I read /Why Liberalism Failed/ so you don’t have do (II)

One danger academics face when they write on current affairs is a tendency to confuse intellectual history with ideational explanations of events. It is one thing to document how some concept has developed and changed over time, but another to enlist it in the explanation of specific events or outcomes. The first uses ideas as explanandum, or the thing to be explained, while the second uses ideas as explanans, or the explanatory factor. Keeping these two identities distinct is essential, since confusion between them invites circularity. In the famous example from Molière, a physician explains why opium puts the user to sleep by invoking its “dormitive principle.” But he explains its “dormitive principle” in terms of opium’s tendency to makes users sleepy. The circularity arises from treating an association between opium use and sleep as both explanans and explanandum, with the effect of simply re-stating rather than explaining the association.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago criticizing Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed, where I mainly focused on his (bad) intellectual history and tendentious style of argument. Deneen for example tries to pass off normative arguments as conceptual ones. His claim that liberalism generates an “anti-culture,” for example, tries to show that liberalism is conceptually incompatible with culture, correctly understood. But in making this argument Deneen relies on a very specific concept of culture (p. 90, if you’re following at home) which just so happens to accommodate all the things Deneen wants to praise and excludes just the things Deneen doesn’t like about liberalism.

Deneen needs this conceptual move in order to make his point that liberalism is self-undermining. Assuming a further premise that a society/civilization/people needs a culture, and given that liberalism undermines culture, Deneen concludes that a liberal society/civilization/people will eventually throw off liberalism. The argument doesn’t work if we replace the second premise with the premise that liberalism undermines good culture, because all the first premise says is that a society needs some culture, not a good culture.

In fairness to Deneen, he’s not the first person to try to fit a square normative peg into a round conceptual hole. But the move often relies on re-describing a concept in such a narrow and tendentious way that it becomes obviously question-begging.

A different problem with Deneen’s book, however, is his efforts to bolster his case by “demonstrating” the effects of liberalism. For example, he asserts in chapter 5, “Liberalism against Liberal Arts,” that “the treatment of the humanities is more deeply a reflection of the liberal order than a stance of resistance [to it]” (p. 119). But nowhere does Deneen demonstrate that “liberalism” explains the decline of the liberal arts education in higher education. He suggests that it is the modern definition of freedom as the absence of impediments to one’s desires explains the development of the research university with distinct academic disciplines, postmodernism in the humanities, and a waning commitment to liberal arts requirements (p.122). However, this hypothesis invites a number of questions. For example, why isn’t the expectation of attending college an impediment to one’s desires inconsistent with the “modern definition of freedom”? Why haven’t trade or technical schools become more popular? Why did the “modern definition of freedom” (which remember was articulated in the 17th century) lead American universities to start removing language requirements like Latin and Greek only in the 1930s? Why was classics, and not “Enlightenment” fields like the natural sciences, the birthplace of the idea of the professional researcher in Germany (as documented in Anthony Kronman’s book Education’s End, which Deneen cites)?

The fact is that something as broad as “the modern definition of freedom” is vacuous as an explanation of the developments in higher education that Deneen documents. It either proves far too much, or explains very little. As another example, consider Deneen’s suggestion that “The near collapse of the world economy in 2008 was, above all, the result of the elimination of a culture that existed to regulate and govern the granting and procuring of mortgages.” Deneen offers the following picture in contrast to globalized financial capitalism:

Laws and norms once existed to shore up the local mortgage culture, forbidding banks to open branches in communities outside those where they were based, premised on a belief that the granting and accepting of debt rested on trust and local knowledge. These laws, and the culture they supported, presupposed that “the bankers’ interests and the interests of the larger community are one and the same.” (86)

Deneen’s nostalgia for aww-shucks local hero Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life is, unfortunately, inaccurate. Calomiris and Haber show in their 2014 book Fragile by Design that barriers to branch banking were predominantly a form of local rent-seeking by creditors. In other words, they expressed a conflict of interests between creditors and debtors. Moreover, Deneen seems unaware of the tremendous costs from small unit banks. A financial sector with thousands of small, unit banks is highly vulnerable to panics, and as a result the US experienced an average of one financial crisis a decade during the 19th-century. A striking example of the dangers from “local community banking” comes from the fact that over 9,000 banks failed in the US during the Great Depression, while in Canada (where branch banking was the norm) not a single bank failed.

Deneen claims that only in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis have there been:

calls for greater government regulation and oversight over the consequences of untrammeled appetite, with threats of penalties (rarely enforced) and a massive expansion of the administrative state to oversee a basic human interaction — the effort to secure shelter. Liberation from the confinements and limitations of local market cultures brings not perfect liberty but the expansion of Leviathan. (87)

This is complete historical ignorance. Deneen completely ignores the fact that the US financial sector was heavily regulated during the middle of the 20th century (probably in ways he would like), and remains one of the most regulated sectors of the US economy. Deneen’s sweeping, broad explanations (he suggests that the same factors behind college “hookup culture” were behind subprime mortgage lending) lead to these false dichotomies and empty rhetoric.

Chapter 7 of Deneen’s book, “The Degradation of Citizenship,” is perhaps the most direct example of the tendendy to confuse ideational explanations with intellectual history. Here Deneen purports to explain contemporary low levels of civic participation and knowledge through an analysis of the Federalist Papers. The basic idea here is that the authors of the Federalist Papers wanted frustration and disengagement among ordinary voters. This observation — that the US Constitution is not particularly democratic — isn’t terribly new. But why should the intention of the Federalist Papers tell us anything? An implicit assumption here is that the authors successfully acted on their given aims. But why think this? The Constitution’s Framers were clearly fallible — the emergence of political parties blindsided them, for example. Moreover, even if there are features of the Constitution that discourage participation (Deneen never actually identifies any), what explains variation in engagement over time? Deneen suggests that the growth of federal power and displaced loyalties from local/state governments to national ones is the mechanism here. This overlooks the fact that powerful states uniformly consolidated during 19th and early 20th century (regardless of how “liberal” they were). A series of pamphlets written in 1788 will not help us understand this secular trend.

Political theorists/philosophers like Pat Deneen have a bad tendency to offer social scientific explanations from the armchair. It’s intellectually lazy, and they should know better, but this kind of norm will only change if people call it out when they see it.

Political theory PhD. I write about politics and (social) science.