in individualism, according to Deneen, results in a homogenization of culture.  Since fewer and fewer people accept the limits of a regional or ethnic culture, or of what used to be considered “high” culture, what we have instead is “popular culture”—which is commercial culture.

I have an old friend who is a community college teacher in Texas.  He said the majority of his students graduate from high school with no knowledge of history, literature or the Bible, but they all are familiar with the origin stories of the superheroes in the imaginary DC and Marvel universes.  They were free to choose, and the commercial culture offered more attractive choices than the older culture.

The triumph and failure of liberalism is most manifest in the decline of liberal arts education.  Deneen writes that the colleges founded by Americans in the days of the pioneers had a purpose of shaping not only intellect, but character.  Instruction was based on the Bible and the Greek and Latin classics.  College administrations acted as substitute parents and imposed rules of moral behavior.

But liberalism, in both its aspects, is forward-looking, not backward-looking.  Progressive liberals said that, if there is to be progress, the supposed wisdom of the past has to be questioned, and abandoned if irrelevant to the needs of today or inconsistent with the intellectual fashions of today.  Hence postmodernism.

Progressive liberals also say that students’ moral behavior, including sexual behavior, was their own business.  Deneen says they are blind to the connection between this and the rise of sexual abuse and rape.

Conservative classic liberals tend to dismiss the liberal arts, except for science and mathematics, as useless.  To them, the purpose of a university education is preparation for a professional career.  Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin once advocated changing the state university’s mission statement from the search for truth to serving the manpower needs of business.


Deneen may make things seem worse than they are.  He contrasts the reality of the present-day with the ideals of earlier times.  I doubt if he would want to actually live in those times, even if he could enjoy the benefit of antibiotics, electricity and indoor plumbing.  Still, he is right about the direction the world is moving in.

In the last chapter, he says he rejects not only the liberal ideology, but all the ideologies that are opposed to liberalism—Communism and fascism, and today’s authoritarian nationalism and religion.  Nor does he have an alternative program of his own.  He said the creation of liberalism took centuries, and creation of an alternative may take centuries.

I don’t criticize Deneen for his lack of a program because I don’t have a program of my own, beyond opposing abuses of power and implementing a few obvious reforms.

He says he wants to preserve the positive achievements of liberalism—the rule of law, freedom of speech, religious tolerance and so on.  He says it is impossible to simply return to the values and customs of an earlier age.

Where does that leave him?  He advocates people join together to provide each other with moral support and to cultivate practical homesteading skills, something like Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (although Deneen says you don’t have to be religious to do this) and something like the ideas in Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft (which I haven’t read).

Such communities won’t be able to resolve the current economic and political crises, but members of such communities might be better able to survive these crises and pick up the pieces afterwards.


The failure of liberalism was a failure to maintain a moral and cultural basis for liberalism.


Afterthought [10/25/2018]  Let me make clear that I still consider myself a liberal in the broad sense.  I was bought up to believe that self-respect required me to stand up for my rights, and that I had a duty to respect the rights of others.  I still believe these things.

I used to believe that belief in the principle of human rights was part of the American national character.   I was disillusioned by how easily fundamental Constitutional rights were wiped off the blackboard after the 9/11 attacks.  Now we have President Donald Trump, who doesn’t even pay lip service to the idea of human rights.

It’s long been the case that human rights only extend to those embedded in a particular culture and legal system.  Stateless persons and refugees have fewer rights than convicted criminals who are citizens.  If you break down a cultural and moral foundation for human rights, the legal basis for human rights erodes even for citizens and members of the cultural majority.


Patrick J. Deneen web site.

Classical Liberalism Strikes Out, an interview of Patrick Deneen by Rod Dreher.

The Problems of Liberalism: a Q&A with Patrick Deneen by Joseph Hogan for The Nation.


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6 Responses to “What’s so great about freedom?”

  1. Alex Page Says:

    David Harvey’s ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’ is an interesting book, one of its topics being the neoliberal conception of rights and freedom. Harvey’s view is rooted in a Marxist perspective of economics and class.

    “The critique of endless capital accumulation as the dominant process that shapes our lives entails critique of those specific rights – the right to individual private property and the profit rate – that ground neoliberalism and vice versa. I have argued elsewhere for an entirely different bundle of rights, to include the right to life chances, to political association and ‘good’ governance, for control over production by the direct producers[…]”


    • philebersole Says:

      Deneen’s argument is that neoliberalism is a subset of liberalism as a whole, and that the failure of liberalism is the failure of an ideology that claims to be value-neutral, but in practice erodes all pre-existing cultural and religious values.


