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Archive for the ‘Law’ Category

Alabama Constitution Symposium, Blackstone & Burke Center, Welcome and Session One

In American History, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Southern History on December 4, 2019 at 6:45 am

On October 30, 2019, the Blackstone & Burke Center for Law & Liberty hosted a symposium on Alabama’s six constitutions at the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH). The event was funded by the Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF) and cosponsored by ADAH, AHF, and the Alabama Bicentennial Commission. This video features the welcome and session one of the symposium. The speakers for the welcome are Mr. Steve Murray (ADH), Mr. Armand DeKeyser (AHF), and Chief Justice Tom Parker (Alabama Supreme Court). The speakers for session one are Dr. Allen Mendenhall (Faulkner University Thomas Goode Jones School of Law, Blackstone & Burke Center) and Dr. R. Volney Riser (University of West Alabama).

Discussing Alabama’s Constitution

In American History, History, Law, Politics on November 20, 2019 at 6:45 am

What do “Change” and “Equality” Mean?

In Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Philosophy, Politics on November 6, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review.

As the elections of 2020 near, the left has weaponized two principles that are now prevailing orthodoxies on college campuses, in the mass media, and among activist blatherskites: change and equality.

Examples of change?

Senator Sanders and Senator Warren advocate differing forms of “free college” at public institutions of higher learning. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates have proposed eliminating the Electoral College. Andrew Yang backs a government-funded “universal basic income” program.

These are specific policies. What about large-scale models of government like socialism, openly embraced by Senator Sanders and Representative Ocasio-Cortez?

Which brings us to equality. “Equality,” today, refers to diverse causes: gender equality, marriage equality, income equality, transgender equality, racial equality, housing equality, healthcare equality, environmental equality—in short, you can affix the term “equality” to just about any hot-button political issue or mobilized interest group and find some politician supporting it.

Change and equality sound nice in theory, but what, exactly, do these words mean? The eminent thinker and man of letters Russell Kirk provides key insights into the nature and limitations of change and equality.

THERE ARE MANY KINDS OF “CHANGE”

Is change always for the better? Isn’t there regress, deterioration, degeneration, and decay? Wouldn’t we need a conservative disposition—an understanding of history in its immeasurable complexity—to know the difference between change that’s good and change that’s bad?

“When a society is progressing in some respects,” Kirk warns, “usually it is declining in other respects.” The French Revolution certainly brought changes: widespread violence, corruption, the beheading of innocents, the massacring of clergy, looting, chaos, food shortages, and the destruction of churches. The Russian Revolution promised change and delivered it in the form of war, mass murder, riots, starvation, and dictatorship. The Chinese Communist Revolution successfully instituted changes that resulted in tens of millions of deaths.

If you want change for the sake of something different, the object is transformation itself, not a definitive outcome. What do you achieve? The creed of change implies that you can never get things right: the only correct state is that of perpetual flow and flux.

“You’re on the wrong side of history,” we’re told by those who demand change. They value progress as the summum bonum, as though the past were devoid of good people and useful data, as if it were a monolithic evil from which you must flee and hide your eyes. But you should not move forward—you should not change—without the past to guide you.

We must be mindful of the debts we owe our ancestors, without whom, after all, we wouldn’t have the ideas, luxuries, technologies, and freedoms we enjoy. Kirk exemplifies a proper attitude toward change in his Concise Guide to Conservatism: “Change is essential to a good society,” but it must take place “within the framework of tradition.” He adds that “progress is possible only so long as it is undertaken upon the sure footing of permanence.”

I like asking progressives what society would need to look like for them to become conservatives. What is their teleology, their ultimate goal for culture and governing institutions? What achievement would they preserve and defend?

Change can be dangerous. The wisdom of generations—the taking of the long view—acts as a check against those radical changes that lead to loss of life and violations of the dignity and bodily integrity of every human person.

EQUALITY IS AN ILLUSION

Equality raises the questions: Equal to what? Equal in what sense? But this means it is a signifier without a signified. There’s no such thing as equality in the tangible, phenomenal world.

Every lawyer knows on some level that differentiations between people are inevitable.

“Civilized society requires that all men and women have equal rights before the law,” Kirk writes, “but that equality should not extend to equality of condition: that is, society is a great partnership, in which all have equal rights—but not to equal things.”

Why? Because justice, in Kirk’s view, demands “sound leadership, different rewards for different abilities, and a sense of respect and duty.” Moreover, “In the name of equality, the collectivist establishes a political and economic order which subjects a great mass of individuals to the will and whim of a new managerial elite.”

