The roots of Western liberalism both precede, and go far deeper, than Martin Luther and his influence.
In “The End of Liberalism,” Patrick Deneen provides an excellent summary of some of the main themes of his recent book, Why Liberalism Failed: “liberalism” has reached a dead end because its notion of liberating people from traditions and religious heritage leads to endless dissolutions of institutions necessary for human flourishing, like the family, and leaves denizens of the liberal regime increasingly miserable. And recent political events, like Brexit, the rise of European populists and Donald Trump show that the people around the world are increasingly recognizing its failure.
What Deneen calls liberalism I would term a messy, unstable, and variegated mixture of welfare statism, social “liberalism” which is often a form of social coercion, and market liberalism that together now goes under the rubric of social democracy. In a subsequent post, I will show that classical liberalism (and our own Constitution rightly interpreted) give space for religious and other traditional associations that speak to the human condition of interconnectedness and avoid excesses of individualism.
But here I want to cast doubt that social democracy is ending rather than being open to serious criticisms – many of which as a liberal of the classical kind I share with Deneen.
First, the populists in the major nations of Western Europe where social democracy is in fullest flower have so far failed to take control and substantially alter it. Indeed, the winner in France, Emmanuel Macron, won a resounding victory against populism on a platform of reforming its peculiar mixture of statism and market liberalism. It is true that in smaller Western European nations, populists sometimes become a minority partner in a coalition government, but they almost always then end up losing support. In Eastern Europe right-wing populists have taken power, but Eastern Europe is a poor barometer of the West: many of these governments are still running in part to clear out the last vestiges of communism rather than “liberalism.”
Donald Trump is something of a fluke. He triumphed in an exceedingly fragmented Republican field and won very narrowly against an unpopular Democratic when it would have been hard enough for a popular politician to extend the usual two-term limit that the Americans give any party for the Presidency. And whatever his persona on twitter, his actual policies in office, except for so far relatively minor deviations on trade, have been very similar to those that Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would have pursued. They operate within the American version of social democracy, rather than reject it.
It is also not clear that Brexit represents a repudiation of liberalism as much as distant and unaccountable governance. And the vote was narrow enough that it hardly represents even a stable British consensus even against the EU, as we will probably learn when Britain strikes a deal with the EU that keeps large bits of its previous connection.
Deneen’s title, “The End of Liberalism,” is an obvious reference and riposte to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. But these efforts, as intelligent as both are, share a flaw: they extrapolate too much from too little evidence to reach a conclusion that is ideologically pleasing to the author. I do not much like social democracy, as defined above, but I see little evidence that it is being substantially repudiated, let alone ending.