When Do Your Own Thing Doesn’t Mean It


In a recent episode of the EconTalk podcast, host Russ Roberts chatted about a range of things with Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen related to the latter’s book, Why Liberalism Failed.  Although interesting, the conversation had moments that felt as if the pair was missing some important point, with this exchange being the most significant example (which the producers helpfully transcribed already):

Russ Roberts: … one view says, ‘Okay. Yup. We don’t have a culture. We don’t have tradition. We’ve got some baggage; but not much because we’ve thrown a lot of it over the side. So, we don’t have to have to live out of those suitcases. We can just put in there whatever we want. And so, these jobs, the great human enterprise of self-control and self-government, that’s up to us, now. We don’t have the tradition; we don’t have the shame and the guilt that motivates behavior in many religions or in small, local groups where gossip plays a similar role. Those things are gone. And now, it’s just up to you. And so, that’s the enterprise. And, if you don’t like it, you are free to make your own restraints on yourself. You can tie yourself to the mast, as Ulysses did, if you choose to. But you don’t have to. And the people who don’t have to like it that way; and the rest of us have our choice.’ I happen to be a religious Jew; that’s my choice. I happen to have embraced a bunch of restraints on myself. I like it. Maybe I’m a fool. Maybe I’m deluded. But I like it; and so, you don’t. You choose a different set of restraints. Or none. What’s wrong with that, those personal choices being made? It seems like a–isn’t that a better world?

Patrick Deneen: Well, we’re finding out whether it’s a better world. I think, ultimately–

Now, I’m generally sympathetic to Deneen and the answer that he goes on to give after the quotation above, but how could he have not pointed out a falsehood in the response that Roberts summarizes?  It just isn’t true that we each get to “choose a different set of restraints.”

If the economic restraints you place on yourself have the effect of making you wealthy, while somebody’s else’s decision to live under the illusion of no restraints produces destitution, we insist that you subsidize the other.  As a more-recent development, if the moral restraints you place on yourself produce stability and happiness, while somebody else’s moral laxity produces emotional insecurity, then your stability is a “privilege” that requires you to bend your behavior and even your businesses or organizations to accommodate the insecure.

In short, our society increasingly insists that the people who make good decisions support those who don’t, not out of a feeling of community (from which they would draw benefit), but out of legal obligation.  We’re not “finding out” whether the society Roberts describes can function; we’re finding out that human nature won’t let us try it.

This reframing suggests a different mindset.  We aren’t investigating whether liberalism (in the classical sense) has failed on its own terms and deciding how we might try something different.  We’re observing that a liberal trend appears to have a natural limit, and we should be considering whether setting that limit in the law or in other institutions provides the best balance of interests and the most stability.

In the modern context, conservatives and traditionalists are not opponents of this sort of liberalism; we’re attempting to conserve it and maintain the traditions that held it at its maximum value.