The law categorizes us: citizen and noncitizen, parent and child, minor and adult, alive and dead, employer and employee, buyer and seller, debtor and creditor, single and married, majority and minority, donor and donee, plaintiff and defendant, prosecution and defense, innocent and guilty, solvent and insolvent, offeror and offeree, payer and payee, promisor and promisee, landlord and tenant, agent and principal.

Nobody escapes labels under the law: human, mother, father, child, spouse, brother, sister, niece, nephew, cousin, aunt, uncle, descendant, heir, client, guardian, bystander, driver, owner, resident, patient, insured, devisee, witness, litigant, student, taxpayer, guest, signatory, broker, trustee, volunteer, testator, mortgagor, investor, author, licensee, victim, subscriber, decedent—the list goes on.

Everyone fits within more than one of these classifications, which are not necessarily hierarchical. The flesh-and-blood people to whom they refer, however, are not treated equally in all circumstances. They cannot be because no one can occupy an identical position in society, nor hold the exact same provisions in the exact same settings within the exact same jurisdiction.

We have different jobs, careers, ages, obligations, goals, talents, and familial statuses. The law treats people differently because of their different roles and responsibilities in specified contexts. Taxonomical differences are natural and inevitable, flowing from the diversity of human experience.

Laws by definition discriminate: they state who may or may not do something, who possesses or protects rights, who creates or enforces rules, who must or must not act in particular situations, which acts are proper or improper in light of unique circumstances. Discrimination is inevitable. The operative question, then, is on what basis laws discriminate. Some bases are acceptable, whereas others are not.

Aristotle maintained that the telos, or the purpose, of the law is to achieve goodness and virtue. Accordingly, laws discriminating on the grounds of race are presumptively invalid because they have no bearing upon human intent or action, on the pursuit of goodness or virtue. Rather, they involve an immutable characteristic, a trait people cannot help, an unchosen quality of the human body.

Goodness and virtue, by contrast, involve choices. A person acts morally by selecting one course of action over another. The law incentivizes good behavior and punishes crime or mischief. It shouldn’t penalize people for acts they didn’t or couldn’t commit, for properties they are incapable of changing or affecting.

Except in the eyes of God, absolute equality, true equality, doesn’t exist. Attempts to attain it necessitate coercion, perhaps even the annihilation of certain people or the destruction of certain places and things. Yet I wouldn’t expect the government forcibly to remove someone else’s good lung to replace my bad lung to equalize our conditions. Besides, no two lungs are alike.

Equality, as a concept, is the enemy of another concept the left purports to champion: diversity. Every human being is unique. Every person has distinct skills, aptitudes, weaknesses, and temptations. Diversity involves differences. It is real, not an ideal like equality.

“Variety and diversity are the characteristics of a high civilization,” Kirk says. “Uniformity and absolute equality are the death of all real vigor and freedom in existence.”

We should celebrate the fact that no two people are alike, that our variety as a species makes us wonderful and marvelous. We’re in awe when musicians produce sounds we cannot produce, when artists render images we cannot render, when athletes leap or jump or run in ways foreign to our bodies, when writers arrange words on a page with a facility we lack.

Diversity is good and beautiful; seeking to eliminate it in the name of equality is cruel and misguided. We rightly fear societies in which one group uses political power and the apparatus of government to deprive individuals of their wealth and property in pursuit of hypotheticals like equality. Kirk reminds, after all, that the “aim of the collectivistic state is to abolish classes, voluntary associations, and private rights, swallowing all these in the formless blur of the ‘general will’ and absolute equality of condition—equality, that is, of everyone except the clique which rules the state.”

FOCUS ON PRINCIPLES, NOT JUST POLICY

Understandably, we focus on policy during election seasons. But maybe we should quiz candidates on their philosophical moorings. If we do, we might find that progressives have embraced quixotic concepts that lead, in practice, to violence and coercion rather than their intended outcomes.

Kirk cautioned against the siren songs of change and equality. We should listen.

St. George Tucker’s Jeffersonian Constitution

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Civics, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on October 30, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in Law & Liberty. 

One could argue that there are two basic visions for America: the Hamiltonian and the Jeffersonian. The former is nationalist, calling for centralized power and an industrial, mercantilist society characterized by banking, commercialism, and a robust military. Its early leaders had monarchical tendencies. The latter vision involves a slower, more leisurely and agrarian society, political decentralization, popular sovereignty, and local republicanism. Think farmers over factories.

