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Reflections on the Limits of Liberalism
In Conversation with Fukuyama and Deneen
Today’s post is appears courtesy of guest author, David Levy. David Levy is a professor at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, a secular Great Books college that to a striking degree still believes in itself and its mission of freeing minds with the greatest books ever written. His past publications are all in classical political philosophy.
The post is a revised and expanded version of the remarks Professor Levy delivered at Michigan State University on a panel that featured Professors Patrick Deneen and Francis Fukuyama, and which spurred this earlier post by regular Postliberal Order contributor Patrick Deneen.
The following is adapted from remarks I made at the recent LeFrak Forum, as the discussant on a panel in which Patrick Deneen and Francis Fukuyama debated the merits of liberalism. In composing my reflection on their positions, I made use of Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed and Fukuyama’s Liberalism and Its Discontents. I learned a great deal from both books and recommend both to all. One important thing I learned from Deneen’s book (and its success) is that franker discussions of the limits of liberalism than I had previously witnessed are possible and even necessary. With that in mind, I set myself the task of thinking through what I took to be Fukuyama’s response to Deneen’s criticisms of liberalism.
Fukuyama appears to acknowledge that there’s some truth in Deneen’s account of how liberalism tends to replace traditional culture with a kind of anti-culture, and he concedes that the “critique of liberalism—that liberal societies provide no strong common moral horizon around which community can be built—is true enough.” But Fukuyama denies that this is a damning problem for liberalism. He appears to regard Deneen’s claims about how far liberalism has destroyed older traditions as an exaggeration, and he suggests that liberal nations could provide a sufficient sense of community by cultivating a positive vision of their “liberal national identity.” He grants that the “national” aspect of this identity can’t be derived from liberal theory. However, he appears to affirm that liberal nations have resources in traditions that are entirely compatible with liberalism to promote such visions of liberal national identity. To this end, he observes that relatively liberal societies have in fact produced vibrant arts and culture, all while protecting human dignity. He thus suggests that a sufficient sense of community could be based on proud appeals to such liberal cultural traditions.
This strikes me as very practical advice, to the extent that we can follow it. But I have some doubts about how far we can. In the first place, Fukuyama himself appears to have some doubt as to whether liberal societies as they currently are will be sufficiently willing to make such proud appeals. I suspect I have greater doubts on this point, and my doubts are rooted in the belief, which he appears to deny, that the current reluctance of many liberals to express pride in their national identity is not an accidental occurrence but a predictable consequence of liberalism. What is more, I doubt whether such cultural traditions as we still have and are likely to continue to have will be adequate to the task of promoting a strong enough sense of community.
Few will deny Fukuyama’s examples of the vibrant arts and culture that have derived from relatively liberal societies—save perhaps some of his American ones. He refers to Hollywood and hip hop as American cultural achievements, but if a necessary purpose of culture is, as Deneen suggests, to moderate our basest appetites by educating and elevating them, thus incorporating them into our higher ambitions, Hollywood and hip hop now and for some time have served primarily as powerful forms of anti-culture. I can’t deny enjoying hip hop a great deal myself, but I also can’t deny wondering whether any more potent means has been found for undoing the work culture has or had done on our appetites. As regards the other examples, it seems true but insufficient to attribute them to the liberalism of the societies in which they occurred. As far as I know, all of Fukuyama’s examples derive from cultures formed before the societies became relatively liberal. The first example, Periclean Athens, did produce unmatched flourishing in arts and culture, but this flourishing appears to have resulted (in part) from the fact that a recently more aristocratic and illiberal society was growing more free or more corrupt. Traditions of great gravity were being cast aside, which meant serious people had to think for themselves. An explosion in art and philosophy was the result. This explosion was therefore not a feature of a stable and healthy “liberal” community. Thus, Athens began its manifest political decline under the demagogue Cleon only a few years after Pericles praised the free Athenian way of life. As far as I know, every example of apparently liberal high culture owes a manifest debt to non-liberal traditions, and every such period can plausibly be described as one during which stricter morals were being relaxed. If this is right, once those morals have been relaxed, once the tension is gone—that is, once citizens have come to take for granted their new, less morally serious ways of life—the basis for cultural and artistic excellence will be gone.
