The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Equal Freedom and the Terror of the Past
James Matthew Wilson - 05/15/09
A sermon

Part 3 of a symposium on The Tyranny of Liberalism by James Kalb, new from ISI Books. Part 1. Part 2.

James Kalb’s The Tyranny of Liberalism offers us far more than its just, but polemical, title seems to promise. In its pages, Kalb has diagnosed the present state and the longstanding trends of the West in a thorough and abstract manner. I do not mean by this that Kalb’s study of modern liberalism and guide to our overcoming it is thoroughly abstract.

Rather, Kalb has succeeded in providing as thorough a survey of the errant assumptions and destructive policies of the modern liberal “managerial” state as I have yet encountered. While he evidently stands on the shoulders of Paul Gottfried and other important minds who have helped us think through our ruination and to conceive how we might recover a more humane, modest, enriching, and flourishing society, Kalb has provided in one kaleidoscopic book something new.

But it is the abstraction of his volume that may make it most enduring. The sheer variety and immensity of problems infecting advanced liberal society can easily overwhelm even the most penetrating of its critics. As Kalb ably demonstrates, this is a paradoxical phenomenon, because liberalism operates on a tyrannically simple, obtusely reductive, set of principles. Nonetheless, the malevolence of those principles often obscures the principles themselves, and many critics of this-or-that aspect of liberal modernity fail to penetrate to its cause. While Kalb’s book is not entirely lacking in the hard-hitting and concrete fisticuffs one expects in a work so fiercely and desperately opposed to the spirit of our age, these are few in number. He displays instead a lawyerly caution as he tries to furnish the definitive diagnosis of the irrationality and self-destructive course preponderant in a society made to surrender everything it once had in the quest for “equal freedom.”

While I have a few small reservations and queries I would like to take up elsewhere, here I should like only to amplify the central historical claim of Kalb’s thesis, that the liberal state and its ideology bear intrinsic contradictions within themselves and that this intellectual incoherence ultimately will result in the destruction of the liberal society that classical liberals once hoped to bring into being. The state-mandated, state-managed quest for freedom and equality may be gradual and cautious in its movements, but this only serves to abet its work in dissolving all “illiberal” or “pre-liberal” traditions and institutions that make a society something more than a zoo of isolated individuals whose only common attribute is a legal obligation not to “oppress” one another.

This trend ultimately results in three features that already shape the lives of most Americans—indeed, most western persons: a grotesque redefinition of the Good as “equal freedom”; an increasing dependence on technocracy to secure equality; and a terror of the past and everything it tried to bequeath us in the name of a sadly solipsistic version of freedom.

Kalb’s historical account of the rise of liberal society runs along incontrovertible lines. At the dawn of classical liberalism, the assumption of its advocates was that public inquiry into the nature of the good life for man, and into the attributes of the flourishing society that help make such a life possible, is a nonstarter. Debates over competing understandings of the Good are insolvable in the political realm, and therefore must be thoroughly confined to the private realm of the individual conscience and personal preference. Society, politics, and government all inevitably remain, however, and so the liberal redefines the political as a strictly procedural body of institutions that are increasingly absorbed into and dominated by a central, bureaucratic state. That state’s merely procedural responsibility is to provide for and protect the freedom of its citizens as well as their legal “equality.” Any ambition beyond this would patently require the state to make substantive claims about what constitutes the good and bad in human life; it would therefore violate the appearance of strict neutrality proper to a government claiming only to shield its citizens from those actions of their fellows that would trample upon individual freedom or “individual” equality.

Problems arise for the liberal as time and experience force reflection on this self-understanding. Classical liberals shared a great number of assumptions about the nature of the Good and the general shape civil society ought to take—they did, after all, share the idea of a “civil society.” They felt comfortable advocating a strictly procedural form of liberal government precisely because most of the morals (or “values,” as moderns say) they shared could be relied upon to limit, inform, and give rational substance to disputes within the procedural-political realm. Typically, such classical liberals presumed (without feeling called upon explicitly to endorse) a mode of civil religion that, at minimum, supported basic Christian moral tenets and affirmed that a divine law, created by a just God, obtained even where positive law did not, and that all persons would ultimately be answerable for their earthly conduct when they were judged at the gates of Heaven. They were mistaken from the beginning, however, in believing that the state or the political realm could somehow remain “value-neutral,” and consequently most liberal societies retained the sanction of the state for goods far more particular and substantive than the mere policing of freedom and equality; civil religion, minimal, tacit, and fragile though it was, remained of necessity the prerequisite for full participation in political and social life.

As members of liberal society became gradually more conscious of those sanctions, their bureaucratic and legal elites did not hesitate to strike them down. In the name of a strictly procedural, value-neutral political realm, judges and legislators worked to root out those apparent inconsistencies in a political system that, again, promised to abstain from decisions regarding what is good, but only to clear space for such decisions to be made in private by securing the freedom and equality of citizens. Such was the contradictory legacy of classical liberalism: it was committed to destroying the conditions of its own possibility.

In the midst of this liberalizing trend, substantive liberalism (and liberals) came more fully into being. As generations passed, the sureties of civil religion and its mild state sanctions were pushed from the public sphere. Classical liberals claimed only to wish to clear the political sphere of debates about the Good so that they could more fruitfully be resolved in the vast areas of life beyond the purview of the State. But those same “vast areas” shrank as modern liberal states became more assertive in clearing life for “equal freedom.” Consequently, the pre-political assumptions that served as a foundation for liberal society became fewer and fewer—and more tenuously held with each passing year. If classical liberals were merely procedural liberals, then we rightly understand them to have relied on a significant number of assumptions about a good life and a good society, and to have sought those things while treating freedom and equality only as instruments. They cherished freedom and equality, in other words, only to the extent that these principles facilitated the achievement of goods that were much more important.

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