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April 24, 2019

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The Tyrannical Logic of Liberalism
James Kalb - 10/17/08

The following is an excerpt from James Kalb’s The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2008), 330 pages, $28.

open handcuffs

“The tyranny of liberalism” seems a paradox. Liberals say that they favor freedom, reason, and the well-being of ordinary people. Many people consider them high-minded and fair to a fault, “too broadminded to take their own side in a quarrel,” too soft to govern effectively. Even the word “liberal” suggests “liberty.” How can such an outlook and the social order it promotes be tyrannical?

The answer is that wanting freedom is not the same as having it. Political single-mindedness leads to oppression, and a tyranny of freedom and equality is no less possible than one of virtue or religion. We cannot be forced to be free or made equal by command, but since the French Revolution the attempt has become all too common and the results have often been tyrannical.

Tyranny is not, of course, what liberals have intended. They want government to be based on equal freedom, which they see as the only possible goal of a just and rational public order. But the functioning of any form of political society is determined more by the logic of its principles than the intentions of its supporters. Liberals view themselves as idealistic and progressive, but such a self-image conceals dangers even if it is not wholly illusory. It leads liberals to ignore considerations, like human nature and fundamental social and religious traditions, that have normally been treated as limits on reform. Freedom and equality are abstract, open-ended, and ever-ramifying goals that can be taken to extremes. Liberals tend to view these goals as a simple matter of justice and rationality that prudential considerations may sometimes delay but no principle can legitimately override. In the absence of definite limiting principles, liberal demands become more and more far-reaching and the means used to advance them ever more comprehensive, detailed, and intrusive.

The incremental style of liberalism obscures the radicalism of what it eventually demands and enables it always to present itself as moderate. What is called progress—in effect, movement to the left—is thought normal in present-day society, so to stand in its way, let alone to try to reverse accepted changes, is thought radical and divisive. We have come to accept that what was inconceivable last week is mainstream today and altogether basic tomorrow. The result is that the past is increasingly discredited, deviancy is defined up or down, and it becomes incredible that, for instance, until 1969 high school gun-club members took their guns to school on New York City subways, and that in 1944 there were only forty-four homicides by gunshot in the entire city.

Human life is harder to change than are proclaimed social standards. It is easier to denounce gender stereotypes than to make little boys and little girls the same. The triumph of liberalism in public discussion and the consequent disappearance of openly avowed nonliberal principles has led the outlook officially established to embody liberal views ever more completely and at the same time to diverge more and more from the permanent conditions of human life. The result has been a growing conflict between public standards and the normal human understandings that make commonsense judgments and good human relations possible.

The conflict between public standards and normal understandings has transformed and disordered such basic aspects of social life as politics, which depends on free and rational discussion; the family, which counts on a degree of harmony between public understandings and natural human tendencies; and scholarship, which relies on complex formal rules while attempting to explain reality. As a consequence, family life is chaotic and ill-tempered; young people are badly instructed and badly raised; politics are irrational, trivial, and mindlessly partisan; and scholarship is shoddy and disconnected from normal experience. Terms such as “zero tolerance” and “political correctness” reveal how an official outlook deeply at odds with normal ways of thinking has become oppressive while claiming to have reached an unprecedented level of fairness and rationality.

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