Liberalism has fallen on hard times. We are told that “liberalism has failed” and that we now live in a “post-liberal age.” Although even its partisans concede that “post-liberalism” is a slippery term, it nevertheless captures well enough an increasingly popular belief in the inadequacy of liberalism and its ensuing downfall.
Most prominently, post-liberals accuse liberalism of engendering social atomization, cultural fragmentation, and moral decadence. The result, paradoxically, is less freedom and less equality. Thus, under the banner of liberation, liberalism creates a system that is illiberal. So liberalism, as Patrick Deneen puts it, winds up failing precisely in the measure that it succeeds.
However neat and tidy, there’s something prima facie strange about this argument, at least as applied to our current moment. Surely no one favors social atomization, cultural fragmentation, and moral decadence. The idea, rather, is that by promoting personal autonomy to the exclusion of community, liberalism inevitably produces these phenomena despite itself. Yet, many of the most influential political movements in recent times are not—or at least do not understand themselves as being—primarily projects of autonomy.
Injurious Speech and Liberty
Take identity politics, decried by its critics for being divisive. Yet, the politics of identity, whatever one thinks of it, is driven by the desire for recognition on the part of those minority groups whose identities, so the theory goes, have been shaped by a history of marginalization by the majority. That identity politics is not driven exclusively by individual autonomy is clearly illustrated by the debate over “safe spaces.” Advocates of this idea explicitly endorse restricting free speech—i.e., limiting individual freedom—in order to protect certain identity groups from offensive language.
As political theorist Teresa Bejan has pointed out, defenders of safe spaces thus continue, for better or worse, an old liberal tradition that goes back to Hobbes and Locke. According to this line of thought, civility requires the suppression of injurious speech, even at the cost of limiting freedom, in order to preserve comity. Understood in this way, identity politics may well be an offshoot of liberalism. But not because it promotes individual autonomy at the expense of solidarity so much as it tries—however unsuccessfully—to do the reverse.
What about those traditional American conservatives who reject “big government” in favor of decentralization? According to the post-liberals, such conservatives are liberals by another name. And they are no better than their progressive counterparts in promoting individual autonomy to the exclusion of community. It is true that such conservatives tend to emphasize freedom and individual rights. Yet, many of them do so not to exclude community but rather to make room for those types of community that flourish independently of the state, notably those of civil society such as the family, church, neighborhood, and voluntary associations.
Indeed, it is a central tenet of liberalism—right-wing or left-wing—that such institutions are necessary to form liberal citizens. Even John Rawls, that most liberal of liberals, emphasized in A Theory of Justice the “social conditions that facilitate the formation of liberal selves committed to justice,” as communitarian theorist Daniel Bell has pointed out. And in his later writings, Rawls came to emphasize how much liberalism “draw[s]…upon basic intuitive ideas that are embedded in the political institutions of a democratic society and the public traditions of their interpretation.” Here he sounds a lot like American conservatives who seek to conserve the institutions and traditions of American liberalism.
None of this is to deny that there is a substantive disagreement between post-liberals and those who claim the mantle of liberalism. But that disagreement, it seems, is other—and perhaps more complicated—than the post-liberals suggest.
So what is it? At issue is not whether one favors community or freedom, but rather whether a form of government predicated on freedom—call it liberalism, for lack of a better term—is conducive to flourishing together. Post-liberals answer “no.” For them, the liberal project is misbegotten, dogmatic, and inherently unstable. Liberals and conservatives counter that post-liberals are neither liberal nor conservative but rather extremist, since they reject our political inheritance and seek radical fixes to a system they believe cannot be reformed.
The disagreement points to a tension within liberalism itself. Liberalism is typically understood as a political philosophy that asserts the universality of rights on the basis of rational precepts equally available to all people, over and against the particularism of tradition. Can such a political philosophy constitute a tradition? This problem is particularly acute for American conservatives who understand the political task as the stewardship of our liberal tradition and its institutions. The problem is one of justification: Is liberalism to be defended on the basis of universal rational precepts or because it is our particular inheritance?
