Friday, May 18, 2018

Books: Why The Original Intent Of Liberalism Failed

Why Liberalism Failed 

By Patrick J. Deneen

Yale University Press, $30.00

Leading political thinker Patrick J. Deneen, in his new work Why Liberalism Failed, looks at the original intent of the philosophy, which was launched to foster greater equality, defend pluralism, protect human dignity, and expand liberty.

In reality, Deneen argues, liberalism in practice generates titanic inequality, creates cultural homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.

It is not that we have failed to live up to liberalism's ideals, but that the ruinous effects of it are inextricably tied to the fundamental nature of the ideology.

The tools of liberalism, especially its practical arrangements, economic system, educational philosophy, and technologized science, have increasingly made humans into subjects, not the free people the idea promised.

Deneen, the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame, makes the point that the solution to liberalism's problems is not to apply more of it. We must instead deeply examine the ideology, and reject entrenched assumptions about its basic strength and legitimacy. We must acknowledge the good it has done while also seeing the harm, and be open to the creation of new political possibilities in response to our current crisis.

Deneen writes of liberalism from its creation to how it is viewed now, "A political philosophy conceived some 500 years ago, and put into effect at the birth of the United States nearly 250 years later was a wager that political society could be grounded on a different footing. It conceived humans as rights-bearing individuals who could fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life. Opportunities for liberty were best afforded by a limited government devoted to 'securing rights,' along with a free-market economic system that gave space for individual initiative and ambition. Political legitimacy was grounded on a shared belief in an originating 'social contract' to which even newcomers could subscribe, ratified continuously by free and fair elections of responsive representatives. Limited but effective government, rule of law, an independent judiciary, responsive public officials, and free and fair elections were some of the hallmarks of this ascendant order and, by all evidence, wildly successful wager.

"Today, some 70 percent of Americans believe that their country is moving in the wrong direction, and half the country thinks its best days are behind it. Most believe that their children will be less prosperous and have fewer opportunities than previous generations. Every institution of government shows declining levels of public trust by the citizenry, and deep cynicism toward politics is reflected in an uprising on all sides of the political spectrum against political and economic elites. Elections, once regarded as well-orchestrated performances meant to convey legitimacy to liberal democracy, are increasingly regarded as evidence of an impregnably rigged and corrupt system. It is evident to all that the political system is broken and social fabric is fraying, particularly as a growing gap increases between wealthy haves and left-behind have-nots, a hostile divide widens between faithful and secular peoples, and deep disagreement persists over America's role in the world. Wealthy Americans continue to gravitate to gated enclaves in and around select cities, while growing numbers of Christians compare our times to that of the late Roman Empire and ponder a fundamental withdrawal from wider American society into updated forms of Benedictine monastic communities. The signs of the times suggest that much is wrong with America. A growing chorus of voices even warn that we may be witnessing the end of the Republic unfolding before our eyes, with some yet-unnamed regime in the midst of taking its place.

"Nearly every one of the promises that were made by the architects and creators of liberalism has been shattered. The liberal state expands to control nearly every aspect of life while citizens regard government as a distant and uncontrollable power, one that only extends their sense of 'globalization.' The only rights that seem secure today belong to those with sufficient wealth and position to protect them, and their autonomy - including rights of property, the franchise and its concomitant control over representative institutions, religious liberty, free speech, and security in one's papers and abode - is increasingly compromised by legal intent or technological fat accompli. The economy favors a new 'meritocracy' that perpetuates its advantages through generational succession, shored up by an educational system that relentlessly sifts winners and losers. A growing distance between liberalism's claims and its actuality increasingly spurs doubts about those claims rather than endangering trust that the gap will be narrowed.

"Liberalism has failed - not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded. As liberalism has 'become more fully itself,' as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology."

Why Liberalism Fails is essential reading for people troubled by what American politics has turned into and concerned about what the future holds for our precious democracy.

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