The Liberal Experiment: Are the Results In?

Liberalism, defined here in the classical sense of the enlightenment values of civil liberty and economic freedom, not a narrow left-leaning ideology, holds individual freedom above all else. In the U.S. both the left and right, except on the extremes of both, fall into the classical liberalism philosophy. Ideas that could be considered pre-cursors to liberalism began developing in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. But it was the American Revolution and French Revolution that put liberalism into practice. That means the experiment has been running for a little over two hundred years. Can we draw any conclusions from the results?

Patrick Deneen has argued in his book “Why Liberalism Failed” that liberalism as a political philosophy has succeeded so well that liberalism has become a cultural and personal philosophy. This isn’t a good thing.

Our radical adherence to civil liberties leads us to believe that any and all relationships, even with family, are malleable and fluid. If one wants to dissociate from their family of birth (ie throwing their parents in an old folks home), from their spouse (divorce), they can. If one decides they wish to engage in same-sex romantic relationships, they are free to. People can move away from where they were born and raised, and often do. If this is true, it may explain the loneliness epidemic in western nations and why polarization seems to be increasing. Indeed, even our own personal identities have become so fluid that people can identify as different genders and even create their own. Based on the liberal philosophy, the only metric that matters when it comes to our civil liberties is our own pleasure.

In addition to civil liberties, our radical adherence to economic freedom has caused us to value material things over all else. We seek happiness in possessions. We demand choices. If pleasure is the only metric that matters, things are units of its measurement. Yet there is little purpose to be found in accumulating material possessions. I would go further and say that it’s not just material things people covet. It’s also digital things – likes, follows, views, etc. These things are just as hollow, especially judging by the recent Youtuber burnout. My point here, though, is that liberalism seems to foster stuff as taking priority over purpose and community.

Deneen would go further that this. He argues that liberalism has imprisoned us in freedom. By this he means that we see personal freedom as the ultimate end to which everything else must lead. We therefore avoid any sort of commitment or relationship or job/communal position that may hinder our personal freedom.

This could be a source of growing anxiety in western nations. How can anybody be sure if they are making the right decision? It might trap us in a situation we don’t enjoy. And in the kind of freedom liberalism has inaugurated, our enjoyment is the sole arbiter of whether something is good or not.

But aren’t there things that are good but that still limit our freedom in some way? For instance, isn’t it better to be raised in a family than in a one parent home? Isn’t it better to help your neighbors than to pursue the next generation phone or more likes on Facebook?

Interestingly, this freedom-as-the-ultimate-end cultural and personal philosophy seems to have looped back around. Identity politics (both the left-wing and right-wing varieties) is the antithesis of individualism – it’s pure collectivism. But I have talked about the individualism-collectivism dichotomy before, so I won’t belabor the point here, suffice to say that it may speak to our hierarchical human nature that structured collectivism would re-emerge spontaneously out of radical liberalism.

My question here, though, is whether or not we should agree with Deneen (and others) about the failure of liberalism. Are the results in? And if they are, is liberalism truly left wanting? Is it perhaps time to come up with some new cultural-political philosophy to base society around? I would be interested to see what others think.