It therefore seems reasonable to doubt that strictly liberal practices and traditions, that is, practices and traditions that don’t have pre-liberal roots, can suffice for forming a culture that satisfactorily sustains human flourishing. Since we lack any clear historical or empirical evidence, deciding this question would require answering the very complicated question of exactly what purposes such a culture needs to serve. Deneen’s discussion of anti-culture offers very fundamental answers to this question, one of which I mentioned above; let me suggest one closely related purpose which strikes me as quite important and perhaps clarifying. Probably no one can live well while predominantly focusing his conscious efforts on seeking his own narrowly understood individual good. A culture is therefore needed to raise our aims by giving us objects worthy of devotion. Can liberal societies do so? There’s no doubt that they have and to some extent still can. Fukuyama cites the moving account of a civil war officer risking his life in defense of our liberal order out of a wish to protect human dignity in general. This has no doubt happened countless times, but again, it’s always happened in liberal societies in which pre-liberal traditions have continued to exist. And we’ve been given clear reason to wonder whether the defense of liberal societies can continue to appear worthwhile as those traditions lose their power. In the wake of the Ukrainians’ proud defense of their nation, we received polling data according to which nearly 40% of Americans claim they would flee rather than defend their country; the number was nearly 50% among the youngest cohort polled, those aged 18-34. The causes of this are manifold, but both authors’ books point to trends which suggest that many Americans, especially among our elite—who in other ways seem to be the strongest proponents of liberalism—have come to doubt deep in their hearts the worthiness of our liberal order.
It is often the same people who strongly champion certain anti-traditional forms of individual autonomy who also oppose the aim of individual autonomy when it impedes what they regard as justice for certain groups. And these same people are, at least at times, at pains to deny the superiority of liberal society or culture to any other. We could call these people “woke,” but that would be to use a new name for a group that became conspicuous decades ago, though they used to have far less “cultural” power. To my mind, the emergence of this group is an extremely consequential but complicated political-psychological development, and I can’t yet give a complete account of it. However, I want to make two suggestions about this phenomenon that I think are important additions to Deneen’s analysis of the crisis of liberalism (insofar as I’ve understood that analysis). In the first place, an extreme egalitarianism, a desire for equal respect and equal outcomes in general, appears to animate much of these individuals’ opposition to individual autonomy. Probably every pursuit of equality can somehow be defended as necessary for some kind of autonomy, but in many cases, I don’t think this is the genuine or primary motive. In many cases it’s not even alleged: the demand articulated stops at the demand for equality. The distinction I have in mind can be clarified by an example where both concerns were present though in different degrees in different people: during the gay marriage debates, a friend admitted to me that his passionate concern about the issue was much less rooted in a wish for gays to be able to choose married life than in anger at those who did not accord equal respect to gays. Now, both Fukuyama and Deneen look to the democratic form of our liberal order with the hope that it can moderate some of liberalism’s excesses. I think this is very reasonable in the current circumstances. Deneen goes further and suggests that our liberal order has in fact produced a new form of aristocracy or oligarchy. I think this suggestion points to a genuine and concerning phenomenon. But I also think it likely that—as both Plato and Tocqueville would appear to predict—it’s especially the democratic form of our regime that has produced the extreme egalitarianism we see today.
