The Tyranny of Liberalism

James Kalb on the Ideology's Totalitarian Impulses

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By Annamarie Adkins

NEW YORK, MARCH 27, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Liberals -- on both the Right and Left -- may posit that they favor freedom, reason and the well-being of ordinary people. But some critics believe that liberalism itself erodes the very institutions -- family, religion, local associations -- necessary to restrain its excesses.

One such liberal skeptic is attorney and writer James Kalb, who recently wrote a book entitled, "The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command" (ISI).

Kalb explained to ZENIT why he believes liberalism inevitably evolves into a form of soft totalitarianism, or a “dictatorship of relativism,” and why the Church is well positioned to be its preeminent foe.

Q: What is liberalism?

Kalb: We're so much in the middle of it that it's difficult to see it as a whole. You can look at it, though, as an expression of modern skepticism.

Skeptical doubts have led to a demand for knowledge based on impersonal observation and devoted to practical goals. Applied to the physical world, that demand has given us modern natural science.

Applied to life in society, it has led to a technological understanding of human affairs. If we limit ourselves to impersonal observations, we don't observe the good; we observe preferences and how to satisfy them. The result is a belief that the point of life is satisfying preferences.

On that view, the basic social issue is whose preferences get satisfied.

Liberalism answers that question by saying that all preferences are equal, so they all have an equal claim to satisfaction. Maximum equal satisfaction therefore becomes the rational ordering principle for life in society -- give everyone what he wants, as much and as equally as possible. In other words, give everybody maximum equal freedom.

Q: How can an ideology of freedom become tyrannical?

Kalb: Equal freedom is an open-ended standard that makes unlimited demands when taken seriously.

For example, it views non-liberal standards as oppressive, because they limit equal freedom. Liberal government wants to protect us from oppression, so it tries to eradicate those standards from more and more areas of life.

The attempt puts liberal government at odds with natural human tendencies. If the way someone acts seems odd to me, and I look at him strangely, that helps construct the social world he's forced to live in. He will find that oppressive. Liberal government can't accept that, so it eventually feels compelled to supervise all my attitudes about how people live and how I express them.

The end result is a comprehensive system of control over all human relations run by an expert elite responsible only to itself. That, of course, is tyranny.

Q: You argue that liberalism, especially its "advanced" form, corrupts and suppresses the traditional aspects of life that defined and kept Western society together for centuries such as religion, marriage, family and local community. How does it do that?

Kalb: Equal freedom isn't the highest standard in those areas of life. They have to do with love and loyalty toward something outside ourselves that defines who we are. That love and loyalty involve particular connections to particular people and their ways of life.

Such things cannot be the same for everyone. They create divisions and inequalities. They tell people they can't have things they want.

So equal freedom tells us traditional institutions have to be done away with as material factors in people's lives. They have to be debunked and their effects suppressed.

At bottom, liberalism says people have to be neutered to fit into a managed system of equal freedom. They have to be encouraged to devote themselves to satisfactions that don't interfere with the satisfactions of others.

In the end, the only permissible goals are career, consumption and various private pursuits and indulgences.

That doesn't leave much room for religion or for family or communal values. The only permissible public value is liberalism itself.

Q: How does mass media advance the cause of liberalism?

Kalb: The relationship is almost mechanical. It's one of the great strengths of liberalism.

Television and the Internet give us a world chopped up into interchangeable fragments.

To make that world comprehensible to journalists and viewers it has to be put in order in a simple way that can be understood quickly without regard to particularities.

That's impossible if complex distinctions and local habits are allowed to matter.

For that reason the mass media naturally favor a top-down managerial approach to social life with a bias toward sameness and equality -- in other words, something very much like contemporary liberalism.

To put it differently, the mass media prefer things to be discussed publicly and decided centrally based on a simple principle like equality. If that's done they can understand what's going on and what it all means.

Also, they themselves will serve an important function because they provide the forum for discussion and the information for decision. That situation naturally seems appropriate to them.

Q: What about the distinction between Anglo-American liberalism and continental liberalism, and their different models of secularism? Is it inaccurate to lump everything together under the heading of "liberalism"?

Kalb: The fundamental principle is the same, so the distinction can't be relied on.

In the English-speaking world the social order was traditionally less illiberal than on the continent.

King and state were less absolute, the Church had less independent authority, standing armies were out of favor, the aristocracy was less a separate caste, and the general outlook was more commercial and utilitarian.

Classical liberalism could be moderate and still get what it wanted.

Liberalism is progressive, though, so its demands keep growing. It eventually rejects all traditional ways as illiberal and becomes more and more radical.

For that reason state imposition of liberal norms has become at least as aggressive in Britain and Canada as on the continent.

The United States is still somewhat of an exception, but even among us aggressive forms of liberalism are gaining ground. They captured the academy, the elite bar and the media years ago, and they're steadily gaining ground among the people.

The international dizziness about President Obama and the violent reaction to the narrow victory of Proposition 8 concerning same-sex marriage in California show the direction things are going.

Q: Does rejecting "liberalism" mean rejecting freedom of conscience, political equality, free markets and other supposed benefits of "liberalism"?

Kalb: No. A society can still have those things to the extent they make sense. They just need to be subordinated, at least in principle, to a larger order defined by considerations like the good life.

The Church has noted, for example, that free markets are an excellent thing in many ways. They just aren't the highest thing. The same principle applies to other liberal ideals.

Q: Both Popes Pius IX and Leo XIII condemned liberalism, but it seems the Church has embraced it since the Second Vatican Council in its defense of democracy and human rights. The tone of Church social teaching has also focused more on influencing liberal institutions, and less on shaping individuals, families, and local communities. How does one account for this shift in the Church's attitude?

Kalb: The Church apparently decided modernity was here to stay. Liberal modernity looked better than fascist modernity or Bolshevik modernity.

It claimed to be a modest and tolerant approach to government that let culture and civil society develop in their own way. So the Church decided to accept and work within it.

Also, the development of the mass media and consumer society, and the growth of state education and industrial social organization generally, meant Catholics were more and more drawn into liberal ways of thinking. Hostility to liberalism became difficult to maintain within the Church.

The problem, though, is that liberal modernity is extremely critical and therefore intolerant. In order to cooperate with it you have to do things its way.

The recent, virulent attacks on Pope Benedict for many different reasons by the liberal elite illustrate that phenomenon perfectly.

For that reason, if there's going to be joint social action today, it inevitably focuses on extending liberal institutions rather than promoting local and traditional institutions like the family, which are intrinsically non-liberal. Many people in the Church have come to accept that.

Q: You argue that religion can be the unifying force that offers resistance to advanced liberalism, and that the Catholic Church is the spiritual organization most suited to that task. Why do you think so?

Kalb: To resist advanced liberalism you have to propose a definite social outlook based on goods beyond equal freedom and satisfaction.

A conception of transcendent goods won't stand up without a definite conception of the transcendent, which requires religion. And a religious view won't stand up in public life unless there's a definite way to resolve disputes about what it is.

You need the Pope.

Catholics have the Pope, and they also have other advantages like an emphasis on reason and natural law. As a Catholic, I'd add that they have the advantage of truth.