Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, February 02, 2018

Philosophy beyond government and politics

Does it still all boil down to which words we use?

This is probably beyond what is required for your course, but you and some of your students might be interested in pursuing one of philosophy's big ideas.

Liberalism is the most successful idea of the past 400 years
OVER the past four centuries liberalism has been so successful that it has driven all its opponents off the battlefield. Now it is disintegrating, destroyed by a mix of hubris and internal contradictions, according to Patrick Deneen, a professor of politics at the University of Notre Dame.

The gathering wreckage of liberalism’s twilight years can be seen all around, especially in America, Mr Deneen’s main focus. The founding tenets of the faith have been shattered. Equality of opportunity has produced a new meritocratic aristocracy that has all the aloofness of the old aristocracy with none of its sense of noblesse oblige. Democracy has degenerated into a theatre of the absurd. And technological advances are reducing ever more areas of work into meaningless drudgery…

Mr Deneen uses the term “liberalism” in its philosophical rather than its popular sense. He is describing the great tradition of political theory that is commonly traced to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke rather than the set of vaguely leftish attitudes that Americans now associate with the word…

The legitimacy of the system is based on a shared belief in a “social contract” between consenting adults. But this produces a paradox. Because the liberal spirit mechanically destroys inherited customs and local traditions, sometimes in the name of market efficiency and sometimes in the name of individual rights, it creates more room for the expansion of the state, as marketmaker and law-enforcer…

He does an impressive job of capturing the current mood of disillusionment, echoing left-wing complaints about rampant commercialism, right-wing complaints about narcissistic and bullying students, and general worries about atomisation and selfishness. But when he concludes that all this adds up to a failure of liberalism, is his argument convincing?…

[L]iberalism contains a wide range of intellectual traditions which provide different answers to the question of how to trade off the relative claims of rights and responsibilities, individual expression and social ties…

The late 19th century saw America suffering from many of the problems that are reappearing today, including the creation of a business aristocracy, the rise of vast companies, the corruption of politics and the sense that society was dividing into winners and losers. But a wide variety of reformers, working within the liberal tradition, tackled these problems head on. Theodore Roosevelt took on the trusts. Progressives cleaned up government corruption. University reformers modernised academic syllabuses and built ladders of opportunity. Rather than dying, liberalism reformed itself.

Mr Deneen is right to point out that the record of liberalism in recent years has been dismal. He is also right to assert that the world has much to learn from the premodern notions of liberty as self-mastery and self-denial. The biggest enemy of liberalism is not so much atomisation but old-fashioned greed… But he is wrong to argue that the only way for people to liberate themselves from the contradictions of liberalism is “liberation from liberalism itself”. The best way to read “Why Liberalism Failed” is not as a funeral oration but as a call to action: up your game, or else.

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