Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Freedom?

An intriguing new book argues that the problem with our society isn’t partisan rancor but rather the left and right’s attachment to individual autonomy.

Thousands of marchers in Denver, Colorado.
Thousands of marchers gather to listen to speakers at a rally in Civic Center Park following the second Women’s March in Denver on Saturday. Kathryn Scott/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Donald Trump’s election victory, and the success of demagogues around the world, have caused worried commentators to fret about the rise of illiberalism. In an intriguing new book, however, Patrick J. Deneen argues that part of the problem is that liberalism itself—the thing everyone seems obsessed with protecting—is partially to blame.

As Deneen* sees it, liberalism—defined not as progressivism, but rather as an ideology that stresses freedom in the marketplace and in our social relations—has led to the breakdown of societal norms, helping to impoverish our societies and creating the conditions for strongmen to rise. As he phrases it, “The breakdown of family, community, and religious norms and institutions, especially among those benefiting least from liberalism’s advance, has not led liberalism’s discontents to seek a restoration of those norms.” Even potentially more worrisome is that, in his opinion, “Liberalism created the conditions, and the tools, for the ascent of its own worst nightmare, yet it lacks the self-knowledge to understand its own culpability.”

I recently spoke by phone with Deneen, who teaches political science at Notre Dame. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed his provocative analysis of the women’s movement (the value of which he calls into question), why liberals are blind to their flaws, and what the election of Donald Trump says about the society we have established.

Isaac Chotiner: It seems like your book is identifying two different flaws within liberalism, one that is often brought up by the left in its critique of globalization and capitalism, and the other that is brought up by conservatives in their critique of social trends, including the decline of traditional, religious beliefs. Do you think it’s fair to say you are combining those critiques?

Patrick J. Deneen: Yeah. That’s correct. I’m defining liberalism as basically a philosophy that begins with an understanding of human beings as naturally, to use John Locke’s terms, free and independent. That we are by nature creatures that in our natural condition or natural state are understood to be unattached in some ways. Autonomous, freely choosing individuals defined by extensive rights of self-making and self-construction.

What’s interesting is that our political configuration today tends to draw on some aspects of Lockean thinking in what we think of as the conservative, economic realm—the understanding of what the economic man is, the freely choosing individual who treats the world as a marketplace. While on the political left, that’s in many ways what defines our understanding of the social creature, in terms of our relationships, and in many ways informs our understanding of the sexual revolution and many of its effects. Broadly speaking, we have a debate within species of liberalism on the left and the right—not a deeper challenge to the essentially liberal order in which we live.

How do you think your critique differs from the standard left critique of the economic sphere?

I’m sympathetic with many aspects of it. Oddly enough, I find myself also sympathetic with certain aspects of this rather inchoate Trump-esque concern with the effects of globalization, especially on many of our fellow citizens. I’m not an economist, but I’m hesitant to embrace either the market or the state as the two modes of dealing with this contemporary crisis of modern capitalism. One way that I think about that is how norms of economic exchange, for example in a place like a farmers’ market where I live, are not simply dominated by sheer utilitarian calculus. How are our forms of exchange contributing to the health of our town or of our community?

The counterargument is that the regnant economic system has brought millions of people out of poverty, has allowed women more economic opportunities, etc.

A gentleman named Henry Olsen has done some interesting work showing on the one hand that, especially in the most impoverished parts of the world, various forms of economic liberalization measurably improved the lives of those in conditions of poverty. But also it has actually in some ways resulted, in the developing world, in increasing division between those who win in our economic system and those who lose.

So rather than lifting all boats, it tends to lift some boats. We have to really think about the social costs of that, not simply the economic benefits, but what that does to our society. Here it seems to me it’s self-evident that the developed West is experiencing this kind of deep rift, and increasingly an unbridgeable rift, between those who feel they are successful in this economic order and those who don’t. It doesn’t become merely a question of material success but a sort of social solidarity and the capacity of a society to function at some level.

Let’s get into your social critique. I can say my own view is that I think that the sexual revolution and what came in its wake was just much more necessary and important than you seem to, because you worry about having children being seen as impediments to freedom, lower birth rates, etc. But what was or is the reasonable alternative to a real women’s movement and what followed?