Both have claimed the mantle of liberty. Both have aristocratic elements, despite today’s celebration of America as democratic. On the Hamiltonian side we can include John Adams, John Marshall, Noah Webster, Henry Clay, Joseph Story, and Abraham Lincoln. In the Jeffersonian camp we can place George Mason and Patrick Henry (who, because they were born before Jefferson, could be considered his precursors), the mature (rather than the youthful) James Madison, John Taylor of Caroline, John C. Calhoun, Abel Upshur, and Robert Y. Hayne. The Jeffersonian Republicans won out in the early nineteenth century, but since the Civil War, the centralizing, bellicose paradigm has dominated American politics, foreign and monetary policy, and federal institutions.

St. George Tucker falls into the Jeffersonian category. View of the Constitution of the United States, published by Liberty Fund in 1999, features his disquisitions on various legal subjects, each thematically linked. Most come from essays appended to his edition of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.

Born in Bermuda, Tucker became a Virginian through and through, studying law at the College of William and Mary under George Wythe, whose post at the law school he would eventually hold. On Tucker’s résumé we might find his credentials as a poet, essayist, and judge. He was an influential expositor of the limited-government jurisprudence that located sovereignty in the people themselves, as opposed to the monarch or the legislature, which, he believed, was a surrogate for the general will in that it consisted of the people’s chosen representatives.

Tucker furnished Jeffersonians with the “compact theory” of the Constitution:

The constitution of the United States of America . . . is an original, written, federal, and social compact, freely, voluntarily, and solemnly entered into by the several states of North-America, and ratified by the people thereof, respectively; whereby the several states, and the people thereof, respectively, have bound themselves to each other, and to the federal government of the United States; and by which the federal government is bound to the several states, and to every citizen of the United States.

Under this model, each sovereign, independent state is contractually and consensually committed to confederacy, and the federal government possesses only limited and delegated powers—e.g., “to be the organ through which the united republics communicate with foreign nations.”

Employing the term “strict construction,” Tucker decried what today we’d call “activist” federal judges, insisting that “every attempt in any government to change the constitution (otherwise than in that mode which the constitution may prescribe) is in fact a subversion of the foundations of its own authority.” Strictly construing the language of the Constitution meant fidelity to the binding, basic framework of government, but it didn’t mean that the law was static. Among Tucker’s concerns, for instance, was how the states should incorporate, discard, or adapt the British common law that Blackstone had delineated.

Tucker understood the common law as embedded, situated, and contextual rather than as a fixed body of definite rules or as the magnificent perfection of right reason, a grandiose conception derived from the quixotic portrayals of Sir Edward Coke. “[I]n our inquiries how far the common law and statutes of England were adopted in the British colonies,” Tucker announced, “we must again abandon all hope of satisfaction from any general theory, and resort to their several charters, provincial establishments, legislative codes, and civil histories, for information.”

In other words, if you want to know what the common law is on this side of the pond, look to the operative language of governing texts before you invoke abstract theories. Doing so led Tucker to conclude that parts of English law were “either obsolete, or have been deemed inapplicable to our local circumstances and policy.” In this, he anticipated Justice Holmes’s claim that the law “is forever adopting new principles from life at one end” while retaining “old ones from history at the other, which have not yet been absorbed or sloughed off.”

What the several states borrowed from England was, for Tucker, a filtering mechanism that repurposed old rules for new contexts. Tucker used other verbs to describe how states, each in their own way, revised elements of the common law in their native jurisdictions: “modified,” “abridged,” “shaken off,” “rejected,” “repealed,” “expunged,” “altered,” “changed,” “suspended,” “omitted,” “stricken out,” “substituted,” “superseded,” “introduced.” The list could go on.

The English common law, accordingly, wasn’t an exemplification of natural law or abstract rationalism; it was rather the aggregation of workable solutions to actual problems presented in concrete cases involving real people. Sometimes, in its British iterations, it was oppressive, reinforcing the power of the king and his agents and functionaries. Thus it couldn’t fully obtain in the United States. “[E]very rule of the common law, and every statute of England,” Tucker wrote on this score, “founded on the nature of regal government, in derogation of the natural and unalienable rights of mankind, were absolutely abrogated, repealed, and annulled, by the establishment of such a form of government in the states.”

Having been clipped from its English roots, the common law in the United States had, in Tucker’s view, an organic opportunity to grow anew in the varying cultural environments of the sovereign states. In this respect, Tucker prefigured Justice Brandeis’s assertion in Erie Railroad Company v. Tompkins (1938) that “[t]here is no federal general common law.” Tucker would have agreed with Brandeis that, “[e]xcept in matters governed by the Federal Constitution or by acts of Congress, the law to be applied in any case is the law of the state.”

