A New(ish) Word: Postliberalism

 

America is known as the “land of the free, the home of the brave.” Sad to say, however, that some are seeing our society today emphasizing mainly the “free” part—especially this time of year—to the exclusion of bravery. In other words, we’ve completely thrown duty, honor, and courage to the lions.

The issue: Today’s definition of liberalism tends to assume rights and prosperity without recognizing the necessity of bravery, truth, and virtue to that of freedom. Also, our connections to each other and community. Inclusion. Belonging.

Well, you might have noticed the word “postliberalism” popping up increasingly in the media in the last few years and months. It is still a new-ish word, proof being whenever you type it in, even to a dictionary, technology underlines it in red as a misspelling. So, what is postliberalism “post” of or after?

The words liberal and liberalism carry a host of extremely confusing meanings in discourse today from one end of the political spectrum to the other. “I am a liberal” or “you are a liberal” means the exact opposite if said by a “conservative” or a “progressive.” The confusion concerns the journey Classical Liberalism has made out of the late 1700’s Enlightenment across the 1800’s and 1900’s into today’s political camps.

Nowadays, any conservative or progressive could rightfully accuse the other of hijacking or co-opting their own term—liberal—for their own purposes.

 

Rusty Reno’s Meditation on the Word

 

As much as anyone, Patrick Deneen, a distinguished professor at the University of Notre Dame, has popularized the term postliberalism and explored it broadly in his two most recent books, Why Liberalism Failed (2018) and Regime Change (2023). If you want a shorter rendering of postliberalism from Mr. Deneen’s point of view, I recommend an article published by First Things magazine in August 2012, Unsustainable Liberalism.

In essence, contemplating postliberalism means rethinking the secular Enlightenment’s idea of freedom that, it’s argued, has gone viral without limits today. Left unchallenged, it has crippled America and the West . . . or enhanced life, if that is your belief.

R.R. (Rusty) Reno is a Praxis Circle Contributor and editor of First Things. He engaged Dr. Deneen on postliberalism on May 15 in Chicago in a First Things-sponsored conversation linked here.

Most important, Rusty offers his own meditation on postliberalism below for the benefit of our Praxis Circle audience. We are very grateful for today’s special feature. Thank you, Rusty! (At bottom, we also offer three short, supplementary PC clips to reinforce Rusty’s argument for postliberal thinking, culture, and society.)

As ever, we welcome your comments and questions; they always advance our own thinking.

 

Postliberalism

By R. R. Reno, June 26, 2024

 

Lots of people are talking about postliberalism these days. Like its close cousin postmodernism, postliberalism has an open-ended quality. It’s defined by what it seeks to overcome—the liberalism that has played a central role in modern Anglo-American public life.

 

Liberalism in its purest form makes freedom the supreme test of the good society. The best regime is the one that gives the greatest scope for liberty, hence liberal-ism. The famous liberal philosopher John Locke speculated about the “state of nature,” the natural condition of man before the invention of political forms, because he wanted to establish that we freely consent to the inevitable constraints imposed by civil authority. In more practical terms, liberalism is a system of rights designed to protect individual freedom, and a liberal culture provides wide scope for personal decisions about how to live and what to believe.

 

In its most basic meaning, therefore, postliberalism requires denying that freedom is the highest good. Viewed historically, doing so is hardly radical. Before the modern era, political thinkers identified virtue, collective strength, true religion, or some other substantive good as the proper measure of civic well-being. In this regard, postliberalism occupies the high ground. It’s hard to see how freedom, taken alone, can be the measure of a good and just society.

 

Leading liberal theorists have half-recognized that freedom can’t be the highest good. In his Areopagitica, John Milton argued against censorship. He asserted that virtue unchallenged is “blank, not pure.” In other words, a cloistered, protected truth remains untested, and because untested, not deeply held. We must say no to temptation to possess virtue fully, and thus freedom of speech serves virtue rather than threatens it.

 

John Stuart Mill made a similar argument when he framed the metaphor, “the marketplace of ideas.” He claimed that the free competition of ideas and opinions refines our grasp of the truth. This way of arguing for free speech is like Milton’s: Freedom serves the higher good of truth.

 

In my estimation, the strongest arguments for liberalism are akin to Milton’s and Mill’s. Giving priority to freedom is a practical imperative, not a theoretical one. What I mean by this distinction is that liberalism at its best protects and promotes substantive goods; it is not a stand-alone “theory.”

 

For example, at the time of our founding, America was religiously pluralistic. The catastrophe of the English Civil War remained a living memory. Under these circumstances, keeping religion out of the workings of the federal government was prudent. It allowed the religious life of the American people to flourish without entangling the various churches in bitter struggles for political supremacy.

 

But circumstances are always changing. As a consequence the wise stateman might draw different conclusions about the role of freedom in a good and just society. Consider our own history. At the time of our founding, parents had complete authority over their children. They were free to educate them (or not) as they wished. In the mid-nineteenth-century, state governments decided that this freedom needed to be curtailed. Laws were passed that made education at accredited schools compulsory.

 

Today, Patrick Deneen and others argue that the American tradition of freedom has become decadent. Communities are disintegrated. Marriage rates have declined. The family is frayed. Without strong institutions that instill virtue, liberty becomes license. Instead of freedom, we’re increasingly controlled by market forces and are often victims of our fears rather than captains of our destinies. As a larger and larger percent of young people take medication for psychological afflictions, we’re less and less the land of the free and more and more the land of the anxious.