It’s interesting how that question is really a species of the last question you asked me: Isn’t the success in the economic sphere, in the material sphere, complemented by the success in the social sphere of what liberalism has achieved? I think when you live within the liberal order you view these developments through the lens of how liberalism evaluates these phenomena, and of course it looks like a success.

What I’m really trying to call attention to in this book is the kind of deep costs and consequences that come from, in both the economic realm and in the social realm, the ascendancy of individualism in our lives. The breakdown of social norms that govern sexual behavior, among other things. The breakdown of family, and family life that we see, especially among those in the lower echelon of our society who are experiencing social breakdown.

The decline of reproduction. The demographic crisis that’s being faced broadly in the West but of course across the world as well. We see a whole set of consequences that, in the light of the liberal worldview, look like successes, and tend not to see the cost or regard the cost as attachable from the successes of liberalism.

You write in the book that liberalism considers “the paramount sign of the liberation of women to be their growing emancipation from their biology.” What exactly are you trying to say?

The other aspect of liberalism that seems to be really quite distinctive is to regard human beings as fundamentally in conflict with nature. And seeing nature as an obstacle to our liberty.

You see this, of course, in the treatment of the world. The way in which we extract anything we want from the world in whatever way we want. It seems to me here that the left is particularly good at calling out the abuse of the human effort to conquer nature in the natural world, the environmental movement.

On the other hand, you see this as well on our own nature and the effort to conquer our nature in the name of our liberation. Here again you have this example where the right lauds the conquest of nature when it comes to the environment, and the left lauds the conquest of nature when it come to our biology, and we tend not to see that these are both a species of the liberal ambition to liberate human beings from our nature, external and internal.

OK, but two things: It might be in a man’s nature to want to sleep with as many women as he wants, whenever he wants, regardless of what they want, or his partner wants. I think that we can agree that being liberated from that is a good idea. And secondly, why, in the book, is your definition of a woman’s nature based so clearly on having babies?

Of course part of human nature is to develop cultural and various kinds of artifices that in many ways shape the aspects of our nature. In a sense, I’m drawing on the arguments by, among others, Aristotle, who talks about the ways that, in regard to eating and sex, human beings are the best of all creatures when we develop the capacity to govern our appetites. Those capacities to govern our appetites are often through development of various cultural forms and norms and laws that on the one hand acknowledge our nature but also govern the worst expressions of our nature. Whether it’s as you just suggested, through the male desire to simply dominate or conquer women, or the desire simply to feed ourselves without realizing that excess in that form is bad.

Of course, there have to be various forms of human artifice, which have often been in the form of culture and through laws that govern the excess of our appetites. We’re dealing now in many ways with this crisis of a lack of self-governance in both the natural world, the environment, and the sexual world, the consequence of the sexual revolution.

But on the culture question, what is the alternative? I assume that you think women or gay people should have equal legal rights. They should have equal access to jobs. They should be encouraged to do the same things that straight men are encouraged to do in a society.

I just want people to see that kind of continuity of these deeper forms of individualism that we have divided up between our current political parties. In fact, to argue that the thing that bothers us most about what the other side stands for might actually be complicit in the things that the other side supports.

I’m assuming in your case the free market ideology of the Republican Party bothers you, and so then maybe one has to be introspective about how that is also reflected in your commitments. And vice versa.

Then one would have to say, “How do I think about this in terms of a society that would value the creation of families and the raising of children?” I’m not saying that we should go back to the Dark Ages or something. But how can we build upon the achievements of liberalism while acknowledging that perhaps we’ve gone too far in the direction of the freed and autonomous human will?

What way do you think we’ve gone too far? How should we be constructing family relations differently?

Part of this is simply what we express is what we value. I’ve worked at three different great universities: Princeton, Georgetown, and Notre Dame. Each of those universities has a career service center when you graduate so you can get a job. None of these—and two of these were Catholic institutions—have a “What It Is to Grow Up and Be a Member of a Family” or “To Build Your Own Family” center. What it is to be a mother or a father. None of these institutions, in other words, cultivate thinking about what it would be and what one would need to think about in terms of shaping and forming a family. We perpetuate, then, certain kinds of commitments, not only by the actions that we recommend but also by what we recommend as being that which should be taken seriously.

