What is Postliberalism?
We can move beyond liberalism—we can all be postliberals—if only we have the courage and the imagination.
In 2018, Patrick Deneen advanced a searing indictment of our political order in his aptly-named Why Liberalism Failed. In his critique of liberalism—not of “liberalism” in the colloquial sense of the American left or the Democratic Party, but rather of the Enlightenment-era’s classical, philosophical liberalism, Deneen writes, “[l]iberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.” In other words, our order’s philosophical underpinnings—the political philosophy largely embraced by America’s Founders and subscribed to, either knowingly or unknowingly, by almost every American today—has fulfilled its promises. It has achieved its purported ends. It has triumphed.
And we are all worse for it.
Nearly everyone you would pass on the street is a liberal. Nearly everyone you pass on the street would tell you that the purpose of government is to allow people to be free—to allow them to do whatever they want, whenever they want, so long as they don’t harm anyone else. Nearly everyone you would pass on the street would tell you that such freedom can be achieved through the absence of external authority. They would probably also tell you that the government should help people achieve the good life, but, in their view, this usually amounts to placing no restrictions on people’s access to acquire material goods—stuff.
Both the American right and the American left operate under this liberal framework. As faithful adherents to liberal ideology, both camps prioritize a threadbare conception of freedom, the absence of restraint, and both camps emphasize the importance of “organic” and “neutral” processes to attain these ends: economic markets, the “marketplace of ideas,” and limitless opportunities to satiate equally limitless appetites. The American right—composed of right-liberals—champions the invisible hand of market economics, believing that the freer the market, the freer the people. The American left—composed of left-liberals—for its part, instead insists upon freeing man of social constraints, understanding inherited cultures and customs to be unconsented, dogmatic shackles from which man must be made free. And, both camps to varying degrees ostensibly (if not actually) posit that open debate and discussion yield positive results by allowing for a collaborative effort in the search of “truth.”
That sounds great. It would be nice, though, if any of this actually worked. Unfortunately, what sounds great in theory does not always yield the best results when implemented in practice—in the real world. Are you freer as Blackrock uproots more communities, gutting the American Dream in exchange for profit? Are you freer as railroad companies are able to poison an entire town, only to be defended by right-liberal politicians in the name of “the free market” and opposition to “big government socialism” (remember, whenever the government does anything, it’s socialism)? Are you freer because you can order something on Amazon and have it show up to your doorstep a day later? How about the Amazon employees, forced to urinate in bottles while driving the delivery vehicles so as to ensure you get your air fryer within 36 hours? Are they reveling in the blessings of liberty? Does it matter to you so long as you receive the air fryer in time?
Are you freer as you are called a bigot and a fascist for following your faith in a world increasingly hostile to God? Are you freer as unelected bureaucrats gloat that public schools own your children? Are you freer as those same unelected bureaucrats threaten to take your children away from you if your child falls prey to predatory, progressive ideology? Are you freer when your employer makes it easier for you to kill your unborn child in the name of empowerment (and certainly never in the name of profitability) than to take parental leave?
The ends of the right-liberal and the left-liberal, alike, do little to free man and instead debase and enslave him. The average American is a slave to both his passions (sex and pornography, food, drugs)—this is freedom to the left-liberal—and to an oppressive collection of corporate interests that see people as mere economic units—this is freedom to the right-liberal.
Both the right-liberal and the left-liberal purportedly champion free speech, explaining that open debate and discussion will allow man to pursue truth. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has offered this justification for decades. If First Amendment jurisprudence tells us anything, however, it is that the “marketplace of ideas” does not exist to actually aid man in his quest for truth and instead, under the liberal order, is a good in itself. Instead of engaging in open discussion to unearth the truth, the liberal citizen is permitted only to debate and discuss ad infinitum. He is encouraged to forever window shop at the marketplace of ideas so long as he never makes a purchase. The mere act of debate and discussion, rather than the pursuit of truth, has become the aim of the liberals’ free speech. You can debate and discuss until the end of time—but do not dare to actually commit to a position (unless that position is “endless debate and discussion is a good in and of itself”).
Liberalism’s prohibition on committing to truth—to any competing worldview—demonstrates its subtle, insidiously coercive nature. Liberalism pretends to neutrality, valuing pluralism and discussion, but it does not and cannot tolerate any questioning of its ascendence. Any attempts to question liberalism are shouted down as “threats to democracy” (which, of course, actually means “threats to liberalism”). An iron first is still an iron fist, even if encased within a velvet glove. The social and anthropological assumptions of liberalism color the worldview of most Americans today—we are naturally free and have entered into society by way of a social contract in order to preserve ourselves against the nasty, brutish nature of our fellow man. But, is that true?
Standing in opposition to the right-liberals and the left-liberals are the postliberals. As the label might suggest, postliberals understand that remedies to man’s present predicaments cannot be found within the Enlightenment's liberal framework, as the prescriptions of neither the right-liberals nor the left-liberals offer tenable solutions and rather only continue to enslave man both externally (to powerful interests that do not care for him) and internally (to his passions, whims, and appetites). The postliberals understand that blind faith in allegedly organic market functions and ever-increasing social license serve only to further atomize man from home and community, de-emphasize inherent human dignity (in both the womb and in the workplace), and undergird a tyrannical philosophical order that pretends to neutrality while demanding total obedience.
In contrast to their liberal counterparts, postliberals challenge the dogma that individuals are purely self-interested and rational actors, and thus emphasize the role of communities, traditions, and social bonds in shaping society as well as human behavior and well-being. Postliberals reject the fiction of a purely neutral state, instead suggesting that the state should play an active role in promoting the common good and ensuring social cohesion. Postliberals understand that unfettered markets, the product of economic liberalism, result in inequality and exploitation, believing that the market should be oriented to the good, emphasizing pro-worker, pro-family initiatives. In other words, postliberals believe that the state and the market exist to improve society not just in theory, but in practice.
The only way out is through. We can move beyond liberalism—we can all be postliberals—if only we have the courage and the imagination.
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