Liberalism’s Golden Boy Echoes “Why Liberalism Failed”

Neoclassical economics runs in my ideological veins. In my office, I am often the sounding board for economic policy ideas: couldn’t we impose a $30/hour wage for in-home caregivers? “No – inevitably,” I begin, “… inevitably, the demand for formal in-home care will plummet, and in fact families will turn to a black market for low-wage work.” This inevitability is despite the enormous value caregivers provide to society, and this is also because of the low socioeconomic status of the caregiving workforce — they’re immigrant women, and if they held any higher status, they would not be in the industry: better options would be available at McDonald’s or at Walmart. The issue is too far gone.

This example embodies the failure of liberalism as Patrick J. Deneen sees it in Why Liberalism Failed. We are not free, and the more we learn about how our state and our markets work, the less we consider our world to be one of opportunity. This example is a failure of our state (a failed immigration system) and our markets (a failure to meet dire need, reward valuable work, and establish true freedom for either consumer or worker).

Deneen claims that trends in the markets and the state are pushing liberalism away from its core values for humankind — “to secure liberty and human dignity through the constraint of tyranny, arbitrary rule, and oppression” — and toward a “remaking of the world in the image of a false anthropology.” 

This is Deneen’s key thesis: we began with a structure that held honorable goals that protected us from oppression but required us to collectively define the liberty, dignity, and culture we desired; at some point, our definitions rotted; since that point, the entire structure is decaying from its core, spread only more quickly by a polar politics pulling that ideology out to every last piece of the structure.

For the conscious-but-partisan among us, we see the rot only when it is spread by the other team’s favored institution: the market or the state. But in fact, we adopted the rotted definitions ourselves, and we are responsible for its spread. At best, we are left to be angry cynics mad at the state of affairs but acquiescent, unwilling to improve it except marginally. At worst, we are cruel cynics: both unwilling to act and uncaring about the harms arising. In either case, we are shepherded toward cynicism while chanting that the arch of the system bends toward liberty if it will bend our way. As Deneen wrote, “our liberation renders us incapable of resisting these defining forces — the promise of freedom results in thralldom to inevitabilities to which we have no choice but to submit.”

Take the Ideology of Competition, for Example

Now I want to return to that “false anthropology,” and to use the ideology of competition as an example of what Deneen may have meant by “false anthropology.” I interpret “anthropology” to mean a mental model of what humans value. Leaning on my caregiver example, the most obvious example of a false anthropology that’s common in liberalism (and neoclassical economics) is the equivalence of human incentives with competition: that direct competition is a key component of human life, and therefore that competition can suitably motivate all structures that govern human activity in our liberal society. The market is competitive, therefore its results are good. (Ah, Milton Friedman.) And the effect of this on human life and the state are clear. We made humanity subservient to competition. 

Specifically, under this competition ideology — just one ideology of many that has rotted the core of liberalism by improperly defining “liberty and human dignity” — human life has been shifted into a near-constant state of anxiety. We are not secure in our access to necessities. We are never secure. We live in a society where the elderly — even with the Social Security benefits due from a lifetime of hard (but low-paid or “competitively paid”) work — face 8-month waiting lists to access Meals on Wheels in many cities. The cruel cynic supposes they can simply make do in those 8 months; the angry cynic calls for more government action to support the individual’s need for state support under a “glitch” in competition’s benefits. But it’s not a glitch. The system is not a leaky boat (which we tell ourselves it is), but rather a life vest (which we’ve held onto for far too long). Its inadequacies are uncountable, but I’ll continue: your access to health care could disappear if your employer went out of business (especially pre-Obamacare). And, because of the subservience of humanity to the “false anthropology” of competition, we feel no responsibility to help our nearest neighbors in the event that they are without home, food, or health care. The competition example is just one of many to be made. But I will explore it further still.

(As I explore the competition example, I’d like you to consider what “false anthropology” means as you read it, and what exemplary definitions of liberty, dignity, and culture draw from a “false anthropology” as you see it. I’m reachable on Signal and iMessage at 831-402-2736.)

For a jarring break of pace about competition, I will recount a story from my childhood. In a made-for-radio contest called “hold your wee for a Wii,” a local mother competed for a Wii to give her children by drinking gallons and gallons of water. She died. The pressure of competition placed blinders over her vision, disappearing her humanity, long-term thinking, and health.

A true anthropology would exalt humankind’s ability to plan for the long term, to take care of future generations and of health and well-being, and would consider connectivity and collaboration as a wellspring of problem-solving. It need not be utopia, but it would be hard to summarize in a word and diminish to a process that induces anxiety to motivate human action. In conclusion, and applying it to a contemporary crisis: a true anthropology would not struggle to reconcile “motivat[ing] liberty and human dignity through the constraint of tyranny, arbitrary rule, and oppression” with the changes in human activity required to confront climate change.

This concludes my example about competition and draws me into some very-current events. Today, it is 2020; today, the political moment is coronavirus pandemic tumult. Today, debate rages about whether to reopen society from shelter-in-place orders after a month of social distancing. Merkel is on her way out — steady leader of the liberal order that she was — and Macron was embattled but is newly seen as steady-handed. Trump, Bolsonaro, Obrador, Erdogan, Duerte are in, but their styles are currently questioned by the fearful masses. For all the fuss over US’ top-level populism, it is Europe’s nationalists that set the pace for ascendant illiberalism in the West. The last five years, from Brexit to the EU elections, have demonstrated visceral disgust by the individuals liberalism liberated and the markets and states that perpetuate their individual liberties. But hold on, what liberties? The definitions we take to answer that question answer Why Liberalism Failed, and I have sampled above how those definitions shortchange humanity. Want to move to a new system and stop shortchanging ourselves? Pick a new, truer, richer anthropology to guide the future. Define and defend culture.

