The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Beyond Liberalism, Discovering Tradition
James Kalb - 05/18/09
Tyranny of Liberalism image

This is Part 4 of a symposium on James Kalb's The Tyranny of Liberalism. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

I thank Paul Gottfried, James Matthew Wilson, and William English for their reviews. Each has devoted thought to the issues my book considers, and each has tied his comments on the book to his own views on its subject matter. The result has been to illuminate the book by bringing out its relation to other present-day discussions of our political order in general and liberalism and its future in particular. How could an author ask for more?

Response to Gottfried

In his very generous review Paul Gottfried mentions some points of difference that are themselves worth comment.

He points out that contemporary liberalism is not all hedonism, and notes that it has specifically religious aspects that emphasize self-denial, for example the transformation of the Christian drama of sin and redemption into a drama involving sins of historical oppression and their atonement through confession and penance.

I agree that liberalism is not primarily hedonism. I mostly treat it as conceptual: man is a rational animal, so how he understands himself and the world is extremely important for how he ends up living. Conceptually speaking, the liberalism we see around us is mostly based on an understanding of what it is to be rational and human that ends by making preference satisfaction the highest good and equality the highest morality.

Preference satisfaction is hedonistic, but equality is demanding. In particular, it requires us to support the eradication of inconsistent attitudes and loyalties—for example, attachment to whatever particular culture it was that traditionally ordered our society. Those brought up in that culture and still more those traditionally advantaged by it therefore carry a special burden under liberalism. The transformed Christianity Gottfried mentions is, I think, the form in which cultural Protestants tend to understand that burden. It can take other forms as well, such as principled transgressiveness.

It is an interesting question whether liberalism could have grown up in a non-Christian society. I am inclined to think it could not have. But then I would say the same about secular modernity in general. To say that a general Christian background is essential to liberalism, and that Christians are likely to express their liberalism in Christian terms, is not to say that the liberal aspects of the secular modern world have a special connection to specifically Christian residues within that world. If they did, then the weakening of those residues would mean the weakening of liberalism. That does not seem to be the case.

As to solutions, I do make a point of the extreme pragmatic difficulty of our situation. My basic point though is that nothing lasts forever, and liberalism combines rational insufficiency with a slow but cumulative tendency toward logical rigor, so we know that this too shall pass. In the mean time we do what we can to avert the worst, live well today, and build toward the future.

So I do not see a necessary difference between my “discussion groups to explore the problems raised” and Gottfried's proposal to “raise pointed questions, while hoping that a later generation may take them up.”

Maybe the difference is that I see more long-term hope. I would add that there is an evident difference in emphasis. I am more concerned with what people can do to live well here and now, so I am more concerned with the establishment and defense of non-liberal communities. I am more impressed by the ultimate instability of liberalism and the possibility of radical unforeseeable change. And I have a more vivid sense of the limitations on what can be done through money and influence with movers and shakers (assuming such things should become available to us). If there is a problem with basic social understandings of reason and reality, which I think is the case, then it is not the movers and shakers who are going to turn things around.

As an aside, it is worth noting that I do not discuss Ockham or the medieval synthesis, and mention the medieval period only very briefly. Those things are no doubt lurking in the background, but they play no explicit role in my discussion.

Response to Wilson

I thank James Matthew Wilson for his presentation and development of basic themes and theses of my book. I look forward to the more critical comments he promises.

Response to English

William English's review is useful because it provides an occasion to highlight differences between the views presented in my book and common academic views on politics and liberalism. It also pays attention to the book's second half, which deals with the issues that at present are of most interest to me.

English, of course, finds the book frustrating. The frustration may be due in part to the kind of book it is. As he notes, it is not an academic work. It is an attempt to understand where we are today in Western society, socially and morally speaking, and where we should go. As such, it is practical rather than theoretical in orientation.

In accordance with that orientation it tries to give a comprehensive view that at least sketches answers to basic questions. Broad strokes are a necessary consequence. English finds that feature of the book frustrating, but it is hard to avoid when exploring a general perspective that covers the issues that seem pressing.

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