 

Postliberalism flips the arguments made by Milton and Mill. They thought that freedom served to promote true virtue and lead us to a more refined understanding of truth. A postliberal argues that we need virtue and truth in order to be free. If we value freedom—and what American doesn’t?—then we should favor the authority of institutions that promote virtue and defend truth.

 

Let me make the point more concretely. Marriage is not a “free institution.” True, you choose whom to marry, but the whole point of marriage is to close down romantic options. However, there’s a paradox at work. As we blind ourselves to another, we become more solid, more stable, more disciplined—and these qualities are the foundation of freedom. We have a solid place to stand, which we need when we want to resist both our fickle whims and others who want to coerce us to do their will.

 

In a society with strong institutions and powerful authorities, the priority that liberalism gives to freedom makes good sense. But we don’t live in that kind of world anymore. Ours is a time of collapsing institutions and discredited authorities. As a result, if we care about freedom, we ought to entertain postliberal ideas. We need to rebuild the foundations of freedom. That’s a task that freedom cannot do for itself. It requires the strong gods that speak with an authority that wins our loyalty and inspires our love.

 

Final Comments

 

As Rusty mentions up front, while this rather new word—postliberalism—might bring to mind the word postmodernism, and while the two words are reactions to extreme Enlightenment thinking, they are conceptual opposites. Rusty also mentions another important similarity: They both offer more of a disposition or way of thinking than a designated, connect-the-dots pathway toward obvious solutions.

Even so, Dr. Deneen does suggest local and national political positions or solutions. Read his books or watch the First Things conversation. It’s mandatory that good theology and philosophy produce political science yielding practical long range platforms.

In sum, the essence of postmodernism (see PC Contributor Ladelle McWhorter‘s interview) is to deny the Enlightenment’s faith in objective truth and reason. In contrast, postliberalism accepts and renews objective truth for today’s circumstances, based on the West’s experience of the last sixty plus years. Postliberalists believe America has explored the edge of where good freedom turns to bad freedom: to nihilism and anarchy.

Neither postmodernists nor postliberals are over-the-top fans of the Enlightenment’s excesses, and we at Praxis Circle are reminded of our All Star PC Contributor’s (Rodney Stark’s) comments on the Enlightenment’s Continental superstars:

 

 

As one of the leading sociologists in the nation, Dr. Stark’s point was not that the Enlightenment is not a real period of history, or that the leaders of the Enlightenment did not advance civilization, or that we are not greatly indebted to the period via such innovative thinkers as John Locke, Adam Smith, Francois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, along with dozens of others across the West, or to great documents like the the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, or the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

In fact, he felt indebted to early modernity’s legacy and what it’s done positively for us today, as he described clearly in his book, The Victory of Reason (2007). Instead, his point is that they were rather arrogant about their position in history, exuded perhaps an unusual degree of self-love accompanied by talent in self-promotion, denigrated the contributions of their intellectual predecessors in the Middle and “Dark” Ages, and created a host of problems for us today that we’re still wading through (due to that overconfidence in themselves and man). Hence, postmodernism on the one hand and postliberalism or the other, both have Enlightenment correctives as goals. Within that debate, postliberals believe that radical secular Enlightenment philosophy has led to an over emphasis on freedom without human connection, authority, and boundaries, or “bad freedom” (my term).

More specifically, among other issues, bad freedom denies Christianity’s and the Enlightenment’s recognition of natural law, a body of law astute observers have only gained confidence in since the 1960’s. See Robert George in his PC interview on natural law:

 

 

My take is that postliberalism tends to emphasize all six moral foundations underlying our politics that one of our newest PC Contributors, Jonathan Haidt, describes in his important book, The Righteous Mind (2012), and in the clip below from our interview earlier this year. In contrast, the Left and libertarians typically emphasize only two or three of these foundations:

 

 

Finally on today’s topic of postliberalism, while the postmodernist and postliberal dispositions can and do guide us toward potential solutions or modes of behavior, they also leave the judgment-part or “driving” to you. No, postliberalism is not a “slam” on classical liberalism (see PC Contributor Deirdre McCloskey as a strong advocate, especially in this book), just liberalism gone astray over the last sixty years in the West.

The video clips below from our PC library (over 1,500) might be considered Praxis Circle classics. They’re timeless.

We have noticed a similarity between postliberalism and the distinction between positive and negative freedom. They are not the same concepts, just similar. Postliberalism goes a step further and suggests there is a difference in ethical analysis (see clip from Contributor Jonathan Wight’s interview linked to the left) between pure cost-benefit analysis and what we ought to do (beyond pure utilitarianism). It offers a distinct natural morality with strong religious connections.

Before ending I should note that, while Isaiah Berlin is often given credit for the concept of positive/negative freedom from his lectures in the late 1950s, these freedom categories are deeply rooted in Judaism, Christianity, and Classical thinking. Obviously, the same is true of postliberalism, which, again, has only recently surfaced.

Certainly, the November Election will be an indication of which of Rusty’s “strong gods” (see the last video below) “We the People” most favor—postmodernism or postliberalism—and the following four years will play out the nation’s ongoing struggle, one we believe is very much about worldview.

With human beings, ideas have strong consequences. The world’s best interests hinge on America renewing itself, and soon. Praxis Circle’s mission is to renew a free and good society by Building Worldviews. We believe meditating on postliberalism with Rusty is a good place to start.

 

PS – If you’re interested in following postliberalism’s future development, you should subscribe to The American Postliberal Substack, linked here.