Deneen’s Common Good Statism

  • September 5, 2023
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It’s likely that many readers of The Austrian support the free market and also support “traditional” social values, but in Patrick Deneen’s opinion, this is an unstable amalgam. Deneen, a political theorist who teaches at Notre Dame, thinks that the market undermines tradition and that those of us who resist the “woke” Left and want to preserve tradition ought to abandon what he sees as an uncritical devotion to the market.

Deneen says that classical and medieval political philosophy recognized that an objective good exists and posited that a political system must take account of the interests of both the few and the many. Liberalism, which comes in classical and progressive varieties, by contrast aims primarily to advance the interests of the elite, and, put into practice, it destabilizes the lives of the masses. As Deneen puts it, “how to reconcile ‘the few’ and ‘the many, is one of the oldest questions of the Western political tradition. . . . By this telling, the aim was a kind of balance and equilibrium between the two classes, and the good political order . . . secured the ‘common good,’ the widespread prospect for human flourishing regardless of one’s class status. The classical solution was rejected by the architects of liberalism, who believed that this seemingly political divide could be solved by advances in a ‘new science of politics’.”

A problem with Deneen’s contention is apparent at once. According to him, classical liberalism doesn’t seek to balance the interests of the few and the many. But he says himself that “the first liberals—‘classical liberals’—believed especially that economic progress through an ever-freer and more expansive market could fuel a transformative social and political order in which growing prosperity would always outstrip economic discontents. . . . It was held to be an article of faith that the inequality and resulting discontents generated by the new capitalist system would be compensated by a ‘rising tide’ of prosperity.”

If this is what classical liberals thought, they did aim to advance the interests of the masses, not just the interests of the rich. Deneen would respond that the premise the classical liberals relied on is false, or at least dubious, as his reference to an “article of faith” suggests. They deluded themselves into believing that the market would help the poor, but it didn’t, I take him to be saying.

But isn’t it evident that the free market has in fact led to an enormous increase in the lifespans, health, and prosperity of the masses? Does Deneen deny this? He acknowledges that “a rapid increase in economic prosperity” has occurred in the past three hundred years but says that “what classical liberals hope to ‘conserve’ is a revolutionary doctrine that aims at the constant transformation of all aspects of human social organization.”

It is difficult to pin Deneen down. Is his contention that the free market helped the poor economically but that this is outweighed by the disruptive effects of the market on human social organization? Or is it that although economic prosperity increased under the free market, many poor people suffered because they lost their jobs and the gains went mainly to the rich, who viewed those unable to work as idlers who ought to fall by the wayside? I suspect he means both.

If these are his contentions, we can respond to them with an objection that Deneen is likely to take as a compliment. He does not think like an economist. He does not, that is to say, think in terms of changes at the margin. Which people were displaced by which market innovations? How many of those who were displaced found other jobs, and under what conditions? If, as Deneen contends in his praise for the Tory democracy of Benjamin Disraeli, support for the traditional family and for religion remained strong among the masses, to what extent did the free market disrupt human social organization? Deneen does not ask such questions.

It is odd that although Deneen criticizes supporters of the market for their stress on material gain as opposed to classical virtue— with what justice we shall shortly examine—his prescriptions for contemporary social distempers include a substantial number of measures that he thinks will lead to material gains for the masses. He says, “Domestic manufacturing in certain sectors should simply be mandated. . . . America (and any nation) should seek to improve its competitiveness and productivity by supporting several vital sectors that in turn are vital to a vibrant manufacturing base: infrastructure, manufacturing and R&D innovation, and related forms of education.” Again, he fails to ask what the benefits and costs are of particular amounts of the changes he wants to mandate. Under a completely free market, there would be no such mandates at all. What would happen then? Deneen doesn’t tell us. (In a note, he refers readers to a book by Oren Cass for more details about the sort of programs he wants, but this does not answer the relevant questions.)

There are some other ill-thought-out aspects of Deneen’s economic nostrums. He wants more manufacturing jobs, but he also bemoans the deadening effects of assembly line work. “The great prophet of division of labor—Adam Smith . . . noted that the worker on the assembly line would know a great deal about the limited task to which he had been assigned, but would likely know little about the actual product, much less its greater purpose, nor its sources or likely destination. The assembly-line worker would need to be purposefully limited in understanding, knowledge, and even curiosity.” We could ask, as before, To what extent are Smith’s claims true and, to the extent they are, how are these effects to be weighed against advantages that result from increases in the division of labor?

But the biggest problem for Deneen is that he endorses Smith’s view of the bad effects of the division of labor yet also favors a policy that will increase assembly line work. Or is manufacturing supposed to take place in some other way?

Here is another internal problem for Deneen. As you would expect, he praises Alexander Hamilton for his proposals to promote national manufacturing. According to Deneen, Hamilton “rightly regarded a strong manufacturing base as a basic feature of national security, stability, and prosperity, a view that has been forgotten especially by today’s libertarian cheerleaders of free-market globalism. . . . Hamilton emphasized especially the role played by manufacturing in achieving national independence, and the corresponding freedom from the debasement and servitude that inevitably accompany economic reliance upon foreign powers.” Three cheers for Hamilton! But less than fifty pages later, when Deneen is criticizing Progressive Era thinkers such as Herbert Croly, he looks at Hamilton rather differently: “Such thinkers were especially suspicious of the more immediate and, in their view, limiting and parochial identities of people as members of towns, communities, states, and regions. In this regard, [these thinkers] were . . . inheritors of the views of at least some of our Founding Fathers, especially Alexander Hamilton . . . who was explicit in The Federalist Papers about his hopes that people would ultimately transfer their allegiance from their localities and states to the nation, and identify far more with the political entity that made it possible for them to enjoy their natural rights.” Deneen is commendably in favor of the local and the particular but does not attempt to reconcile this position with his support for economic nationalism.

Deneen seems hazy on John Stuart Mill, and this is true also of what he says about Karl Marx. I am puzzled by this comment of Deneen’s: “We can think today of the disdain of Bernie Sanders toward the likes of Hilary Clinton, or, earlier, Karl Marx toward Eduard Bernstein.” I’m unaware of any negative comment by Marx about Bernstein, who was for many years a friend and disciple of Friedrich Engels. It was not until long after Marx’s death that Engels and Bernstein quarreled.

I have saved for last Deneen’s biggest mistake about libertarian support for the free market. He thinks that such support rests on denying that morality is objective. John Stuart Mill, hardly a consistent classical liberal, is the principal intellectual culprit because he “famously sought to replace justifications for the exercise of political power based upon appeal to objective standards of justice and right with more minimalist justifications of perceived harm done by one person to another.” Not only is this a gross distortion of Mill, who thought that his own utilitarianism was objectively justifiable, but libertarianism can be defended by an appeal to natural law, albeit in a version that Deneen wouldn’t accept. The most comprehensive defense of such a view is to be found in a number of books by Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, including The Perfectionist Turn and The Realist Turn. These books show how the free market provides a metanormative framework within which individuals can pursue their Aristotelian flourishing, a task which by its nature is agent relative and not amenable to direction from the state. An Aristotelian ethics of this sort lies at the basis of Murray Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty, and numerous papers by Eric Mack take a position in the same neighborhood. Of all of this Deneen appears entirely unaware.

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