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Sunday, November 24, 2019

You don’t have to read between the lines.

Anyone can be a book critic. All you have to do is read each word, each sentence, each paragraph carefully, generously but analytically, and then weigh the author's overall vision as well as the book's details against your wealth of background cultural knowledge. And the way to read a review is just the same. So in today’s post I invite you to come along with me for the reading of a book review and the questions and reflections it prompted in me. I don't imagine we will be a large party, but we happy few can enjoy ourselves.

Saturday morning, having come to the last page of a book I'd been reading, I picked up a New York Review of Books, the Nov. 21 issue, and found in it a stunning review by Robert Kuttner of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. Having thoroughly appreciated Kuttner’s Everything For Sale: The Virtues and Limits of Markets, I was eager to read what he had to say about Deneen’s book, which was published last year to wide acclaim and has already been issued in an expanded paperback edition.

A careful reader and astute reviewer, Kuttner wastes no time in accusing Deneen of setting up a straw man argument. 
Liberalism is not and never was merely, as caricatured by Deneen, ‘the greatest possible freedom from external constraints.’ Rather, it is fundamentally about limiting abuses of public and private power and creating space for free inquiry. 

What Kuttner calls the 'liberal project,’ then … “included the rule of law, limits on inherited privilege, constraints on arbitrary power, freedom of conscience and speech, and reliance on liberty to develop a natural aristocracy of talent” — all features we might hope to find flourishing in a democratic society. It was not about encouraging individual excess or magically freeing mankind from constraints imposed by nature, as Deneen would have us believe. Thus Deneen's cartoon version has little relation to either the origins or historical development of true liberalism.

Of course, the point of setting up a straw man is to have an easy target, so it is probably not surprising that Deneen goes on to blame his cartoon 'liberalism’ for every woe of modern society. He conveniently ignores the fact, Kuttner points out, that much of today’s so-called ‘conservatism’ [so-called is my addition] takes its starting point with libertarianism, not classical liberalism, and it is this hybrid libertarian ‘conservatism,’ not liberalism, that has led to such modern ills as 
...the commercialization of health care, the commodification of education, the sale of private data, the outsourcing of employment, and the economic collapse of entire regions….
Even given the easy target he has created, Deneen still resorts to cherry-picking quotes, according to Kuttner, thus misconstruing and misrepresenting Locke, Toqueville, and others.

I have read enough of Locke and Tocqueville to side easily with Kuttner on the cherry-picking question. Also, having taught as well as studied logic, I am alert to the trickery of a straw man argument. Finally, as a one-time though not long-term follower and advocate of libertarianism (I got over it), it didn’t take Kuttner to open my eyes to fairly recent radical changes in American so-called conservatism and in today's Republican party. (My father would not recognize his party today.) What today’s Republicans call conservatism, religious avowals aside, is “based on a common embrace of corporate capitalism,” an ideal in which [here I extrapolate] privatization, i.e., having "everything for sale” — banking, education, health care — is the only legitimate goal.

Perhaps Kuttner’s most serious criticism, though, is the one he makes on pragmatic grounds -- and here, as a self-described romantic pragmatist, I perk up my ears. This will be the payoff! Deneen, he tells us, having indicted what he calls liberalism, offers no idea whatsoever about what would support democracy better. Surely it would not be the “Benedict Option,” that  option that counsels forming groups to retreat from secular society. Such orthodox religious communities, guided only by religion precepts and without liberal, secular safeguards to rights, would hardly be immune to autocrats and would-be dictators. And here I note that the position of women in such communities is almost always subservient, submissive, and silent. Deneen has already decried the emancipation of women, so now any remaining doubts I may have had are dispelled.

"Democracy does not work perfectly," Kuttner admits, but what system of government ever has? Before the state was overrun by the market, democracy worked better than it's working today, but whatever form it takes, Kuttner does not see -- and Deneen does not offer -- a viable alternative. 
...All of the alternatives are even more corrosive of human dignity and personal virtue. Liberal democracy may indeed be under siege; but if we are to constrain the tyranny of dictators on one flank and the rule of overweening global corporation on the other, democracy is all we have.  
- Robert Kuttner, "Blaming Liberalism," The New York Review of Books, November 21, 2019 
The book Kuttner reviewed was Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen (Yale University Press, 2019).