It is here that our current debate over liberalism breaks down, since liberalism’s defenders wind up either appealing to liberal principles that its critics do not accept or else fall back on arguments from tradition. The problem with appeals to tradition, however, is that post-liberals can always respond by asking whether this tradition has, in fact, contributed to human flourishing—and is thus deserving of our stewardship—or has simply given succor to those forces that have undermined community. For conservatives, especially, this question has teeth, since whatever the blessings of modernity, it is hard to deny that we are, in fact, atomized and fragmented today. And many of the civil institutions that conservatives, in particular, hold up as necessary for communities to flourish have, in fact, become debilitated—or at the very least inaccessible to all but the most well-off Americans.
In this sense, post-liberalism does both right and left-wing variants of liberalism a service, by demanding an answer to an important question: Not whether liberalism can survive, but whether it deserves to? And, if so, why?
Liberalism as Philosophy and Practice
At this point, it becomes urgently necessary to clarify our terms. What do we mean by “liberalism”? What, exactly, is it that we are conserving (or not conserving, as the case may be)? The liberalism debate suffers from an important ambiguity: Does liberalism refer to a political philosophy with its own principles and aims? Or does it refer to a form of government, a regime, with its own laws, institutions, practices, traditions, and habits—characterized by, among other things, representative democracy, individual rights, civil society, constitutionalism, rule of law, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and limited government?
Some might dispute the distinction: Surely liberalism as a form of government draws from, indeed is an expression of, the liberal political philosophy. Yet, this is not as obvious as it might first appear. The sources of the American political tradition, at any rate, are hardly monolithic. They include not only rights theorists such as John Locke and Hugo Grotius but also the English legal tradition, the Scottish Enlightenment, the French philosophes, classical Greek and Roman writers and philosophers, ancient and modern republicans as diverse as Aristotle, Machiavelli, Harrington, and Montesquieu, and religious traditions, especially the covenantal theology of old New England and the evangelical Christianity of African-American protestant traditions.
If one understands liberalism in a capacious sense—as a form of government that draws on and is compatible with a wide variety of sometimes conflicting political, social, and religious traditions and practices—it can indeed be distinguished, if not entirely divorced, from that particular political philosophy which places a premium on individual rights and personal autonomy. And, in any case, it is hard to imagine that any parties to today’s liberalism dispute really want to do away with such things as representative democracy, constitutional protections, including freedom of speech and religion, or the rule of law. If so—and we should hope so—then today’s post-liberal critique loses some of its punch.
In this light, post-liberalism might be compared to the communitarian critique of liberalism of the 1980s and 90s. Like today’s post-liberals, communitarians such as Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor rejected the liberal conception of the self, the priority of rights over the common good, and the liberal ideal of a morally neutral state. They, too, stressed the importance of community not only in the formation of the self but also in grounding our moral and political commitments.
Those associated with communitarianism were derided by their critics as illiberal and authoritarian. But these thinkers generally were not, in fact, advocating the overthrow of liberal democracy, or the abandonment of such principles as democracy, tolerance, or pluralism. On the contrary, their criticisms pointed to the poverty of liberal philosophy to underwrite and sustain these goods. What they rejected, to use the above terminology, was not liberalism as a form of government so much as liberal philosophy as a coherent and humane framework in which to understand politics. Thus, for instance, Charles Taylor argued that an understanding of the self as socially embedded provides a more adequate grounding for liberal democracy than the Enlightenment’s “buffered” self. And the so-called “responsive communitarians” of the 1990s demanded not the rejection of rights, autonomy, and individual choice, but rather the balancing of these with responsibility, the common good, and community.
Today’s post-liberals would do well to clarify whether they, too, are advocating something like a moral reformation and reinterpretation of our liberal political order—or its overthrow and replacement by something else entirely. But even if it’s the former, challenging questions remain.