I have told you where I disagree with your book, but one thing that was thought-provoking was about Trump, indirectly, and how shocking he is. I don’t agree with Trump’s policies. That’s fine. Lots of politicians’ policies I don’t agree with. The thing to me that is shocking is the type of figure he is, the way he behaves on a daily basis. There’s something just grotesque about him that I think a lot of people can recognize on just a human level. The way he treats other people. The way he talks about other people. The way he behaves in public. I do think there’s a way in which our society would not have put up with that 50 years ago.

I basically think the way our society has changed in the last 50 years is for the better. I also think that there were certain kinds of niceties and formalities about our society that would have led people to say about a figure like Donald Trump 50 years ago, “Are you kidding me? This guy is just grotesque. Of course, he can’t be president.” I think we have lost something there.

One of the things that Alexis de Tocqueville talks about when he visits America is that democratic peoples will come to hate what he calls forms. And you talk about niceties. That’s one way of saying forms. That’s the root of the word formalities.

He says that forms are artifices that keep us from being authentic. They keep us from being equal. They divide men from women. They divide the high from the low. This religion from that religion. So, we have a tendency to want to get rid of forms. We become more informal. We call each other by our first names rather than 50 years ago. We don’t wear hats anymore.
Men don’t wear hats when they go out. We have dress-down Fridays, which now becomes dress down every day of the week.

One aspect of losing the forms is the inability to recognize certain kinds of formalities. It seems to me Donald Trump is almost the culmination of what you rightly call a kind of grotesque figure that one could never have imagined would occupy the presidency. And he seems to be a reflection of a society that’s become much coarser. And I’m always shocked. I guess I’m a bit of a prude I guess.

I wasn’t going to say it.

But when I walk around campus, well, I hear my Notre Dame students using words that I can barely imagine sailors having once used. In just casual conversation, when they’re walking around campus. That to me is indicative of the coarseness of society today.

I know your opinion of Trump, but it seems like while you have a certain sympathy for some of the underlying dynamics of things like Trump or Brexit, you also don’t think that they are going to actually bring about any type of society that you want. But you also believe that liberalism doesn’t know how to deal with the challenges that things like Trump and Brexit represent, so we’re in a pretty bad place.

Yeah. I’m constantly being challenged with what my solution is. Part of the difficulty right now is that we’ve gotten so deeply into a condition which we have now, with the great proponents of liberalism, on both the left and the right. And now increasingly an incoherent and almost just emotion-driven opposition, especially from what’s now being called the populist part of the West. I fear a deeply damaging, unresolvable dynamic that I would expect to continue for the rest of my life. I don’t know that this will be resolved when Trump leaves office.

He’s not going to leave office. Maybe that’s the solution.

Perhaps. But inasmuch as it might be solved, it might be necessary in some ways for especially those who are in positions of most power, which I would say on both the left and the right are essentially the liberals as I described them, to begin to recognize the excesses of the liberal creed and to begin to think about ways that, in order to prevent further blowback of the most damaging kind, how it might be to be cognizant of liberalism’s own inherent trajectories of excess and think about how one would correct those.

I would say in America, the way in which especially the left has responded to Trump, I understand. I carry no brief for Donald Trump. I understand that reaction personally, but it seems to me in the extreme animus that’s been directed toward Donald Trump, there’s been a kind of corresponding neglect of what were the forces that brought him to power.

In the book, I have somewhat of a resigned conclusion, which is I don’t see a grand theoretical resolution that’s practical on the horizon. So I suggest people of goodwill, of whatever political stripe, begin to build the culture more locally. Begin to build the kinds of relationships of solidarity in the household, beyond the household, in their neighborhoods. To try to create new conditions of solidarity closer to home.

I’m happy to strike a blow against liberalism by not including any link to your book in the intro to this interview.

That’s fine. People can find it at their local bookstore.

*Correction, Jan. 24: This piece originally misspelled Patrick J. Deneen’s last name.