Macron’s Anthropological Shift

This is precisely what French president Emmanuel Macron charted out yesterday, in an interview with FT. (The article, the video.) He may well have read Why Liberalism Failed himself during his sheltering in place. (I imagine he is having less travel time.)

Emmanuel Macron, in his April 16, 2020 interview with the FT, shared a vision of liberalism’s shortcomings that echo the thesis of Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed down to a shared use of the word “anthropology.” If he is sincere, careful, and humble, the project of restoring France after Covid can kickstart this project of replacing liberalism’s rotten core — which he and Deneen both suggest is a misunderstanding of what humans value.

France is notorious among my peers in economics for the “friction” they introduce in their markets: “inevitably,” we jeer, “making harder to fire people makes a company slower to hire people.” After his bold actions to reduce these frictions to ensure economic competitiveness, the people seemed liable to fire Macron and hire a nationalist for president. Years-long protests undermined his political credibility. His pro-EU position faced the obvious skepticism of a people anxious about their security to access the necessities and anxious about their jobs and companies in the flows of trade, migration, and finance. But it is unlikely that the people would be satisfied with a tyranny of the majority and the results of a nationalist pivot — even if they were to vote one in. Nationalism does not solve the problems of liberalism; it extends them, because it has at its core the same rotten ideologies. Macron doubtless would make that argument on nationalism. 

What Macron instead proposes is to replace the rotten core of liberalism and hope that the structure is renewed by a stronger, truer anthropology at the very center of it all. (Even if rotted, perhaps the structure is salvageable with a new set of definitions of liberty, dignity, and culture.) Macron names — multiple times — “anthropology” as the crux of what he wants to restore. This suggests that Macron is now thinking beyond just how policies can bandage the individuals’ wounds from competition or assuage a key constituency’s anxieties. No: Macron is thinking about nothing less than redefining what the state and market are geared toward, e.g. subbing out competition with collaboration.

Rather than hiding how the structure is shortchanging our dignity and culture, he lists off the anxieties liberalism wrought — anxieties he exacerbated — with a serious tone. He soberly states that liberalism is not just a post-Covid failure: it was a failure before Covid, and the writing was on the wall. The writing on the wall was addressed to him, liberalism’s poster boy. 

He expresses and exudes optimism, and he promises to replace the core ideology of our state and market. If he — and our generation generally — succeed to replace the ideology, we could move sustainably past this fail-state tug-of-war between liberalism and nationalism, between right and left. Human dignity and connectivity should come first, and economics should be subservient to those intuitions. We should not feel insecure in a society that’s so technically advanced. Speaking of Covid’s role in this shift, Macron hits the nail on the head: “I think it’s a profound anthropological shock.” he says. “We have stopped half the planet to save lives, there are no precedents for that in our history.” Covid is a temporary shock to the liberal order, not from a nationalist front but from an exogenous mortal reckoning. If used correctly, we can use it to pivot away from a painful decline. A decline of liberalism and resultant, unsatisfactory surge in nationalism. Instead, we can pivot toward enhancing our collective ability to plan and act on shared priorities, and to cherish life and a dignified existence.

We will know society’s rot has been excised from its liberal core when we neither ignore the suffering of a neighbor due to the supposed inevitability of that suffering nor feel so routinely insecure that we cannot act collectively or individually to protect our lives and dignity. And, you and I must pray that we excise the rot without excising the rest of the protective structure we cherish about this society. (In which case we will face both arbitrary oppression from above and anxiety from the dreadful sights just below.)   

It would be easy to see how Macron would be moved upon reading Deneen: he is a former investment banker, recently confronted with the incredible pains his rural constituents are feeling. He was the type of guy who began counterarguments with “inevitably, under competition,” but suddenly he was faced with the projections of havoc from a climate crisis, and then he was faced with the real pain of the French layperson, and now he is faced with most of his country fearing their lives or those of their parents. After facing the enormity of the challenges, the scope of his concern likely changed. “No,” he realized, “trade adjustment assistance and free community college won’t heal these anxieties.” (My apologies to Bernie, Warren, Biden, Buttigieg, 2019 Macron, Merkel, Obama, and Cameron.) The takeaway from Covid-19 is that our economic and state structures do not value what we value — even if they have bandages.

You can’t repeat  “suffering is inevitable” for long before you realize you’re shortchanging anthropology. In fact, now that we look around at our desolate place in the big wide ocean, and our mortality becomes salient, we realize we’ve been holding onto a rotten life jacket all along. 

We need something more solid: we need our friends and family to be valued, and ourselves to be secure. That was supposed to be the promise of society. What ever happened?

We need something more solid now. We need Macron, liberalism’s heir apparent at the end of this first quarter-century of a new millennium, to (1) keep thinking about that “truer anthropology,” (2) install credible changes in French society that better define its core values, including needed actions that humbly reverse his past policy positions and that genuinely empower the French people including his current opponents, (3) report honestly how this project succeeds and why it met resistance, and (4) remain committed to a true anthropology above his commitment to saving the vestiges of liberalism.

After all, he will have only several more years to take this Covid awakening forward into practice and into structural changes. There will be an unprecedented demand for those changes, but unprecedented external turbulence as well. The projects of fixing the Covid fallout must be seen as the substrate of piloting a new social order, not seen as a distraction from doing so. 

Excerpts from: Patrick J. Deneen. “Why Liberalism Failed.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/why-liberalism-failed/id1327280661

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