The Tyranny of Liberalism
Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command
To judge by its cover, and by its title, and especially by its subtitle, this is a book to which I would normally give a wide berth. I haven’t any interest in reading partisan political rhetoric. It was only on the recommendation of several friends whose judgment I respect that, with my eyebrows forming a skeptical arch, I sat down with it to have a look. I am glad that I did so. The book is not only good, but unusually good: perceptive and clear, written in a close analytical style, and devoid of partisan rhetoric. Sometimes you really can’t judge a book by its cover.
In a sense, it was easy for Kalb to remain non-partisan, because the liberalism he criticizes is found across the spectrum of contemporary Western politics. “What pass as battles between liberals and conservatives are almost always disputes between different stages or tendencies within liberalism itself,” he writes. This makes his critique a radical one, of course, and even perhaps quixotic, since it contests nearly every animating principle of contemporary political and intellectual life. But it is also an honest and incisive one, and worthy of a hearing.
Before getting into the details, it might be worthwhile to pause over an initial difficulty: the very word “liberalism” may be an impediment. I don’t know how it is where you live, but where I live (in the frosty true north, strong and free), “liberal” is a kind of synonym for “good”. “Liberal” means welcoming, generous, and kind. To be against liberalism is like being against smiles and free daycare. So I had occasion more than once while reading to wish that we could have replaced that word “liberal” and its cognates with “X”. It would be easier to see the thing as Kalb wants us to see it if all of the associations of the word weren’t creeping in from the margins. The reader must be prepared to make the extra critical effort to treat “liberal” as a mere descriptor, not a word with an aura around it.
Kalb argues that liberalism is committed, at bottom, to one principle: equal freedom. Liberals believe that governance committed to equal freedom will be just and rational, and Kalb acknowledges that their intentions are, by and large, good: “Liberalism is inspired by the dream of political principles that rule without oppressiveness because they have the universality, transparency, and power of logic.” However, the very simplicity of liberalism means that it lacks balance:
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 trouble is that human life is complicated, and resistant to liberal requirements. There are things people think are important, such as ethnicity, sex, religion, nationality, and family ties, all of which liberalism cannot permit to matter because they treat people unequally. Since we have a natural tendency to behave as though such things do matter, a liberal social order requires constant nagging interference to ensure things run “correctly”. And because there are always new things to “correct”, and because liberalism has no built-in moderating principle, it cannot help but go on “correcting” them:
Liberalism loosens and disorders the connections and particularities on which it depends. It cannot keep from doing so, because it is progressive and idealistic… As liberalism develops, consciousness is raised, the remaining illiberal aspects of the social order become plain, and liberals, in order to remain liberal, must attempt to eradicate them. Attempts to get rid of particular inequalities bring to the fore others, so that liberalism continually radicalizes itself.
The result is the creation of a politically correct managerial regime to ensure that traditional social distinctions and institutions give way before rational ones: a liberal tyranny. This, in a nutshell, is the argument of the book.
It is worth taking a closer look at the reigning principle of liberalism: equal freedom. It implies that within a liberal framework all preferences, being equally preferences, must be accorded equal value and respect. This means that hierarchies of preferences, or moral evaluations of preferences, have no legitimate place. Hence liberalism must deny the value of both tradition and transcendent authorities, both of which typically favour certain desires and disfavour others. Only individual desire — the will of man — enters into consideration for liberalism, and the goal of a liberal social order is to ensure that as many as possible of these individual preferences are met: in Kalb’s words, mature liberalism is “a universal, technically rational system for the equal satisfaction of desire.” Thus it comes about quite naturally that the basic moral goods in a liberal society are “equality, autonomy, and hedonism” (this latter being understood in the literal, rather than the pejorative, sense).
Because liberalism admits no substantive or transcendent goods, appeals to such goods must appear, within the system, as mere power plays, rhetorical ploys intended to disrupt the system. “Traditional morality, which makes some desires superior to others, is thus understood as a devious effort to control others and becomes a stock example of immorality.” The world is upside down.
Of course, in practice not all desires can be satisfied without conflicts, and so some measure of control and discrimination is necessary for peaceable governance. In cases of conflict, liberalism gives preference to “neutral” goals which interfere minimally with others. In this way, “neutrality” becomes a secondary, but crucial, substantive principle within liberalism.
discrimination: “the recognition of serious nonbureaucratic and nonmarket distinctions”
tolerance: “indifference or aversion to traditional distinctions not required by liberal institutions”
intolerance: “the recognition that not all values can be turned into mutually independent and interchangeable commodities”
fundamentalism: “recognition of an authoritative principle that cannot be reduced to a unified rationalized process”
multiculturalism: “the comprehensive effort to detach social life from particular culture and inherited community”
Certain institutions are characteristic of liberal societies. The liberal stress on satisfaction of preferences makes it friendly to markets, and the need to manage social life so that it respects liberal principles generates bureaucracies. Courts are required to enforce the standard of equal freedom. The usual political form in liberal societies is representative democracy, but, Kalb argues, the democratic process is required to operate within definite and, if the argument about the steady creep of liberalism is sound, steadily reduced limits. The abstract commitment to freedom and equality overrules the commitment to democracy:
The insistence that concept trumps substantive choice has consequences that are greatly at odds with claims that liberalism is democratic. It means that liberalism has right and wrong answers. Since the people often choose the wrong answers, their actual views cannot be taken seriously and must often be ignored.
