Within Patrick Deneen’s lament on liberalism, he makes a fundamental insight that is easily lost within the pages of this work. He recognizes the strong state becomes essential to the realization of liberal society. The state is a threat to many local institutions because liberalism depends on the institutional supremacy of the state. Liberalism denies local institutions the ability to trump the protections and guarantees of the state. But Deneen fails to recognize liberalism relies on the state as an institution rather than an organization. This is a critical failure because it sets the motion to explain the marriage between liberalism and democracy. As Marc Plattner has written, “You can’t have one without the other.”
Deneen’s answer to liberalism is local culture and tradition. He fails to recognize traditions and norms depend on institutions. Traditions and norms do not develop out of culture. They are a function of institutions. Local culture depends on local institutions. There is not a place in the world where the social fabric does not consist of a tapestry of overlapping institutions with contrasting rules, norms and traditions. The institutions of family and marriage overlap. In ways, they reinforce one another and provide a justification for each other. But anyone who is married recognizes they have competing claims. The expectations on the father can conflict with the expectations of a husband. Moreover, there is a tension within a marriage especially when young children are involved.
Institutions do not neatly fit inside their lanes. Their norms and traditions spill over to affect other institutions. The Church has a lot to say about the institution of the family and marriage. The institutions of the economy including the workplace, the corporation and the capitalist market affect our relationships in our marriage, family and with friends. There is no clear division where the demands of one institution end so another can begin. Institutions compete to determine our behavior. They compete to expand their authority.
Liberalism depends on the institutional supremacy of the state. This is realized through the rule of law because the state relies on law for its rules. The strength of the state depends on its capacity to enforce its laws. Patrick Deneen’s fear of the state as an organization leads him to fear the state as an institution. But he never provides a credible alternative. He implies local institutions have a claim over the state. This means the local institutions are above the law. Unfortunately, Deneen has not taken the effort to flesh out this idea to understand its implications.
Deneen’s attack on liberalism is grounded within the American tradition. The debate between a strong central government and the independence of local governance goes back to the debates over the constitution. It goes back farther when we consider the creation of the Articles of Confederation. And to his credit, Deneen references the Federalist Papers to demonstrate the mindset of Hamilton and Madison. He recognizes they believed in the necessity of a central government. Hamilton and Madison were writing to convince a reluctant audience in New York, but it was the American South where the presence of a strong state was the greatest threat.
The second and third generations of American leaders would demonstrate the great divide in America was between the free and slaveholding states. This was not clear during ratification because many of the “free” states had not abolished slavery. Ron Chernow, in his biography Alexander Hamilton, notes John Jay and Aaron Burr owned slaves while belonging to a local manumission society. But the threat of a strong state to the institution of slavery was evident from the earliest debates. The great anti-federalist Patrick Henry ended a speech against the constitution in frustration with a prediction that its fulfilment would be the abolition of slavery.
The Constitution did not abolish slavery. Institutions reinforce each other when they are not in conflict. But it is a mistake to confuse the state as an institution for the Constitution. The institution of slavery was always a threat to the state because the rule of law took a backseat to the traditions of slavery whenever they did conflict. The murder of a slave became a private matter handled within the norms of the institution even when the letter of the law was broken. After the abolition of slavery and the failure of reconstruction, the institution of Jim Crowe became the dominant institution in the American South. Crimes were ignored because they belonged to their local customs and culture. A strong federal state was necessary to introduce the rule of law into a society where law took a backseat where race was involved.
Deneen does condemn slavery, but he never explains why slavery is wrong. This is not a ludicrous request. Liberalism provides the simplest rejection of slavery based on a recognition of fundamental human rights. But Deneen’s theory is based entirely on local culture and customs. What right does he have to condemn the institutions or behaviors from another time or place? Moreover, what is his explanation for abolition? Was this simply the interference of Northern abolitionists into Southern culture and custom?
Liberalism has not failed. Its foundations are based in the institution of the state. This a threat to institutions who undermine the rule of law. There is a tension between institutions. Norms will conflict. But social institutions are interrelated and provide support for one another. Rather than undermining our fundamental institutions, liberalism provides the foundation for their continued survival.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com