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An Intensifying Feedback Loop

Posted in All Posts, Political Philosophy

I’ve decided to start leaving reading reflections on my website to help me build the habit of writing on the things I read. I hope that whoever comes across this might find some value in it. That said, these will be incomplete thoughts that I’m choosing to publish on the Internet, so I reserve the right to change my mind in the future.

“Liberalism culminates in two ontological points: the liberated individual and the controlling state… the state consists solely of autonomous individuals and these individuals are “contained” by the state” (38).

In the first two sections of Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen examines the revolutions in thought that gave rise to liberalism and fueled its adherent nations’ victories over competing ideologies of the 20th Century (fascism and communism) and built societies with strong protections for human rights. In particular, he highlights three:

1. A system of politics “based upon the reliability of “the low” rather than aspiration to “the high”” (24). In particular, he cites Machiavellian writings that society should be structured to harness selfish desires for power, money, etc. rather than moderation of these desires. To me, this brings to mind a common description in political studies circles of liberal democracy as the least bad system of government.

2. A replacement of long standing social norms and customs as guides for action with an individualistic rationality, deviations from which could be corrected by legal prohibitions and sanctions of a centralized political state (26). In particular, “what were viewed as the essential supports for a training in virtue – and hence, preconditions for liberty from tyranny – came to be viewed as sources of oppression arbitrariness, and limitation” (25).

3. Overturning “philosophical traditions… [such as] emphasis upon acceptance in favor of belief in an expanding and potentially limitless human capacity to control circumstance and effect human desires upon the [natural] world” (26). In particular, Deneen references the use of science and technology in the dominion of humanity over natural limits, for the purposes of economic growth and the expansion of individual liberty.

These preliberal revolutions in thought lead to the following philosophical principles of liberalism.

1. Liberal volunteerism - The idea that legitimacy is conferred by the unfettered and autonomous choice of individuals (31).

2. The war against nature - Liberalism rejects early political thought (especially Aristotelian thought) that everything has a basic function, given by nature and unalterable, in favor of two replacements that now, Deneen writes, form the dividing line between conservative and progressive liberalism.

2a. Conservative liberalism insists “that man should employ natural science and a transformed economic system to seek a mastery of nature” (35).

2b. Progressive liberals “reject the idea that human nature is fixed” (36) and “increasingly approve of nearly any technical means of liberating humans from the biological nature of our own bodies” (37).

The revolutions in thought lead to a world in which “humanity [is] liberated from constitutive communities (leaving only loose connections) and nature harnessed and controlled, [so]… autonomous liberty expands seemingly without limit” (38). Liberalism, in this world, succeeds at providing enormous liberty. Simultaneously, however, Deneen writes that the state must expand to “regulate behavior through the imposition of positive law” (38), behavior that was once dictated informally by social and cultural norms. Deneen’s words describe a world in which humanity increasingly liberated, but in order to maintain these new rights, the state must enact increasingly invasive laws.

This is the heart of the feedback loop that Deneen describes in these first few chapters of his book. These things he says, are leading to economic inequality, political factionalism, the climate crisis, and the degradation of the very rights that liberalism appears to guarantee. He writes that both sides of the conservative/progressive split are pushing forward either the unrestricted autonomy of the individual to do what he wills or the increasing strength of the state to dictate boundaries that attempt to resolve conflicting rights (or both), and that scientific and technological advancement simply expand the borders along which these disagreements can be made.

Given the arc of the first two sections, I anticipate future arguments made with historical examples. Let’s consider one such historical example that may shed some light onto the feedback loop between individual autonomy and state control that Deneen describes: the anti-trust laws. The anti-trust laws were put into place as a result of monopolies in certain U.S. industries, such as steel, railroads, and oil, that allowed companies to raise prices and eliminate competition. The laws very clearly increase the power of the state, by giving it the ability to break apart companies that participated in anti-competitive behaviors. The harder question lies in how it increases individual autonomy. Modern anti-trust law suggests that individual autonomy was being constrained by an overly free market - higher prices meant less spending power for the average individual, but earlier (and re-emerging) interpretations were not so focused on monetary cost to the consumer. To my understanding, it was about choice. So was this legal change an acknowledgement that individuals have the right to a choice between products? I find it hard to identify what the “right” here is that is being established or re-established. And more generally, who defines these rights and whether to introduce new ones to guarantee? Even though I haven’t been able to identify the specific right that individuals were given by this action of the state, it seems clear to me that there was some new right (implicitly) conferred to citizens that the state now committed itself to providing. Furthermore, it’s not like the state could justly have said that this new right is only sometimes provided (even if that may end up happening over time as situations change). The state must design a way to maintain these rights consistently, which tends to require stronger action by the state with a higher likelihood of inconsistency with other rights. I look forward to how Deneen intends to address this dilemma, as this thought experiment is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to historical examples.

Even though liberal philosophy makes assumptions of humans as inherently selfish, in reality people don’t behave in a manner that always adheres to those assumptions. Deneen’s argument acknowledges this - he claims that liberalism encourages loose connections as a result of liberal volunteerism (34), for example, not that it forces no connection. This relates to my exploration of anti-trust law’s enactment as well. The mechanisms of state, although liberal in its underlying philosophies in this case, require (many) someone(s) to stand up and push for the changes that eventually occur. Liberalism simply provides the foundations for the ways in which arguments can be made for or against changes, but it can not do so without norms. Liberalism has to build its own norms, and humans are responsible for maintaining those norms. Liberalism seems to, over time, replace cultural and social norms with liberal norms.

There’s also a human element to the success of a society, and it’s often hard to discern to what extent the success of liberalism is due to this human element. I’m reminded of part of a verse from the Qur’an on this topic: “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (13:11, Sahih International translation). Many studies in management science also support the idea that if you find or train the right people, they can turn around a failing organization. Aristotle even mentions the middle class as being important because they are more freer acting for survival like the poor and from greed than the rich. They seem to be the best upholders of the social norms of any society, for much of the same reason that Aristotle pointed out over two millenia ago. Deneen seems to, rightly in my opinion, make the observation that many liberal thinkers took “for granted the persistence of social norms, even as they sought to liberate individuals from the constitutive association and education in self-limitation that sustained these norms” (40). Put crudely, one might summarize this part of Deneen’s argument as a philosophical veneer over an age old trope: the portrayal of youth as lacking values and a rosy picture of “the good old days.” In the preface to this edition, Deneen acknowledges that this is a common critciism of his work, but I look forward to how Deneen addresses the question of how to measure the value of the persistence of social norms, even under the claimed liberal incentivization away from them.

The arguments Deneen makes in first bit of the book feel new and it seems plausible that liberalism has surfaced (and perhaps even caused to some extent) many modern problems from areas where it lacks self-consistency (i.e. rights that conflict with one another). The description of the feedback loop doesn’t quite sit right with me yet, so I’m interested to read on as he develops his argument.

[1] Deneen, Patrick J, 2018. Why Liberalism Failed.

[2] Cover image from

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