The Failure of Liberalism?

I once read somewhere that people are not usually convinced by arguments but rather by stories. While I believe this is true in some sense, I do not wholly subscribe to this sentiment. Stories, after all, are theories about the universe or at least a part of the universe. Hence, they must engage reason at some point. A story is not without arguments.

In the collection of written forms, we can find a kind of work that is neither story nor pure essay, but something in between the two. I like to think of this kind of writing as closer to poetry, but not purely lyrical either. The benefit of this kind of work is that, by exciting the emotions, it may force the mind to consider points it had discarded, ignored or never considered at all. This type of writing is the manifesto. 

As with all art, the point of the manifesto is to align the will, the mind and the passions towards the same goal: the attainment of truth in some way. As with all art, the manifesto can also be cruelly put to dubious intentions. When the emotions are inflamed but bereave the mind, when the mind is led astray by anger or even elation, then the manifesto has been used, either intentionally or by accident, to misconstrue the truth and, thus, becomes an anti-art. 

This is precisely what I felt when I read Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed. When I first encountered it, I was sincerely attracted by its title and was intrigued to learn what had caused liberalism to fail, if anything. I was shocked at what I found in his book. Though the prose is beautiful, I found little else than beautifully crafted words and found myself getting a bit annoyed the further along I progressed. To have received so much acclaim and have little to show for it is, to me, a mark of severe intellectual poverty.

When an idea is to be critiqued with the purpose of enlightening others and bringing truth to light, a responsibility that all academicians share, the process of doing so must be taken seriously. I therefore expected that the book would contain a definition of liberalism. The latter, unfortunately, has taken on many meanings as the years marched on since its inception in the 18th century. Deneen somehow skips over this process. I could not find a definition of what he means by liberalism. Because I could not find one, I thought long and hard about what liberalism is and what its principal ideas are. This is what I came up with.

Liberalism is the general notion that reason is real and can learn true things about the world. This means the natural world, the social world and the interior world. Not all of what liberalism proposes is new but the most innovative idea it proposes is with regards to political organization: the social world. Liberalism proposes that:

  • Humans have rights and that these are intrinsic to them as human beings, not given to them by governments;
  • These rights include at least access to private property (including conscience), the right to speak freely, the right to associate with others;
  • That the role of government is to defend the rule of law, through violence if necessary;

To my mind, a rational and thorough critique of why liberalism failed should have at first proposed to show that these three ideas I listed are either not real or not possible to create through a political entity (a government). Deneen fails to do either of these things.

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