One quotation per chapter from “Why Liberalism Failed”, by Patrick Deneen


I said I might drop some quotations I liked – one per chapter seemed like a good way to limit myself!  Recommended you do go pick up the book, almost every paragraph has something good to say and if you think you’ll “get” the book from a few quotations you are mistaken.  But these might whet your appetite for the writing style and content.


The “limited government” of liberalism today would provoke jealousy and amazement from tyrants of old, who could only dream of such extensive capacities for surveillance and control of movement, finances, and even deeds and thoughts.  The liberties that liberalism was brought into being to protect – individual rights of conscience, religion, association, speech, and self-governance – are extensively compromised by the expansion of government activity into every area of life.

Ch 1 – Unsustainable Liberalism

In the same way that courses in economics claim merely to describe human beings as utility-maximizing individual actors, but in fact influence students to act more selfishly, so liberalism teaches a people to hedge commitments and adopt flexible relationships and bonds.  Not only are all political and economic relationships seen as fungible and subject to constant redefinition, so are all relationships – to place, to neighborhood, to nation, to family, and to religion.  Liberalism encourages loose connections.

Ch 2 – Uniting Individualism and Statism

In Julia’s world there are only Julia and the government, with the very brief exception of a young child who appears in one slide – with no evident father – and is quickly whisked away by a government-sponsored yellow bus, never to be seen again. Otherwise, Julia has achieved a life of perfect autonomy, courtesy of a massive, sometimes intrusive, always solicitous, ever-present government. The world portrayed by ‘Life of Julia’ is an updated version of the frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan, in which there exist only individuals and the sovereign state – the former creating and giving legitimacy to the latter, the latter ensuring a safe and secure life for the individuals who brought it into being. The main difference is that while Hobbes’ story is meant as a thought experiment, ‘The Life of Julia’ is meant to depict present-day reality. But the ad makes increasingly clear that its story is the very opposite of Hobbes’: it is the liberal state that creates the individual. Through the increasingly massive and all-encompassing Leviathan, we are finally free of one another.

Ch 3 – Liberalism as Anticulture

The fundamental premise of liberalism is that the natural condition of man is defined above all by the absence of culture, and that, by contrast, the presence of culture marks existence of artifice and convention, the simultaneous effort to alter but conform to nature.  In its earliest articulation, liberal anthropology assumed that “natural man” was a cultureless creature, existing in a “state of nature” noteworthy for the absence of any artifice created by humans.

Ch 4 – Technology and the Loss of Liberty

We regard our condition as one of freedom, whereas from the standpoint of liberal modernity, adherents of Amish culture are widely perceived to be subject to oppressive rules and customs.  Yet we should note that while we have choices about what kind of technology we will use – whether a sedan or a jeep, an iPhone or a Galaxy, a Mac or a PC – we largely regard ourselves as subject to the logic of technological development and ultimately not in a position to eschew any particular technology.  By contrast, the Amish – who seem to constrain so many other choices – exercise choice over the use and adoption of technologies based on criteria upon which they base their community.  Who is free?

Ch 5 – Liberalism against Liberal Arts

These doubts within the humanities became the fertile seedbed for self‐destructive tendencies.  Informed by Heideggerian theories that placed primacy on the liberation of the will, first poststructuralism and then postmodernism took root. These and other approaches, while apparently hostile to the rationalist claims of the sciences, were embraced out of the need to conform to the academic demands being set by the natural sciences, especially for “progressive” knowledge. Faculty could demonstrate their progressiveness by showing the backwardness of the texts; they could “create knowledge” by showing their own superiority to the authors they studied; they could display their anti‐traditionalism by attacking the very books that were the basis of their discipline. Philosophies that preached “the hermeneutics of mistrust,” that exulted in exposing the way texts were deeply informed by inegalitarian prejudices, and that even questioned the idea that texts contained a “teaching” at all, offered the humanities the possibility of proving themselves relevant in the terms set by the modern scientific approach. By adopting a jargon only comprehensible to a few “experts,” they could emulate the scientific priesthood — betraying the original mandate of the humanities to guide students through the cultural inheritance and teachings of the classic books. Professors in the humanities showed their worth by destroying the thing they studied.

Ch 6 – The New Aristocracy

Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that “everything is allowed”, at least so long as it does not result in measurable (mainly physical) harm.  It is a society organized for the benefit of the strong, as Mill recognized.  By contrast, a Burkean society is organized for the benefit of the ordinary – the majority who benefit from societal norms that the strong and the ordinary alike can be expected to follow.  A society can be shaped for the benefit of most people by emphasizing mainly informal norms and customs that secure the path to flourishing for most human beings; or it can be shaped for the benefit of the extraordinary and powerful by liberating all from the constraint of custom.  Our society was once shaped on the basis of the benefit for the many ordinary; today it is shaped largely for the benefit of the few strong.

Ch 7 – The Degradation of Citizenship

Today’s liberal critics of democracy – especially the emaciated forms of spectator politics that we call democracy – in effect condemn the deformed and truncated actions of a degraded citizenry that liberalism itself has created.

Conclusion: Liberty after Liberalism

[Liberalism’s] defenders often point to the liberation of women from conditions of inequality as a significant example of liberalism’s success, and regard any critique of liberalism as a proposal to thrust women back into preliberal bondage.  Yet the main practical achievement of this liberation of women has been to move many of them into the workforce of market capitalism, a condition that traditionalists like Wendell Berry as well as Marxist political theorists like Nancy Fraser regard as a highly dubious form of liberation.  All but forgotten are arguments, such as those made in the early Republic, that liberty consists of independence not only from the arbitrariness of a king but of an employer.

That is all – I quite appreciated the book, pick it up!

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