The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Illiberal Arguments
William English - 05/13/09
political imagery

Part 2 of a symposium on James Kalb's The Tyranny of Liberalism, new from ISI Books. Read Part 1.

James Kalb’s The Tyranny of Liberalism is a frustrating book. On the one hand it is filled with many penetrating insights into the paradoxes of liberal thought and action, and some of Kalb’s intuitions regarding the general pathologies of liberalism are no doubt right. Yet, on the other hand, Kalb’s analysis is much less persuasive than it might be because he paints with such broad brush strokes, and the ultimate “solution” he arrives at contains a number of loose ends. Nonetheless, while the execution leaves much to be desired, Kalb identifies many dangers within contemporary liberal politics that merit our attention now more than ever.

The project does not lack ambition. Kalb aims to show: 1) that we are dominated by a unitary, progressive ideology called liberalism 2) how this tyrannizes us in every aspect of life and will inevitably destroy all that is good, 3) why all challenges to it fail, 4) except for what Kalb calls “traditionalism,” 5) which is the only viable alternative, because 6) traditionalism resolves all fundamental questions of ethics, politics, and epistemology by reconciling “faith and reason” and giving meaning and structure to human life.

“Liberalism,” according to Kalb is based on the ultimate goals of freedom and equality, which may sound good in the abstract, but become pernicious because their total achievement requires the destruction of other substantial goods. Moreover, the ideal of equality within liberalism masks a serious sleight of hand. Ostensibly, equality ought to entail treating everyone equally. That is, it should mean being tolerant of all and neutral between our specific claims. But, of course, this notion of neutrality can’t go all the way down. Your freedom comes to into conflict with my freedom, and government needs to draw a line somewhere to demarcate legitimate boundaries. All laws constrain some parties, and the idea that government can remain neutral with regard to all of our particular claims is chimera. At the end of the day all governments must make decisions about the hierarchy of goods that will be expressed in legal protections and administrative decisions.

So, liberalism, in Kalb’s view, wreaks havoc in two ways. First, it promotes a vision of itself as substantially neutral, with the implication that it is illegitimate for citizens to publicly advocate (and in some cases even privately act) on behalf of their own particular ethical convictions. Thus it has the effect of robbing our communal life of recourse to our deepest sources of meaning. Second, liberalism in fact holds and advances its own ethical system, based on what Kalb calls the “equal satisfaction of preferences”—a kind of vulgar, hedonistic utilitarianism that is dismissive of many “traditional” boundaries. Kalb thinks liberalism’s intrinsic values are ultimately nihilistic and destructive of “higher” human goods, and that these liberal values find increasingly expression in and power through government bureaucracies, judicial elites, and technological rationality.

So far, so good. Many prominent critiques of liberalism have developed variations on these precise themes. Indeed there is a vast, and sometimes turgid, literature out there debating the nature, limits, and worth of liberalism. Kalb’s critique is somewhat refreshing in that it takes shape outside of these narrowly academic debates. However, there are points at which Kalb might have strengthened his argument by reference to this literature. Moreover, those attuned to these debates will likely think that some of Kalb’s claims are exaggerated and lack adequate precision.

The first half of Kalb’s book is a somewhat repetitive examination of the evils of liberalism. Kalb divines a fatalistic logic inherent in liberalism, more oppressive and vicious than anything Marx ever saw in Capitalism. Kalb asserts, “The vices of liberalism are intrinsic, progressive, destructive, and irreversible (150).” Moreover, liberalism as Kalb conceives it is not just one of many political orientations in our midst, rather “liberal doctrine is the basis of everything recognized as authoritative today (111).” So we are truly in a bad way. We are ruled exclusively by liberalism, and it inexorably destroys all human goods, which will ultimately lead to the collapse of our civilization.

One wonders, however, if Kalb’s account is too “black and white,” if it adequately reflects the complex reality of our present situation. For example, consider a typical treatment of one of liberalism vices:

[Liberalism] gives special justification only to equality and self-centered satisfactions that do not require others to give of themselves. Things as basic as love and loyalty lose their sanction and become morally questionable because they impose enduring demands and obligations. Marriage, among other things, becomes impossible even though the name may remain. To the extent society becomes liberal it becomes inhuman, and as the process approaches completion the society becomes unable to function or survive (141). [emphasis mine]

On the one hand, Kalb has a valid point. Marriage issues enable to him to sustain some of his strongest claims, as “the liberal state” has done much to undermine the institution of marriage and the goods associated with it. On the other hand Kalb claims too much. “Real” marriage today is still very possible, and equating liberalism with inhumanity is premature, if not plainly false.

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