In fact, summarizing competing contentions about the Sedition Act, Tucker subtly supported the position that “the United States as a federal government have no common law” and that “the common law of one state . . . is not the common law of another.” The common law, in Tucker’s paradigm, is bottom-up and home-grown; it’s not a formula that can be lifted from one jurisdiction and placed down anywhere else with similar results and effects.

By far the most complex essay here is “On the State of Slavery in Virginia,” which advocated the gradual extirpation of slavery. With admirable clarity, Tucker zeroed in on the hypocrisy of his generation:

Whilst we were offering up vows at the shrine of Liberty, and sacrificing hecatombs upon her altars; whilst we swore irreconcilable hostility to her enemies, and hurled defiance in their faces; whilst we adjured the God of Hosts to witness our resolution to live free, or die, and imprecated curses on their heads who refused to unite us in establishing the empire of freedom; we were imposing upon our fellow men, who differ in complexion from us, a slavery, ten thousand times more cruel than the utmost extremity of those grievances and oppressions, of which we complained.

Despite his disdain for the institution of slavery, Tucker expressed ideas that are racist by any measurable standard today—for instance, his notion that slavery proliferated in the South because the climate there was “more congenial to the African constitution.”

On the level of pure writing quality and style, Tucker had a knack for aphorism. “[T]he ignorance of the people,” he said, “is the footstool of despotism.” More examples: “Ignorance is invariably the parent of error.” “A tyranny that governs by the sword, has few friends but men of the sword.”

Reading Tucker reminds us that for most of our country’s formative history the principal jurisprudential debates were not about natural law versus positivism, or originalism versus living constitutionalism, but about state versus federal authority, local versus national jurisdiction, the proper scale and scope of government, checks and balances, and so forth. To the extent these subjects have diminished in importance, Hamilton has prevailed over Jefferson. Reading Tucker today can help us see the costs of that victory.

Review of Stephen Budiansky’s “Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.”

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on September 25, 2019 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in Los Angeles Review of Books.

Do we need another biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who served nearly 30 years as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court and nearly 20 years before that on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court? He has been the subject of numerous biographies since his death in 1935. We have not discovered new details about him since Harvard made his papers available to researchers in 1985, so why has Stephen Budiansky chosen to tell his story?

The answer may have to do with something Holmes said in The Common Law, his only book: “If truth were not often suggested by error, if old implements could not be adjusted to new uses, human progress would be slow. But scrutiny and revision are justified.”

Indeed, they are — both in the law and in the transmission of history. Holmes has been so singularly misunderstood by jurists and scholars that his life and thought require scrutiny and revision. Because his story is bound up with judicial methods and tenets — his opinions still cited regularly, by no less than the US Supreme Court as recently as this past term — we need to get him right, or at least “righter,” lest we fall into error, sending the path of the law in the wrong direction.

A veritable cottage industry of anti-Holmes invective has arisen on both the left and the right side of the political spectrum. No one, it seems, of any political persuasion, wants to adopt Holmes. He’s a giant of the law with no champions or defenders.

For some critics, Holmes is the paragon of states’ rights and judicial restraint who upheld local laws authorizing the disenfranchisement of blacks (Giles v. Harris, 1903) and the compulsory sterilization of individuals whom the state deemed unfit (Buck v. Bell, 1927). This latter decision he announced with horrifying enthusiasm: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” For other critics, he’s the prototypical progressive, decrying natural law, deferring to legislation that regulated economic activity, embracing an evolutionary view of law akin to living constitutionalism, and bequeathing most of his estate to the federal government.

The truth, as always, is more complicated than tendentious caricatures. Budiansky follows Frederic R. Kellogg — whose Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Legal Logic appeared last year — in reconsidering this irreducible man who came to be known as the Yankee from Olympus.

Not since Mark DeWolfe Howe’s two-volume (but unfinished) biography, The Proving Years and The Shaping Years, has any author so ably rendered Holmes’s wartime service. Budiansky devotes considerable attention to this period perhaps because it fundamentally changed Holmes. Before the war, Holmes, an admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, gravitated toward abolitionism and volunteered to serve as a bodyguard for Wendell Phillips. He was appalled by a minstrel show he witnessed as a student. During the war, however, he “grew disdainful of the high-minded talk of people at home who did not grasp that any good the war might still accomplish was being threatened by the evil it had itself become.”

