Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (2018) is an unflinching, penetrating analysis of our political economy. Chapter 6 is titled The New Aristocracy; it’s the best one, so we’ll need more than one week to light it up. The philosophy of liberalism replaced the old aristocratic social order with a new “natural aristocracy”, the class in which most of my clients belong.
The foundational text of liberalism was John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689), particularly the chapter titled “Of Property”. The world is divided into two types of people: (1) the industrious and rational; and (2) the querulous and contentious. The old aristocratic order was governed by a caste of lazy, complacent rulers, whose position was inherited without competition or challenge. Locke proposed that the industrious and rational should rule because they would increase productivity and value for everyone. It’s the old rising tide lifts all boats rationale – we accept arbitrary radical wealth inequality as long as everyone is richer.
Throughout centuries of economic activity humans have sorted themselves into a minority of successful, rational and industrious families (economic winners), while leaving the majority of the planet “querulous and contentious” – miserably poor and powerless across generations. This progressed without too much consternation for a long period of time because of rapid economic growth; but Deneen believes society has now stabilized into two permanent classes – the hereditary, meritocratic, natural aristocracy (in which my clients flourish) and everyone else, with only theoretical hopes of escaping the vast underclass. It’s the source of present discontent.
This rule of the strong has very deep philosophical roots and is relentlessly reinforced by both political parties. The architects of our political economy knew exactly what they were doing. Wealth inequality was intentional and very much anticipated. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was perhaps the most forthright about this harsh social structure by which the “best” dominate the “ordinary”. In order to liberate the small number of extraordinary people (the smartest, most educated, creative, adventurous, diligent, etc.), they must be freed from Custom – unleased from the shackles of everyday morality. To follow custom is to be fundamentally unreflective, mentally stagnant. “He who does anything because it is custom, makes no choice.”
Society is now organized around the Millian principle that “everything is allowed”, as long as it does not result in measurable harm to others. Everywhere, at every moment, we are engaged in “experiments in living”. Next week, our estate planning War Chest suggests that this is not the moral basis upon which our tribe comports itself. It’s our philosophical enemy. For a strong defense against Mill’s ideas, we’ll need to revisit the ideas of Edmund Burke (1729-1797).