Welfare & Subsidiarity
December Tue 11, 2012
My good friend and Notre Dame colleague Professor Patrick Deneen recently authored a First Things article titled “Unsustainable Liberalism.” If you haven’t read the essay, you should. It presents a boldly provocative argument that reflects deep thinking about our current political and cultural situation.I’d like to offer a critique of Deneen’s argument. I’ll briefly summarize his view and then offer a few thoughts on what I think he gets right, but also on what he gets wrong. My position, as you will see, is not that Deneen is wrong about what ails liberalism—in fact, I think his diagnosis is spot on—but that he overlooks and understates the resources available to us through a return to America’s founding principles.Deneen’s Critique of LiberalismLiberalism, Deneen states, is unsustainable. It’s unsustainable because its success depends on non-liberal institutions, but the practice of liberalism undermines these very institutions. Liberalism thus contradicts itself; inevitably it will collapse. Deneen identifies two key commitments of the liberal project: anthropological individualism and opposition to nature.By anthropological individualism, he means that liberalism, above all, values individual choice. Liberalism values the right over the good—it prioritizes the individual’s right to form his own conception of the good over any definitive normative conception of the good. To say the same thing differently, liberalism, as Deneen nicely puts it, “dismisses the idea that there are wrong or bad choices.” Because there is no good, no real good, individuals are left to form their own conceptions of the good. This commitment to anthropological individualism, Deneen says, is fatal to those social structures and institutions that restrain self-centeredness and individualism.Liberalism destabilizes the family because it teaches husbands and wives that the legitimacy of all human relationships depends on choice. If you no longer choose your wife or children, you can dispense with them.Liberalism displaces churches and civic organizations because the modern bureaucratic state provides for citizens what they cannot provide for themselves: a head start when you are a child, college loans when you are a young adult, unemployment compensation when you lose your job, Social Security and Medicare when you are a senior. Our social instincts that lead us to help others are blunted by a nanny state that cares for us throughout our lives. This frees us from having to care for others or to need their care. Liberalism, Deneen says, encourages loose connections.Perhaps worst of all, liberalism dehumanizes the individual because it teaches him to value above all else the exercise of his will. But the value of choice isn’t just personal autonomy. Our capitalistic system directs us to exercise our wills primarily in pursuit of material and physical gratification. Liberalism teaches us to be self-centered utility-maximizing, pleasure-seeking animals.If this seems bad, I’m only halfway through Deneen’s critique.
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