Holmes had “daddy issues” — who wouldn’t with a father like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the diminutive, gregarious, vainglorious, and sometimes obnoxious celebrity, physician, and author of the popular “Breakfast Table” series in The Atlantic Monthly? — that were exacerbated by the elder Holmes’s sanctimonious grandstanding about his noble, valiant son. For the aloof father, the son’s military service was a status marker. For the son, war was gruesome, fearsome, and real. The son despised the father’s flighty ignorance of the on-the-ground realities of bloody conflict.

Holmes fought alongside Copperheads as well, a fact that might have contributed to his skepticism about the motives of the war and the patriotic fervor in Boston. His friend and courageous comrade Henry Abbott — no fan of Lincoln — died at the Battle of the Wilderness in a manner that Budianksy calls “suicidal” rather than bold. The war and its carnage raised Holmes’s doubts regarding “the morally superior certainty that often went hand in hand with belief: he grew to distrust, and to detest, zealotry and causes of all kinds.”

This distrust — this cynicism about the human ability to know anything with absolute certainty — led Holmes as a judge to favor decentralization. He did not presume to understand from afar which rules and practices optimally regulated distant communities. Whatever legislation they enacted was for him presumptively valid, and he would not impose his preferences on their government. His disdain for his father’s moralizing, moreover, may have contributed to his formulation of the “bad man” theory of the law. “If you want to know the law and nothing else,” he wrote, “you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience.”

Budiansky’s treatment of Holmes’s experience as a trial judge — the Justices on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in those days presided over trials of first instance — is distinctive among the biographies. Budisansky avers,

[I]n his role as a trial justice, Holmes was on the sharp edge of the law, seeing and hearing firsthand all of the tangled dramas of the courtroom, sizing up the honesty of often conflicting witnesses, rendering decisions that had immediate and dramatic consequences — the breakup of families, financial ruin, even death — to the people standing right before him.

Holmes’s opinions as a US Supreme Court Justice have received much attention, but more interesting — perhaps because less known — are the salacious divorce cases and shocking murder trials he handled with acute sensitivity to evidence and testimony.

Budiansky skillfully summarizes Holmes’s almost 30-year tenure on the US Supreme Court, the era for which he is best known. He highlights Holmes’s dissenting opinions and his friendship with Justice Louis Brandeis, who was also willing to dissent from majority opinions — and with flair. For those looking for more detailed narratives about opinions Holmes authored as a Supreme Court Justice, other resources are available. Thomas Healy’s The Great Dissent, for example, dives more deeply into Holmes’s shifting positions on freedom of speech. Healy spends a whole book describing this jurisprudential development that Budiansky clears in one chapter.

Contemptuous of academics, Budiansky irrelevantly claims that “humorless moralizing is the predominant mode of thought in much of academia today.” He adds, “A more enduring fact about academic life is that taking on the great is the most reliable way for those who will never attain greatness themselves to gain attention for themselves.” Harsh words! Budianksy accuses the French historian Jules Michelet of rambling “on for pages, as only a French intellectual can.” Is this playful wit or spiteful animus? Is it even necessary?

Budiansky might have avoided occasional lapses had he consulted the academics he seems to despise. For instance, he asserts that the “common law in America traces its origins to the Middle Ages in England […] following the Norman invasion in 1066,” and that the “Normans brought with them a body of customary law that, under Henry II, was extended across England by judges of the King’s Bench who traveled on circuit to hold court.” This isn’t so. Writing in The Genius of the Common Law, Sir Frederick Pollock — “an English jurist,” in Budiansky’s words, “whose friendship with Holmes spanned sixty years” — mapped the roots of the common law “as far back as the customs of the Germanic tribes who confronted the Roman legions when Britain was still a Roman province and Celtic.” In other words, Budiansky is approximately one thousand years off. Rather than supplanting British customs, the Normans instituted new practices that complemented, absorbed, and blended with British customs.

The fact that Budiansky never mentions some of the most interesting researchers working on Holmes — Susan Haack, Seth Vannatta, and Catharine Wells come to mind — suggests willful ignorance, the deliberate avoidance of the latest scholarship. But to what end? For what reason?

It takes years of study to truly understand Holmes. The epigraph to Vannatta’s new edition, The Pragmatism and Prejudice of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., aptly encapsulates the complexity of Holmes’s thought with lines from Whitman’s Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Budiansky recognizes, as others haven’t, that Holmes was large and contained multitudes. Holmes’s contradictions, if they are contradictions, might be explained by the famous dictum of his childhood hero, Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Holmes was consistently inconsistent. His mind was expansive, his reading habits extraordinary. How to categorize such a wide-ranging man? What were the defining features of his belief? Or did he, as Louis Menand has alleged, “lose his belief in beliefs”? Budiansky condenses Holmes’s philosophy into this helpful principle: “[T]hat none of us has all the answers; that perfection will never be found in the law as it is not to be found in life; but that its pursuit is still worth the effort, if only for the sake of giving our lives meaning.”