  2. Fred Says:

    There is a truth here that makes me sad. I guess Nietzsche’s statement is true. God is dead – with “God” being any sense of unifying morality or purpose.

    Our high officers, public and private, and our cultural role models are mostly narcissists, psychopaths, sociopaths, and their sycophants. I suppose those are the personalities best suited to rise to the top, once moral philosophy becomes irrelevant. Those who can, emulate. Those who cannot or will not, scratch their heads in confusion or disgust.


  3. Vincent Says:

    I like it when you say you don’t have a program of your own. I don’t either, viewing both capitalism and progressive ideas with equal disdain; but embracing reality as the only thing we have.

    So i don’t know if this morning’s “In Our Time” discussion on Radio 4 has relevance or not https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0000t3y

    the astonishing ideas of Bernard Mandeville expressed in “The Fable of the Bees”, detecting the “public benefit of private vices”.

    To an untutored eye like mine, it sounds like an apologia for Ayn Rand, Trump & the American Way, with its “neo” tendencies smoothed out as a contemporary blip.


  4. philebersole Says:

    My friend Walter Uhrman e-mailed me this comment

    Concerning your review of ‘Why Liberalism Failed’, I guess I would take issue with Deneen’s idea that is impossible to build a society on basis of liberalism.

    For myself, one of the bedrock definitions of liberalism was the speech that FDR gave at his First Inaugural Governor, New York State. After this address — which ironically was given during the Coolidge boom years – Roosevelt was then catapulted to a national figure, when he stated:

    “…our civilization cannot endure unless, we, as individuals realize our personal responsibility to and dependence on the rest of the world. For it is literally true that the “self-supporting” man or woman has become extinct as the man of the stone age. Without the help of thousands of others, and one of us would die, naked and starved. Consider the bread upon our table, the clothes upon our backs, the luxuries that make life pleasant; how many men worked in sunlit field, in the dark mines, in the fierce heat of molten metal, and among the looms and wheels of countless, factories, in order to create them for our use and enjoyment.

    Parenthetically , a lot of FDR’s speech in 1929 is really an ‘echo’ Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Square Deal Speech, Syracuse, New York, 1903.

    In short what is being said is that we are equal participants of a community, and it is the responsibility of government to ensure that we citizens are on equal footing so that we may have the proper climate to pursue individual aspirations.

    In fact, I would go so far as to say that Paul Ryan from Wisconsin best understands this idea, and, without a doubt, is a disciple of modern liberalism. Consider, that Ryan’s father died when he was ten years old; and were it not for Social Security Disability Act which ‘helped’ the Ryan family, Paul Ryan would not be able to attend college and to continue the success he has had in his professional career.

    Likewise, in my own situation, my father informed me that unless I was admitted to one of the free colleges in NYC, he could not help with tuition. At that time, New York City believed that an educational investment in their citizens would eventually pay in huge benefits to society. During my four years at Hunter College my fee was $12.50 per term.

    Today with the lopsided power of media and the entrenched right-wing groups, we are bombarded with daily assaults about liberalism and its shortcomings. Currently, progressives have few effective voices who can explain how corporations and a small faction of our population, perhaps less than one per cent, are on the vanguard of a new internal imperialism, or the constant accumulation of wealth for the sake of wealth to the detriment of fellow citizens — which is the polar opposite of the sentiment Roosevelt expressed in 1929.


    • philebersole Says:

      Walter, I appreciate your comment and especially the quote from FDR.

      Patrick J. Dennen’s alternatives to liberalism did not include democratic socialism or religious social teaching (as in the Protestant Social Gospel, Catholic social teaching, the African-American church tradition, Quakerism, Unitarian-Universalism, Reform Judaism, etc.)

      There is considerable overlap between progressive liberalism, democratic socialism and religious social teaching, but the latter two embody a spirit of solidarity that goes beyond the progressivism of trying to create a level playing field so that competition is fair.

      The heart and soul of what was good about the New Deal came from the spirit of solidarity in the American labor movement. “What force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one? / But the union makes us strong!”

      Labor leader Tony Mazzocchi reminisced about how, when he was growing up in New York in the 1930s, anybody known to be a scab (what we now call a “replacement worker”) would be ashamed and afraid to return to his neighborhood.


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