March 3, 2022


Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed Forgets the Merits of Individualism and Personal Responsibility

By: Christina Grattan

What if America’s commitment to individual freedom was the reason for its demise? In current political discourse, we hear that the left is eroding democracy or that the right seeks to wage endless wars, which puts our freedom in peril. However, Patrick Deneen posits that the greatest threat to America’s freedom is the political system of liberalism itself. (2) 

In his controversial work, Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen argues that “The liberties that liberalism brought into being to protect- individual rights…are extensively compromised by the expansion of government activity into every area of life. Yet, this expansion continues, largely as a response to people’s felt loss of power over the trajectory of their lives…leading to demands for further intervention (and) in turn further experience of distance and powerless.” (7)

As a lover of liberty, I cannot accept the argument that liberalism causes Americans to desire more freedom as a remedy to their disillusion and discontent through enlarging the government’s scope over their lives. 

Deneen forgets that liberalism’s dedication to individual freedom includes the need for personal responsibility. Not every individual will fall into complacency, feeding into government programs and becoming a minion of the state. Instead, he or she may pick themselves up by the bootstraps and retake control by finding a job and ultimately contributing to the common good.  

In Liberalism and Virtue, Douglas J. Den Uyl writes that “in a free society, a great deal is left to individual choice and discretion. (31) Individualism is a necessary feature of liberalism, or what we would prefer to call individual responsibility…If significant portions of one’s life are removed from the realm of responsibility, they are removed from the realm of virtue…everything from the beneficence towards others and the care of one’s own estate.” (34)

The self-initiative and ability to improve one’s station in life is one of the fruits of liberalism, which makes Americans unwilling to easily give up their freedom. A system that promotes stewardship of one’s resources and accountability for personal actions does not relinquish all freedom to the government. Individualism combats statism by delegating duties to the individual rather than government.  

As Louis Hartz writes in The Liberal Tradition of America, “The decisive domestic issue of our time may well lie in the counter resources a liberal society can muster against this deep unwritten tyrannical compulsion it contains. They exist, given the individualist nature of the Lockean (liberal) doctrine, there is always a logical impulse within it to transcend the very conformitarian spirit it breeds….’ Americanism’ oddly disadvantages the progressive.” (12) 

Deneen neglects how the individualism ingrained in liberalism compels one to resist conformity to the all-encompassing state. Americans are not going to morph into a homogenous mass that erases all culture and willingly follows the state but will forge their path and distinct way of life, creating more opportunity, innovation, and prosperity for all. 

According to Jonah Goldberg in The Suicide of the West, “the Lockean revolution…(which) held the individual (as) sovereign, that our rights come from God, not government; that the fruits of our labors belong us; that no man should be less equal before the law,” was a “miracle” that brought the world out of dark ages and drastically improved the standard of living. (8-9)  

We can thank liberalism for its emphasis on individual freedom and desire to curb the scope of government rather than for its enlargement. If the individual is “sovereign,” they are not powerless but can productively use the fruits of their labor and resources to improve the lives of others in a liberal society. 

Hopelessness and passivity are not the results of liberalism, fueling an omnipotent state, as Deneen argues. Without liberalism, the individual would have no agency or ability to choose to use their freedom wisely. A free society thrives from the separate actions of others, individualism, and personal responsibility. America must continue to uphold these values and not abandon them.