Holmes was intellectually humble, warning us against the complacency that attends certainty. Driving his methods was the sober awareness that he, or anyone for that matter, might be incorrect about some deep-seated conviction. During this time of polarized politics, self-righteous indignation, widespread incivility, and rancorous public discourse, we could learn from Holmes. How civil and respectful we could be if we all recognized that our cherished ideas and working paradigms might, at some level, be erroneous, if we were constantly mindful of our inevitable limitations, if we were searchers and seekers who refuse to accept, with utter finality, that we’ve figured it all out?

Alabama’s Constitution(s)

In Law, Southern History, The South on September 18, 2019 at 6:45 am

On Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Christianity, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on August 28, 2019 at 6:45 am

The original version of this piece appeared here in the Journal of Faith and the Academy. A later version appeared here at Mises Wire.

Only the bold would title a book Why Liberalism Failed. Patrick Deneen, the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, has done just that, proposing that such failure has actually occurred and setting the unreasonable expectation that he can explain it. His operative premise is that liberalism so called created the conditions for its inevitable demise—that it is a self-consuming, self-defeating ideology only around 500 years old. (p. 1) “Liberalism has failed,” he declares triumphantly, “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.” (p.3)

Deneen doesn’t define the term liberalism, which isn’t in his index even though it’s littered throughout the book. I have it on reliable authority that one of the peer reviewers of the pre-published manuscript recommended publication to the editors at Yale University Press, provided that Deneen cogently defined liberalism and then cleaned up his sloppy references to it. Deneen ignored this advice, leaving the manuscript as is. His genealogy of liberalism is all the more problematic in light of this refusal to clarify.

Deneen presents a seeming paradox, namely that liberalism, under the banner of liberty and emancipation, produced their opposite: a vast, progressive, and coercive administrative state under which individuals have grown alienated, amoral, dependent, conditioned, and servile. “[T]he political project of liberalism,” he claims, “is shaping us into the creatures of its prehistorical fantasy, which in fact required the combined massive apparatus of the modern state, economy, education system, and science and technology to make us into: increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.” (p.16)

One hears in this line echoes of Sartre, and indeed existentialism recommends a certain kind of individualism: the freedom of the rational agent, having been thrust into existence through no choice or fault of his own, to will his own meaning in an absurd and chaotic world. But existentialism is a different species of individualism from that which motivated Hobbes, Locke, and Mill: chief targets of Deneen’s ire. It’s true that Mill disliked dogmatic conformity to custom, but that is a customary—one might even say conservative—position to take. One must preserve, or conserve, after all, a critical mode for undertaking difficult questions without assuming to have already ascertained all suitable solutions. Every age must rework its approaches to perennial problems. There’s plenty of Mill to dislike from a Christian perspective, but his unlikable conclusions do not necessarily follow from his method of inquiry or openness to examining afresh the puzzles and issues with which our ancestors struggled.

The classical liberalism or libertarianism to which Christian individualists adhere promotes peace, cooperation, coordination, collaboration, community, stewardship, ingenuity, prosperity, dignity, knowledge, understanding, humility, virtuousness, creativity, justice, ingenuity, and more, taking as its starting point the dignity of every human person before both God and humanity. This individualism prospers in fundamentally conservative cultures and does not square with Deneen’s caricature of a caricature of a caricature of “liberal” individualism. This conservative individualism, a creature of classical liberalism, advocates liberty in order to free human beings to achieve their fullest potential, cultivate widespread ethics and morality, and improve lives and institutions through economic growth and development. And who can deny that the market economy with which it is bound up has, throughout the globe, given rise to improved living conditions, technological and medical advances, scientific discovery, intellectual curiosity, and industrial innovation?

Deneen wishes to rewind the clock, to recover the virtuous “self-governance” of the ancients that, he believes, was predicated on “the common good.” (p. 99) He sees in antiquity a social rootedness that aligns with Christianity as exemplified in the modern world by Amish communities.(p 106-107) His celebration of the traditional liberal arts adopts, he says, “a classical or Christian understanding of liberty” (p. 129) that emphasizes situated norms and localities, embedded cultures, and institutional continuities. This, however, is a curious take on antiquity, one that flies in the face of the anti-Christian features of classical and ancient thought extolled by Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, and Julius Evola, who valued the pagan elements of “the ancient commendation of virtue” (p. 165) and disparaged the modern world as being too Christian.