My second suggestion about those passionately supporting both liberalism—especially anti-traditional forms of autonomy—and forms of illiberal egalitarianism requires a more complicated argument. When individuals hold such incompatible views, it’s safe to assert they don’t understand themselves. The zeal with which they may defend each view indicates that they’ve not come to hold these positions as a result of merely going along with popular trends. Something important is at stake for them, and their manifest confusion gives us warrant to look for it somewhere other than the accounts they most often give of themselves. Now, their manifold positions appear to belong together only in the disdain each implies for the liberal order as it currently exists. They can’t hold these positions without on some level being deeply dissatisfied with the current liberal order. But, again, their specific criticisms of that order, which are the result of the inconsistent application of somewhat opposed principles, can’t be taken to articulate the deepest sources of their discontent. Furthermore, over the last few decades, much progress has been made in many spheres according to liberal and egalitarian principles. (In passing, I note that this is not true of inequality in wealth, a form of inequality which, as is equally noteworthy, does not produce so much outrage from the group I have in mind. I suspect there are two main reasons for this. The first and more obvious one is that many of those I have in mind are relatively wealthy, and people can be expected to have some attachment to their own wealth. The second reason is that it is difficult to present inequality in wealth as a failing peculiar to Western or so-called “white supremacist” societies.) Still, the progress that has been made according to this group’s own principles has not lessened its discontent. Their stated criticisms, therefore, have come to refer to what are by any reasonable measure lesser injustices, but their discontent has manifestly increased. They are evidently attempting to vent a discontent with our liberal order that is not adequately rooted in the moral principles they’re consistently willing to acknowledge. They sense that something’s rotten in our liberal society and are thus inclined to agree with and fixate on every criticism that can somehow be made of liberal society according to their clearly acknowledged principles. This is not the way happy or morally fulfilled people behave. What is more, as elites or members of a class that shares elite opinions, their sense of the rottenness of their society would have to be compromised by the degree to which they possess a genuine sense of the moral worth of their own lives and the lives of those around them. Elites who truly believe in the worthiness of their own lives will think this worth goes at least some distance toward justifying the society that makes their way of life possible. We can therefore infer from this group’s sense of our society’s rottenness that they do not have a deep conviction in the moral worthiness of their own lives. I then suggest that this group’s deepest source of dissatisfaction is in fact the liberal way of life in general, including especially their own otherwise morally easy-going lives. Thus, they occasionally admit to finding the average American deplorable (and they clearly deplore him not only for his alleged racism and sexism), but how deeply does their way of life differ from his, aside from their support for their causes (which for the most part requires of them very little in the way of genuine sacrifice)?
We come then to the question of why the liberal order now seems less worthy of devotion. We saw that human dignity is a worthy cause. Deneen and Fukuyama agree that the defense of human dignity requires some protection of individual liberty. But as Deneen knows well, a genuine sense of dignity requires much more than mere liberty. It requires that we pursue goals that we respect ourselves for pursuing. And it appears to be the case that most of us can consistently find and pursue such goals only with the help of older, pre-liberal traditions, traditions that begin with the acceptance of duties not founded on consent. Left to choose our duties for ourselves, most of us just end up following our ever-changing preferences. This may be hardly more than old-fashioned common sense, but it’s exactly what was predicted at the beginning of political philosophy, in Plato’s analysis of the democratic individual in his Republic (though I fear that liberalism has taken our society further toward the possibility Plato there envisioned than he ever thought was likely to happen). And if one wants to understand the necessity that underlies this old-fashioned common sense, that is, why human nature requires such pre-liberal traditions, I can think of no better place to start than the psychology of the Republic. I conclude, then, that to the extent that the liberal order has eradicated pre-liberal traditions, it follows that the defense of that order would cease to be a defense of true human dignity.