Post-liberals say they favor a government that actively promotes the common good. And they are willing to use the bureaucratic mechanisms of the modern nation state to do so. A first problem with such proposals is that they tend to leave the term “common good” undefined or ambiguous. Thus, for instance, nationalist rhetoric and policy proposals aimed at protecting American industries, workers, and economic interests often invoke “the common good.” But what is often meant in these contexts is not the common good so much as the “national interest,” an altogether different concept with a different history.
This association of “common good” with “national interest”—raison d’état or reason of state—is made explicit in the so-called “common-good constitutionalism” advocated by Adrian Vermeule. The operative idea here is that a strong executive can and should use administrative law to promote “the common good.” Yet, as Vermeule himself notes, the concept of raison d’état (or ragion di stato), which underlies this proposal, concerns the “principles for the just exercise of authority,” not the reciprocal goods of community. To make matters more confusing, some of the most prominent examples given of the sorts of goods that an emboldened state ought to promote—e.g., health and safety—are public goods. But common goods are not the same thing as public goods.
As Alasdair MacIntyre points out, common goods, in contrast to individual goods, are those that can only be achieved and enjoyed as a member of a particular community, e.g., a family, a musical ensemble, a sports team, or a workplace. However, there are some individual goods that can only be achieved or are best achieved through cooperation with others. A good example might be a barn raising, in which the cooperation between families produces a good—a barn—intended to be used and enjoyed by only one of those families. Like common goods, these goods are achieved cooperatively, but they differ from common goods in that they benefit individuals. Some cooperatively achieved individual goods are, MacIntyre observes, “so important for the making and sustaining of social life that it became necessary for government to invoke its authority and employ its resources to achieve them.” These are public goods. Examples include roads, clean water, education, or public safety. As MacIntyre puts it, “most individuals want the benefits of these, few individuals or groups of individuals are able to pay the costs, and so these goods have to be provided by local or national governments and paid for by taxation.”
Public goods are, on almost any reasonable conception of politics, clearly the purview of the state. And they are surely necessary for both individuals and communities to survive, much less flourish. If post-liberals simply wish to reinvigorate the state so that it may more effectively discharge its responsibility to secure public goods, then that is a fine and laudable goal, even an urgent one. (Although it leaves plenty of room for disagreement about the best means to secure public goods and at what level—federal, state, local—or what should be included among them.) In that case, however, we could dispense with the overwrought rhetoric about the end of liberalism. Since, after all, better roads, bridges, and schools is hardly the stuff of political revolution.
Are post-liberals simply calling on the government to provide public goods? Or are they instead calling on the government to use administrative means to promote the common good? If it’s the latter, other problems arise.
Bureaucracy versus Community
First and foremost: Whose common good? It is characteristic of liberal modernity and postmodernity that we do not agree on what constitutes the common good—or even if there is such a thing—much less how such goods are to be justified or realized. Hence the liberal principle that it is not within the state but rather within those associations subordinate to it that we can and do achieve and enjoy common goods. It does not follow that the state cannot or should not promote the common good, if by that we mean protecting those institutions (families, neighborhoods, places of worship, workplaces) in which we pursue common goods together as citizens, including by securing public goods.
So post-liberals are right to emphasize the importance of both common goods and public goods, and to defend the state’s authority and obligation to protect these. But that does not mean that the state should impose a particular conception of the good onto the rest of the country through assertive centralized action. On the contrary, to reject the liberal principle that “it is in the activities of subordinate voluntary associations, such as those constituted by religious groups,” rather than the state, “that shared visions of the good should be articulated,” is to “attack[…] liberals on one issue on which liberals have been consistently in the right,” as MacIntyre notes.
If the goal of post-liberalism is thus problematic, its proposed means remain more so. Grant that liberalism—considered in either the capacious or narrow sense—has as a matter of fact eroded many forms of community and especially the institutions of civil society. But at least part of the explanation for that has been the rise of the modern bureaucratic state. The story is a familiar one: The state has grown over time to assume many of the functions once discharged by the institutions of civil society, notably (but by no means exclusively) the family, which have thereby been marginalized. Is this just a contingent fact? Could the modern bureaucratic state instead have been utilized to promote community and solidarity?
