Aristotle told us that virtue taken to excess becomes a vice. “Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded,” reads the first sentence of the conclusion of Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed, a study of the unintended consequences that Deneen claims were inherent in liberal philosophy from the beginning. Liberalism may have been virtuous in opposition to the divine right of kings and wars of religion, but having vanquished all recent ideological challengers, it has been able to uninterruptedly pursue its philosophical principles to excess, and thus become a vice.
At times, Deneen sounds positively Hegelian in his insistence that a 500-year-old political philosophy founded on the ideal of liberty from arbitrary and unjust authority is destined by its nature to dialectically produce its own antithesis in the form of a massive, invasive state responsible for the upkeep of millions of atomized, infantilized individuals in thrall to their boundless appetites. As a Marxist would say, the contradictions have been heightened, and now we near the inevitable collapse into what Deneen thinks most likely to be either an Orwellian administrative state, a military autocracy, or populist nationalist authoritarianism.
The social ills he describes certainly exist, of course. The question is how widespread, let alone inevitable or terminal, these ills are. Intellectuals in general are overly inclined to put the theoretical cart ahead of the practical horse, and conservative intellectuals are no exception. In theory, A may produce B which leads inexorably to C, but in practice, most people are inconsistent about connecting those logical dots and not particularly bothered about it. In other words, people are perfectly capable of adopting the aspects of liberalism which appeal to them, such as sexual liberation and increased consumer choice, while supplementing them with practices, such as community involvement, church attendance, and striving after virtue, which are, in theory, being crushed by the juggernaut set into motion by Hobbes and Locke. The selfish, short-sighted hedonism that Deneen takes to be illustrative of liberalism per se may eventually become integrated as just another stage in the typical life cycle of an individual, a sort of equivalent to the Amish Rumspringa, where people in their late teens and early twenties have to indulge their appetites in order to learn the hard way how empty that way of life is. Some would probably argue that this is already how things are. In politics, as in the natural world, mass extinction events are extremely rare; slow, piecemeal evolution is the rule. Liberalism will probably shed a few vestigial organs and grow some gangling appendages; the question of when it deserves a new Linnaean classification is only of interest to specialists.
Deneen repeatedly stresses that the conventional distinction between conservatives and liberals only masks the ways in which these two wings of liberalism act in tandem to advance its inner logic. The state and the market are like two competing apps, he says; the real problem is the operating system which in both cases promotes the satisfaction of impulsive appetites, restlessness, and the technical mastery of the natural world. Late in the book, he criticizes Charles Murray, a libertarian, for failing to see that the ills of liberalism can’t be tamed by “moral admonition” — no amount of moralizing can divert the wheels of runaway history. And yet, all Deneen offers in the conclusion are typical “crunchy con” suggestions for how to live while preparing for whatever follows liberalism. Murray, who is supposedly too captive to the logic of liberalism to think outside the Lockean box, has at least written a book suggesting ways in which citizens can practice a sort of passive resistance, or civil disobedience, while waiting for a sclerotic, overreaching state to collapse on itself. I hardly see enough difference between these two approaches worth elaborating, just as I hardly see any point in being exercised about what may or may not happen to liberalism over the next few generations. What will be, will be. We’ll muddle through like we always have.