Deneen is not interested in liberalisms, i.e., the multiplicity of concepts that fly under the banner of liberalism. He prefers casually to lump together varieties of generic ills (everything from industrialized agriculture to the infatuation with STEM, diversity, multiculturalism, materialism, and sexual autonomy) as products of the one common enemy of everything good that the classical and medieval periods had to offer. He then gives that enemy a name: liberalism. He would plunge us back, if not into antiquity, then into medieval tribalism, into periods in which the accused were tried by ordeal or combat, when blood oaths and kinship rather than trust, goodwill, or economic exchange determined one’s loyalties and allegiances.

It isn’t correct that liberalism “requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community.” (p. 38) On the contrary, liberalism frees people from the tyrannical and institutionalized coercion that prevents them from enjoying local associations and relationships, including those in families, churches, schools, and communities. Liberalism properly understood empowers people to group themselves and define their experience by their own customs and mores. Thanks to liberalism, Deneen himself enjoys the freedom to critique the rapidly growing government that increasingly attempts to impose on him standards and rules at odds with his own.

Extending the individualism that characterized classical liberalism to twentieth century progressivism and modern identity politics, as Deneen does, is misguided. Modern identity politics is about collectivism in the name of self-definition, self-awareness, and self-constitution, about choosing which communities (Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, the Democratic Socialists of America, neo-Nazis, etc.) embrace the physical (e.g. ethnic or racial), ideological (e.g., pan-nationalist, Marxist, ecosocialist, feminist, anarcho-syndicalist, white supremacist), or normative characteristics (e.g. social justice or egalitarianism) around which one forms group associations.

The truth is that individualism thrives in moral, virtuous communities, and that the common good and group associations flourish in societies that acknowledge and understand the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. Of the interdependence and mutually strengthening nature of freedom and order, of the individual and society, Frank Meyer proclaimed that “truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.”1 To those who insist that individualism is antithetical to religious belief, which is itself indispensable to conservatism and the common good, M. Stanton Evans stated, “affirmation of a transcendent order is not only compatible with individual autonomy, but the condition of it; […] a skeptical view of man’s nature [i.e., as inherently flawed and prone to sin] not only permits political liberty but demands it.”2

In a free society, entrepreneurs and producers are looking to others, to communities, to determine basic needs to satisfy. The rational self-interest motivating creativity and inventiveness is fundamentally about serving others more efficiently and effectively, about generating personal rewards, yes—but personal rewards for making life better and easier for others. The Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations is the same Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Human beings are wired both to look out for themselves, protecting their homes and loved ones, and to feel for, and empathize with, others. Beneficence and generosity are principal aspects of the liberal individualism that Deneen maligns.

The “second wave” of liberalism, in Deneen’s paradigm, is Progressivism. (p. 142) Yet modern progressivism and the Democratic Party have almost nothing to do with classical liberalism. Curiously and, I daresay, lazily, Deneen wishes to connect them. He cannot draw a clearly connecting line between them, however, because there isn’t one. The alleged connection is the supposed ambition “to liberate individuals from any arbitrary and unchosen relationships and remake the world into one in which those especially disposed to expressive individualism would thrive.” (p. 143–44) Should we take this assertion to mean that Deneen would prefer our relations and interactions to be arbitrarily coerced by a central power in a closed society where subordinated individuals habitually follow the unquestioned commands of established superiors?

F. A. Hayek once stated that, “[u]ntil the rise of socialism,” the opposite of conservatism was liberalism but that, in the United States, “the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense.”3 Is Deneen so immersed in American culture that he cannot recognize this basic distinction? Deneen prizes the common, collective good as manifest in local communities, blaming rational self-interest for the allegedly universalizing tendency of liberalism to stamp out venerable customs and cultural norms. But he seems befuddled by the American taxonomy into which liberalism has fallen and would do well to revisit the works of Ludwig von Mises, who explained, “In the United States ‘liberal’ means today a set of ideas and political postulates that in every regard are the opposite of all that liberalism meant to the preceding generations. The American self-styled liberal aims at government omnipotence, is a resolute foe of free enterprise, and advocates all-round planning by authorities, i.e., socialism.”4

A comparison of Deneen’s speculative political theory and its abstract narrative of decline with Larry Siedentop’s deeply historical, ideologically neutral Inventing the Individual (Belknap / Harvard, 2014) reveals critical flaws in Deneen’s argument, starting with the proposition that the individualism key to liberalism is merely 500 years old. Siedentop undercuts the common portrayal of a medieval Europe gripped by poverty and superstition, monarchy and tyranny, widespread corruption and early death from which the Renaissance and, later, the Enlightenment allegedly rescued us. Siedentop sees, instead, the rise of Christianity—long before medievalism—as the cause of the rise of liberal individualism, which, in fact, has roots in the teachings of St. Paul and Jesus Christ. Whereas Deneen theorizes individualism as recent and anti-Christian, Siedentop traces its actual history as distinctly Christian, mapping its concrete features over time as it proliferated and supplanted ancient pagan cultures and customs that lacked a structural understanding of the dignity and primacy of the human person.