It therefore appears to me that much depends on the ability of the liberal order to retain some pre-liberal traditions. We come then to the question of whether liberalism must relentlessly eviscerate traditions in the manner Deneen describes. The promise of liberalism seemed to be that each could maintain his own view of the good life so long as he respected everyone else’s right to do the same. Why has this resulted in the more or less steady erosion of pre-liberal moral and religious belief? And did it have to? It’s not clear to me exactly how Deneen answers these questions. This outcome does appear to be the logical result of holding the foundational anthropological beliefs about individual freedom that he finds underlying our liberal laws and political arrangements. But for some time, we had liberal laws while relatively few of our citizens accepted these foundational beliefs and even fewer did so with a clear and consistent understanding of them. As a matter of law, individuals had the “right” to choose which traditions to follow, but in practice most were raised to take pre-liberal traditions as authoritative. Why, then, have these traditions been so hollowed out, and why have the foundational beliefs of liberalism come to be increasingly accepted? I think Deneen explains admirably well how the instability required by free markets encourages this tendency, as it separates many of us from our families and other tight-knit communities, thus leaving us more like the isolated individuals liberal theory begins with. But the change that has taken place would appear to me both more intelligible and more concerning if the liberal laws themselves contributed to the acceptance of the foundational beliefs. I’m asking, in effect, whether acknowledgement of the legal right to live as one pleases does not tend in many souls to devolve into or toward belief in the moral right to so live.
Consider the rapid change in attitudes about gay marriage among Republicans after the Supreme Court’s decision. In fact, in this case there’s been at least one fairly relevant study: it showed that beliefs about norms surrounding gay marriage changed even within weeks of that decision. After gay marriage became legally permissible, moral acceptance of gay marriage increased quickly. I’ll try to state briefly what I think is the most important source of this phenomenon (though I doubt it was the most important source of the change documented in the study I cite above: that study focused on very rapid changes of opinions in adults; what I’m focusing on is the long-term effect of living under liberal laws especially on children and young adults). First, we should note that the political community is always taken to be, in a sense, the most authoritative community for its citizens. It manifestly has the power to decide which other associations exist within it. In healthy political communities, citizens naturally believe their community uses its power justly, that is, it permits what it permits and forbids what it forbids in accordance with merit and for the common good. These beliefs about merit and the common good then tend naturally but naively to be taken as entailing sufficient guidance toward living well or virtue. One could also put the point as follows: when the communities within which we find ourselves (in the modern world, the most important of these are usually one’s family and one’s nation) are even moderately healthy, part of our nature inclines us toward wholehearted devotion to them. We are then inclined to think they’re worthy of this devotion, and unless parents or other teachers succeed in instructing us otherwise, we will be inclined to regard the most authoritative of our communities, that is, the political one, as both guiding us toward and demanding from us true human excellence or virtue. It’s probably this last premise that will strike most people as the least plausible one, but I’d point out that students of all kinds almost universally gravitate toward the view that the good citizen in a decent political order is the simply good person. Thus, when the political community seems to be decent but refuses to give its citizens guidance about which religion to follow—to cite the most important example of what I’m talking about—many will naturally struggle to regard religious belief as a matter of truly great importance. It is rather well-known that the ancients understood the laws to be teachers and thus sought to use them to teach virtue. I’m adding—and I believe the classical philosophers understood this too—that even when the laws are not intended to teach virtue, there is a natural human tendency to take them to do so.
I therefore doubt that, having reached the point we’ve reached, there’s good reason to hope we can stop liberalism’s tendency to deprive our communal lives of what makes life most worth living for most people. I hasten to add that, as Fukuyama observes, this is also a severe practical problem for opponents of liberalism. To the extent that liberalism has destroyed our pre-liberal cultural resources, it has greatly diminished any ground there may have been for a popular and peaceful alternative to liberalism. It may well be that our likeliest prospects are continued life under an ever more dehumanizing (and in crucial respects, ever less liberal) “liberalism,” or violence that’s almost certain to be far worse for human life. If such is our situation, we’d do well to focus on slowing the decay, and I believe both Deneen and Fukuyama have useful suggestions for how we could do so. Now, it’s always reasonable to make the best of one’s situation, but I know the idea of merely “slowing the decay” will be insufficiently satisfying for many people. I certainly don’t recommend it as a political slogan. So, while restricting myself to what I regard as rational hopes, I’ll note that politics admits of little in the way of safe predictions. I believe what I’ve set out is the most likely course for the foreseeable future, but the foreseeable future is only one big unpredictable event away from being over. It is therefore not unreasonable also to keep a look out for new and more promising alternatives.
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