An important plank in the enforcement of liberalism is “human rights”. I remember reading an essay some years ago by, I think, Joseph Bottum, in which he remarked that during the Cold War the prevalence of Communist organizations bearing the word “peace” in their name gave rise to a wry observation: “Peace is a Communist plot”. Something similar might be said today about human rights vis-à-vis liberalism. Human rights are the legal form under which “equal freedom” has taken shape, and in our society they have the highest authority. Who could be against human rights? But according to Kalb such rights are understood today in a peculiarly liberal way: the dignity of the human person is rooted in the ability to satisfy desires, the freedom which human rights protect is the freedom to pursue the satisfaction of desires, and justice means equal claim of desires to be fulfilled. I don’t doubt that human rights function today to enforce liberalism and advance the liberal vision of the good, but it is not entirely clear to me how that advance is connected to “preference satisfaction” specifically. But Kalb’s main conclusion is clear enough: “As now understood, human rights are religiously and culturally intolerant in a peculiarly radical way.”
Obviously liberalism is the dominant force in contemporary Western politics. As I said earlier, it applies across the spectrum, albeit with different emphases. There do not seem to be any alternatives; liberalism’s position is unassailable. But Kalb believes that it is not so strong as it appears, not because there is an able challenger at present, but because it has intrinsic weaknesses. For one, it is not possible to govern without exercising authority, but liberalism has trouble making sense of authority: “if man is the measure it cannot be right to tell him what to do”. This was fine so long as liberalism was a critical perspective, but as it moves into the driver’s seat the tension between its ideals and its social role grows. Therefore liberalism must disguise the fact that it exercises coercive power. It does this, typically, by declaring alternatives out of bounds and itself the default winner, but this is a rather weak defence.
One very obvious problem with liberalism is that making freedom the highest good is non-sensical: “Freedom is always freedom to do something, so it must be subordinate to some other good that motivates it and makes it worth having.” We all know this to be true in our own lives. Of course, the whole idea of liberalism is that it is agnostic about questions of the good; it lets everyone pursue his or her own vision; and this is, with some justice, held to be one of its great merits. But the corollary is that all those visions of the good, no matter how passionately held or how compelling, cannot be allowed to really matter. They cannot be allowed any influence over social life, and, in practice, can only be contained by a battery of regulations, re-education, stigmatization, and bureaucracy. Many aspects of individual identity — “sex, religion, historical community, particular culture” — which have always been important to friendship, love, and family, and have been enduring features of most societies, are consistently suppressed and marginalized in a mature liberal culture. This makes it narrow rather than broad.
Kalb believes that the internal contradictions of liberalism, and its inability to moderate itself, will weaken and destroy it in the end: “The principles of liberal modernity are too simple and authoritative and their implications too clear to allow for changes even when those principles become obviously self-destructive.” Granted, this seems a long, long way off.
In the later part of his book, Kalb presents a case for an alternative to liberalism. He reviews various flavours of conservatism — this is actually one of the most interesting sections of the book — and, weighing their relative strengths and weaknesses, opts for a kind of traditionalism as the most promising option, principally because a social order rooted in traditions provides social continuity, can accommodate the complexities of lived experience because it doesn’t try to articulate clear abstract principles, is independent of any one group of people and so takes the focus off party politics, and can recognize standards of right and wrong, personal obligation, and so on.
But the main value of The Tyranny of Liberalism, it seems to me, is in its clear and systematic treatment of how a liberal order takes shape from the seed of its primary commitment to “equal freedom”, and its account of how that commitment gradually spreads to affect more and more aspects of life, inexorably undoing traditional, nuanced, and intuitive ways of doing things and replacing them with rational ways, narrowly understood, with a rearguard of regulations, education programs, speech codes, and stigmas to shore up its position. In the end, “only committed liberals are allowed to live as they choose”.
As interesting as Kalb’s argument is, there are naturally reasons to be critical of it too. Here is a summary, with links, to an interesting symposium on the book in which a variety of critical arguments are raised, to which Kalb himself responds. (Thanks, Maclin.)