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  • Victor C. Bolles

The Fate of Liberalism

You may have thought, as I did, that a book with the title of Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen (2018) would show why progressive liberals of the left are so wrongheaded and that their movement is doomed to failure. Not quite. What Deneen, a Notre Dame professor, was writing about was the entire liberal experiment that began in the Enlightenment and that we call Western civilization (of course, from a Catholic perspective the Enlightenment was an outgrowth of Protestantism and therefore anti-Catholic).

Professor Deneen asserts in his book that the classical liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith that is the foundation of American democracy and free market economics is inextricably linked to the progressive socialism elaborated by Karl Marx that was not only the foundation of Soviet communism but also the welfare state. He does this by stating that the pursuit of individual liberty that is the basis for enlightenment philosophy is very different from the concept of liberty as understood by classical philosophers and Christian (meaning Catholic) theologians.

Professor Deneen states that the classical philosophers of ancient Greece believed that liberty was not the freedom to do what you wanted but freedom from the base desires and urges that keep a person from leading a virtuous life. As Plato writes in the Republic:

“For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many.”

Only the virtuous man can be freed from these “mad masters”. Professor Deneen goes on to say that Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers asserted that liberty was the freedom to do what we choose as if we were in a state of nature and that our democratic government was designed and implemented to allow us the greatest freedom to do that which we wish to do so long as we do not harm or infringe on the rights of others. These actions might not be virtuous but, as long as they did not harm others, we would be free to do them.

Professor Deneen goes on to say that both classical and progressive liberalism foster this liberty of action, whereas classical liberalism is focused on economic and commercial freedoms while progressive liberalism is focused on sexual freedoms and personal identities. Both forms of liberalism give a person the right to act outside of cultural norms and thus destroy traditional cultures by creating not a uniform Western culture but an anti-culture. If a culture determines human behavior then a lack of restraint becomes a cultural void.

He further asserts that government is the accomplice to liberalism’s destruction of culture. As cultural institutions dissolve, the state must expand to fill the void. Thus a charitable hospital established by a religious organization is replaced by a for-profit hospital run by a corporation but regulated by government (under classic liberalism), which in return is replaced by a government run hospital (under progressive liberalism).

Stepping aside from theory, this is what we see happening in the twenty-first century. Although America was founded on the basis of limited government, the power of the US government over its citizens is now virtually unlimited. As America grew into an economic giant as a result of classic liberalism’s free market the government had to grow in response in order to protect employees and consumers. And as progressive liberalism attempts to liberate individuals from the consequences of economic growth, the welfare state has continued to increase the size of government. The government's grip on our liberties further increases as we are forced to acquiesce to ever more identities that are separate and distinct from our American values and founding principles.

This inexorably increasing power of the state will ultimately destroy the liberal movement we call Western civilization. The denouement of the liberal experiment, Professor Deneen believes, will either be a state controlled by a small elite that forces the laboring masses to serve their needs or a state run economy where everyone must serve the needs of the state (run by a small elite of party members). The increasing wealth of the one percent in the United States, along with the ever-increasing growth of entitlement and income redistribution would seem to bear out Deneen’s hypothesis.

I refuse believe that a philosophy that is supposed to liberate mankind can only result in the enslavement of all but a few (which was the fate of most of mankind throughout history prior to the Enlightenment). America was founded as a repudiation of tyranny. The keys to American democracy are the checks and balances that are intended to limit the ability of the state to gain power at the expense of liberty. But these checks and balances are impediments to the plans of our politicians, which has resulted in a gridlocked legislature and a politicized Supreme Court that can no longer limit the increasing power of the executive branch.

I don’t know if we can ultimately control the growth in the size of government or if we are doomed to the fate envisioned by Professor Deneen. But I do know that our current political environment (with increasing wealth of a small elite combined with the burgeoning welfare state) is accelerating our rush to that fateful doom. We must, MUST stop the increasing growth of government and place limitations on its ability to control our lives. As a people we must refuse to be the victims of Deneen’s hypothesis (and John Adam’s prediction).

“There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

-John Adams

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