Catholic bishop delves into problems of liberalism, 'society of little tyrants,' with politics professor

Catholic Bishop Robert Barron described problems of the modern understanding of freedom as a “society of little tyrants” last week in an interview with Patrick Deneen, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.

Barron and Deneen, during an interview that aired Friday on the Word on Fire’s “Bishop Barron Presents,” contrasted a view of freedom that seeks to eliminate any constraints on individuals versus what they described as the ancient, Platonic and more Christian understanding of liberty.

“We’ve all become our own little tyrant,” Barron said. “Now, there’s not one tyrant. We’re all a tyrant because, hey, look, it’s my will, it’s my desire. And as long as I don’t harm you, I’ve got the freedom to do whatever I want. And then you’ve got a society of little tyrants who have no sense of cohesion or of a real common good.”

Philosophers of ancient Greece and the Christian tradition, Barron said, show that “the purpose of government really is to make us good, and it has something to do with virtue. And that freedom is not, as you’re saying, simply doing what I want. … It’s actually a kind of disciplining of your desire to make the achievement of virtue possible.”

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Deneen is the author of “Why Liberalism Failed,” which former President Obama praised in 2018. While Obama disagreed with many of the books conclusions, he said it offered “cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel.”

The book makes the case that liberalism failed because it succeeded, that the understanding of liberty as freedom from obstacles has led to a breakdown of society at every level, including the family and social institutions.

At another point in the interview, Deneen decried the breakdown of contact between elite Americans, those who hold more political and economic power than most of the country, and ordinary citizens.

“I think the contemporary elites coming out of institutions like mine mix very little with ordinary people,” Deneen said.

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That disconnect involves, in part, the political divide, condemned by populists as elites versus “deplorables,” but “there’s also a kind of non-prejudiced form, which is just not having any contact,” Deneen said.

It involves “going from upper middle class to upper class suburbs to the best schools to Notre Dame to living with your graduate friends in Brooklyn and then going to live in wealthy suburbs and retiring in Florida,” never mixing with “ordinary people.”

The solution to the divide and the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a few people could at some point require structural change, Deneen said.

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Deneen argued in his 2023 book, “Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future,” that America is headed for a fundamental transformation. His book advocated for a “peaceful but vigorous overthrow of a corrupt and corrupting liberal ruling class and the creation of a postliberal order in which existing political forms can remain in place, as long as a fundamentally different ethos informs those institutions and the personnel who populate key offices and positions.”

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