Disclaimer: Some readers might consider that, as an emancipated woman, I am biased in favor of liberalism, and they would be correct. I would say, however, that my bias is the result of being persuaded by facts, logic, and experience, not an undisciplined outgrowth of ignorance or brainwashing.

But that's not all I think.

So now, my take

The more I survey this whole messy political stew, the more I mistrust both socialists on the far left and libertarians on the far right, and I mistrust them on pragmatic grounds; therefore, insofar as socialist ideology has saturated progressive movements and libertarian ideology has certainly taken over and cannibalized what used to be conservatism, the more and more I mistrust all ideologies and ideologues. To say either that government intervention and regulation is always (socialist) or never (libertarian) the correct prescription to social problems — the extreme opposing ideological positions — strikes me as so short-sighted as to be downright blind to reality. 

Kuttner’s own view is more nuanced, but I wonder if even his prescriptions have the flexibility I see as absolutely necessary. It’s been a while since I’ve read Everything For Sale, so I cannot say with certainty that he would put whole domains under government oversight and leave other entire domains completely free-wheeling. Banking, education, and health care are, as I recall, fields in which he advocates government regulation, and while I have no quarrel here in general, I would still not have the federal government regulating every aspect of banking, education, and health care in every state of the union. Neither would I leave domains on the free market side of things absolutely free. Think about it. How can the two domains possibly be completely separate, when manufacturing necessarily affects health, commerce necessarily involves banking, and the education of youth comes before entrance into any section of the workplace?

What makes more sense to me is to have general federal safeguards enforced and leave the fine-tuning of details to the local level (regional, state, town -- whatever is appropriate), since conditions on the ground vary so widely from one part of the country to another. Imagine, for instance, a hospital and its procedures for admittance, care, and billing. Doesn’t it make sense that the situation in Los Angeles will be vastly different from that in a farm town in North Dakota or an isolated mountain community in eastern Kentucky or a university teaching institution in Illinois? A procedure that works in one place may be very ill-suited in another. The mix of public and private funding and control, therefore, will also vary, and we should expect that variation.  There must be room for variation to meet local needs. 

It is foolish, when advocating social policy, to ignore variations of climate, physical geography, culture, history, and demographics across a country as large as the United States — almost as foolish as believing that some populations of the nation can be governed and protected by law while others can operate as gangsters.

Pragmatism, as a social philosophy, does not say that whatever course of action gets me the most is the right thing for me to do. That is a perverted view sometimes attributed to so-called “pragmatic” individuals in business. Pragmatism is not egoism ("what’s best for me is best”). Rather, pragmatism tells us that we should look for policies that work to achieve community goals, local or state or national. Sometimes but not always a government hands-off approach will be best. Sometimes but not always a government program will solve a particular problem. What I am advocating, you see, is attention to particularity. What approach is best for a particular community problem? Can we set up a small test and see how it works out? Which aspects of the results will then be applicable to some other community, and which ones do not travel well? It is exactly this kind of experimentation that is the justification for a federal system.

All too often politicians and Americans and, I suppose, human beings in general want a “hammer mechanic” solution: I’ve got a hammer, and I’ll just pound until this thing is fixed! Not generally the best approach, I’m saying, whether you hammer from the far left or the far right. An ideological hammer will generally create as much mess as it tries to eliminate, leaving you no further ahead. 

Surgery is not always the best answer. Neither is avoiding surgery always the best answer. 

That’s my two cents’ worth, anyway.


Deborah said...

Definitely a lot more than 2 cents worth. Extremely insightful.

P. J. Grath said...

Thank you, Deborah. I thought this might be a post nobody would read, but I've already had an e-mail exchange about it, too. Next one won't be so long!