Post-liberals seem to think so. But assuming that we had a publicly agreed upon understanding of the common good, this proposal would still have to overcome a formidable challenge: that the mechanisms of the modern bureaucratic state are not equipped to achieve this aim.
Indeed, a long tradition of thought on both the Right and Left—exemplified by, among others, Friedrich Hayek, Michael Polanyi, Alasdair MacIntyre, C.S. Lewis, James Burnham, Vaclav Havel, Michel Foucault, anarchists including James C. Scott, and Marxists such as the Trotskyist Yvan Craipeau and other left-wing critics of “bureaucratic collectivism”—has called attention to the practical limitations and moral dangers of those attempts by modern nation states to organize society around collective moral purposes via bureaucratic means. The reason for this is not incidental: Unlike public goods, common goods are not the type of thing that can be “administered.” They may be achieved and enjoyed only through the kind of reciprocal activity characteristic of communities. But the bureaucratic logic of instrumental reason does not—and cannot—constitute such a community, and is, in fact, inimical to it.
Burning Villages to Save Them
It is ironic that the late social critic Christopher Lasch has become a popular reference point for post-liberals in this connection. Like MacIntyre, Lasch was as incisive about the depredations of the “centralized state bureaucracy” as he was the corrosive effects of liberalism. In his The Revolt of the Elites—frequently cited by the new right—having documented the erosion of community at the hands of liberalism, Lasch goes on to point out that the intervention of the state is a “remedy” that, “often proves to be worse than the disease.” Why? Because:
The replacement of informal types of associations by formal systems of socialization and control weakens social trust, undermines the willingness both to assume responsibility for oneself and to hold others accountable for their actions, destroys respect for authority, and thus turns out to be self-defeating.
Lasch differentiated his own “populism” from communitarianism precisely because the latter is too willing to acquiesce to the centralized state bureaucracy as a cure for liberalism’s ills. In so doing, Lasch argues, communitarianism winds up embracing the “administered society” it set out to criticize. The same could be said of post-liberalism.
How, then, are communities to survive under conditions of social atomization, cultural fragmentation, and moral decadence—especially if, as the post-liberals point out, certain social, cultural, and economic forces are contributing to their decline? The answer is, well, through communities. This means recommitting to our communities and reinvigorating or reforming the institutions that sustain them. That includes governmental institutions, which are charged with promoting the common good, including by providing the public goods that are necessary, but by no means sufficient, for such communities to flourish. At the same time, communities must be wary of—and prepared to counteract—the encroachment of bureaucratic rationality no less than that of liberal individualism.
By emphasizing the inherent limits of centralized solutions, such an approach offers no quick political fixes. It need not rule out the possibility of public agreement about common goods. But it recognizes that any such agreement will always be expressed through a diversity of moral communities. As Charles Taylor put it in a slightly different context, a “genuine, unforced consensus” on rights and responsibilities may be possible, but on the condition that such consensus allows for disagreement about their underlying justification.
This, however, is to rearticulate in contemporary language something that the founders already recognized: That ours is an “extended republic,” as James Madison called it, composed of myriad smaller polities united by a shared commitment to the public interest. The American project is founded on the proposition that its unity of purpose is made possible because of, not despite, its underlying diversity. To be sure, this is an aspirational proposition—even a moral ideal—and much of our country’s history can be understood as a struggle to put it into practice.
Here we have a reminder that our political tradition, though suspicious of centralized power, has never, in fact, been entirely morally neutral—entirely “liberal.” Unlike liberalism, the republican vision that still animates the American political experiment at its best demands a high degree of civic engagement—of devotion to the public weal. But it is first and foremost through our communities and their institutions, rather than the bureaucratic mechanisms of the modern nation state, that we learn to exercise civic virtue and seek the common good.