Siedentop attributes liberal individualism to Christianity; Deneen treats liberal individualism as inimical to Christianity. Both men cannot correct, at least not fully.

Walking back some of his grand claims, Deneen acknowledges in his final pages that liberalism, in certain manifestations, has in fact been around longer than 500 years and that it has much in common with Christianity:

While liberalism pretended to be a wholly new edifice that rejected the political architecture of all previous ages, it naturally drew upon long developments from antiquity to the late Middle Ages. A significant part of its appeal was not that it was something wholly new but that it drew upon deep reservoirs of belief and commitment. Ancient political philosophy was especially devoted to the question of how best to avoid the rise of tyranny, and how best to achieve the conditions of political liberty and self-governance. The basic terms that inform our political tradition—liberty, equality, dignity, justice, constitutionalism—are of ancient pedigree. The advent of Christianity, and its development in the now largely neglected political philosophy of the Middle Ages, emphasized the dignity of the individual, the concept of the person, the existence of rights and corresponding duties, the paramount importance of civil society and a multiplicity of associations, and the concept of limited government as the best means of forestalling the inevitable human temptation toward tyranny. Liberalism’s most basic appeal was not its rejection of the past but its reliance upon basic concepts that were foundational to the Western political identity. (pp. 184–85)

Forgive me for being confused, but I thought Deneen had set out to criticize liberalism and chart its failure, not to exalt or defend it, and certainly not to tie it to an ancient lineage associated with Christianity. This passage represents the discombobulation at the heart of Deneen’s book. Liberalism is not to blame for the massive administrative state and its networks of agents and functionaries that coerce local communities. Deneen is part of the problem he describes, championing ways of thinking and organizing human behavior that undercut his hope for the reawakening of traditional values and familial or neighborly bonds on local levels.

Deneen airs his opinions with such maddening certitude that he comes across as haughty and tendentious, as a zealously anti-libertarian manqué with an axe to grind. He lacks the delicacy and charity with which reasonable scholars of good faith approach their ideological opponents. He does not entertain the position of those who, like me, believe that liberal individualism is a necessary condition for the flourishing of local communities, the cultivation of virtue and responsibility, the forming of mediating institutions and bottom-up political associations, and the decentralization and diffusion of government power. He just can’t grasp the possibility that liberal individualism creates a vehicle for the preservation of custom and heritage, the family unit, and social bonds on local levels.

“Statism enables individualism, individualism demands statism,” (p. 17) Deneen insists with little proof beyond his own ahistorical speculative theories—ironically given his call for “smaller, local forms of resistance: practicesmore than theories.” (pp. 19–20) Here’s an alternative proposition: liberal individualism and the community bonds it generates are best protected in a Christian society that is solemnly mindful of the fallibility of the human mind, the sinful tendencies of the human flesh, and the inevitable imperfection of human institutions.

Reading Why Liberalism Failed, one might come away questioning not whether Deneen is right, but whether he’s even sufficiently well-read in the history of liberalism to pass judgment on this wide-ranging, centuries-old school of philosophy that grew out of Christianity. What an unfortunate impression to impart for someone who writes with such flair about such important trends and figures. The reality, I think, is that Deneen is erudite and learned. His tendentious depiction of liberalism is thus disappointing for not putting his erudition and learning properly on display, for promoting an idiosyncratic take on liberalism that could ultimately undermine the classical and Christian commitment to liberty that he wishes to reinvigorate.

  • 1.Frank Meyer, “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism,” in What is Conservatism? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015), p. 12.
  • 2.M. Stanton Evans, “A Conservative Case for Freedom,” in What is Conservatism? (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2015), p. 86.
  • 3.F. A. Hayek, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition, Vol 17, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek(Routledge, 2013), p. 519.
  • 4.Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism in the Classical Tradition (1927) (The Foundation for Economic Education and Cobden Press, 2002) (Ralph Raico, trans.), pgs. xvi-xvii.

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