In American politics, liberalism and conservatism are assumed to be contrary poles defining the normal political options.
But it’s rightly been observed that conservatism, in its standard American form, is really just an older form of liberalism: i.e. “classical” liberalism.
According to Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, the stock opponent conservatism, often called “progressive” liberalism, is actually just the obverse side of the same coin. Moreover, he argues that both forms of today’s liberalism—conservatism and progressivism—have become unsustainable.
Deneen’s main argument is that both strains of liberalism are unsustainable precisely because America, by following out a premise common to both, is creating the opposite of what both profess to want: the flourishing of liberty. He’s been developing that argument for a good while on the lecture circuit as well as in a series of books and academic papers. In an article entitled “The Tragedy of Liberalism,” published last month by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, he starts boiling it down.
Let’s boil it down a bit further.
The key starting point is to recognize the common premise both forms of liberalism: the autonomous individual. Conservatism (or classical liberalism) professes support for free markets and limited government. Progressive liberalism favors liberation of individuals from traditional social norms and forms along with an expansive entitlement state. Both exalt the autonomous individual, as a bearer of certain rights and equal to every other such individual, as the locus of freedom and focus of values.
But the outworking of both strains together, as American society has evolved, is the same: the gradual dissolution of traditional bonds of religion, family, place, and sexual morality in favor of a “depersonalized” culture, the rule of “abstraction,” and statism.
Capitalism, of which classical liberalism was the chief philosophy, has been so successful that people end up increasingly favoring things and activities that have instrumental value rather than intrinsic value. What matters is what sells, not what’s valuable for its own sake. Thus, for example, the “servile arts” (a.k.a. STEM) tends to displace the “liberal arts” in education, which reduces people’s capacity to think broadly and to value truth and beauty as distinct from mere utility. That in turn reduces their capacity to exercise authentic freedom.
Progressive liberalism has produced an equally severe handicap to liberty. Once the aforesaid traditional bonds are cast aside in favor of various projects of self-definition, the resulting free-for-all—especially in the sphere of sex, marriage, and family—requires an ever-expanding state apparatus to make the rules and limit the damage. Anybody familiar with the welfare and family-court systems has observed that tendency, especially among lower-income people. For many women with children, the state has had to, in effect, become a substitute husband. That correlates pretty significantly with crime, drugs, and adolescent emotional problems. Indiscipline leads to slavery, not freedom.
But Deneen is not altogether pessimistic. Precisely because the liberal project is unsustainable—ironically creating over time the opposite of true liberty—human nature will begin to look for ways to revive what’s been cast aside. We can’t be sure yet what those will be, but I’d bet they will look rather similar to what they used to be.
Michael Liccione earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and his BA in philosophy and religion from Columbia University. He has taught in a number of institutions, mostly Catholic, including the Catholic University of America, the University of St. Thomas (Houston), and Guilford Technical Community College.
His conventional publications have appeared in The Thomist, First Things, National Review, and Christifideles; his personal blog is Sacramentum Vitae.