Half Full or Three Fourths Empty?
By Amy Willis
Can Left and Right agree that the American state has grown and that individual liberty has simultaneously been reduced? That is precisely what political scientist Patrick Deneen claims in his new book, Why Liberalism Failed, the subject of this episode. Deneen argues for a return to a smaller, more local, and more artisanal economy, in which he argues the individual would be better equipped for making the best choices for him or herself. It’s better to have the constraints of local institutions and tradition guide our behavior than Leviathan, Deneed argues.
Is the glass of America’s culture half full, as host Russ Roberts would have it, or three-quarters empty, as he chides Deneen? Under what circumstances are we as individuals able to lead our best lives, and what role exists for the state? Use our prompts to spark your own conversations offline.
1- To what extent do Roberts and Deneen share a common definition of liberalism? How has the definition of liberalism changed over time, according to Deneen, and how has our understanding of individual liberty changed as a result?
2- How has the success of liberalism both increased our sense of individualism and fueled the expansion of the role of the state in our lives, according to Deneen? To what extent do you agree with Deneen regarding this causal direction?
3- Roberts notes two conflicting impulses in human beings- the desire to be free and the desire to be taken care of. How much do you think the relative importance of each of these have changed within our culture today? How have these competing desires manifested in the economy? To what extent does Deneen’s definition of liberalism (and his descriptions of its faults) account for economic freedom and the role of the state in the economy?
4- To what extent would you regard tradition as a prior constraint on your ability to make individual choices? While Deneen abhors liberalism’s deep anti-traditionalism, he acknowledges that sometimes traditions need to be abandoned, such as in the case of slavery. How, then, are we supposed to know when such traditions should be abandoned?
5- What does Roberts mean when he says, “…I think the economic consequences of the current time are misunderstood?” If Roberts is right, how ought this to change Deneen’s thesis?