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The Religion of Liberalism, Or Why Freedom and Equality Aren't Ultimate Goals | An Interview with James Kalb, author
of The Tyranny
of Liberalism | Part Two | Part One | Ignatius Insight | November 12, 2009
Ignatius Insight: You contrast
the liberal attempt to essentially deify man with the belief that man is a
limited creature who is in need of transcendence and who is hungry for truth.
What are some ways in which liberalism seeks the deification of man?
James Kalb: To a large extent
liberalism deifies man by default. If there are no transcendent truths and
standards then human thought and desire take the place of the mind and will of
God. They become ultimate standards.
One result is that man thinks of himself more and more as self-created. We
aren't part of an order of being, we make our own order. Our essence is to
create our own essence.
That belief has any number of ramifications. It means, for example, that the
distinction between the sexes has to go because it's not something we create
ourselves. It also means that subverting traditional standards is a worthy
activity simply as such. They're oppressive, so to subvert them is to strike a
blow for freedom and human dignity.
Ignatius Insight: Where do you
think that project is headed?
James Kalb: When I think of self-deification
I think of the Tower of Babel. Men tried to build a tower and storm the
heavens. They wanted to abolish transcendence technologically. What happened
was that they became unable to speak to each other and scattered. The whole
project fell apart.
The problem is that in order to understand each other we have to see ourselves
and others as part of a common order of meaning and being that we don't create
but just accept. Otherwise when we say things they lack objective content other
people should recognize. They're just attempts to maneuver or push our way to
what we want.
Once that situation is recognized language loses all meaning. You end up more
and more in the world of Samuel Beckett, in which words are just noises that no
longer refer to anything and are produced only by habit. I think that's where
we're headed, at least in our public life.
Ignatius Insight: I was
particularly intrigued to see how the book develops a case for principles of
Catholic social teaching, especially the principle of subsidiarity. Why is
subsidiarity so significant?
James Kalb: Subsidiarity is
needed so society can function effectively. More importantly, it's needed so
human beings can be treated like human beings.
People in positions of power--top political leaders, bureaucrats, businessmen,
experts, media people--don't like things to go their own way based on how they
look to the people on the spot. They like simple overall schemes that are easy
to understand and control from above.
Self-interest is part of that. Ambitious people like to run things. It's
natural for someone who's risen in a competitive society to think he knows
better. Also, simple general schemes seem clearer and more rational, and
therefore more just.
It turns out though that putting bright people in charge of everything doesn't
solve all problems. The world's too complicated, and other people know too
much. If you try to reduce everything to a simple scheme you make things worse.
Specialized expertise doesn't tell you what to do on general issues, and it
usually doesn't exist on particular local problems. On many points people,
organizations, and localities have to do things in their own way and by their
own lights. Then the decisions are made where the knowledge and concern exist
that let people make them intelligently and attentively.
So most decisions should be decentralized and pushed down to the local level,
with support from above when needed or useful. For example, education isn't a
special expertise that only a few people in the country know about. Lots of
people everywhere understand it as well as anyone does. Parents, teachers, and
students care more about it than top officials do. So why centralize it as much
as we do now?
Beyond effectiveness there's the question whether human dignity allows people
to be reduced to components of an overall controlled scheme. Subsidiarity
prevents that by making particular men and their connections to others the
center of social life. That way people live their lives as much as possible
through institutions and relationships they participate in and feel connected
to. Even if subsidiarity were less efficient than centralization it would be
worth having for that reason.
Ignatius Insight: How can
subsidiarity be defended and put into practice in the real world?
James Kalb: Here in America we
have traditional political principles--minimal government, federalism, private
property, local control--that are intended to restrain centralization. We need
to regain and strengthen those principles by understanding them as part of
subsidiarity. If they're understood that way they'll have a better theoretical
basis and it will be clearer how to apply subsidiarity--which after all is a
basic aspect of Catholic social teaching--to the American situation.
Ignatius Insight: Toward the
conclusion, you write, "The choice today is not between faith and reason,
or between reason and chaos (by whatever name)--for chaos is not something we
will live with--but among faiths anchored in revelation and capable of
sustaining reason." This and other passages called to mind the writings of
both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Has your work been affected by
what they have written about liberalism and secularism?
James Kalb: Not in the most
direct way. I haven't read either intensively.
Instead, I've mostly treated them as a reality check--if what the Pope says
agrees with what I say then that's a confirmation, if it doesn't then there's
something I need to think through. It's hard to be sure about the extent of
their influence, though. What they say sets the context for what other
Catholics say, and that obviously affects how I approach things.
Ignatius Insight: What is your
impression of Benedict's work to remind Europe and the West of its Christian
James Kalb: It's an uphill
battle but it's necessary. Who knows how it will end?
To my mind the most important point has been to make clear the distinctiveness
and integrity of Catholicism. If Europe does away with the Church it's doing
away with a whole dimension of what it's been that can't be replaced by
anything else. Basic points matter, and Benedict goes for the basic points.
The most important thing he's done on that front is clarifying the status of
the traditional Latin mass. You can't mistake the traditional mass for anything
else, and you can't interpret it as something other than what it is. Summorum
Pontificum made it clear that modernity doesn't eat up everything,
and the rite that formed the civilization of the West is still as valid as it
ever was. It recognized the mass as a fixed point in a turning world. What
could be more important than that?
Ignatius Insight: What can be done,
first, to better recognize the effects and goals of liberalism, and, secondly,
to live a life as free as possible from the poisons of liberalism?
James Kalb: The basic point is
that freedom and equality aren't ultimate goals. When they're presented that
way something's being hidden.
Freedom is freedom to do something, and equality is equality with regard to
some concern. If people wanted freedom simply as such they'd go crazy, because
freedoms conflict and they wouldn't know which to choose. Freedom to marry
requires constraints that define marriage and give it its significance and
function. Without them, you can't be free to marry.
The same applies to equality. If you want people to be equal in some way, some
people must decide and enforce what that requires. Those people won't be equal
to the rest of us.
So freedom and equality have to be part of a larger scheme of life to make
sense at all, and it's that larger scheme we should be looking at. To
understand liberalism you have to understand the scheme of life its version of
freedom and equality goes with.
Basically, present-day liberalism wants freedom and equality with regard to
career, consumption, and private hobbies and indulgences. It offers us a world
that promotes a life centered on those things and treats it as normal,
justified, valuable, and praiseworthy.
The result is that other ways of life lose out. For example, the freedom to
choose a normal family life suffers. People want to marry and stay married, and
they want to raise their children in a setting that helps them grow up as they
should. They want marriages and families that work and turn out well. That's an
absolutely fundamental human desire, but social statistics and everyday
experience show that liberalism severely interferes with the ability to satisfy
it. Why call that situation freedom?
Liberals understand that kind of point in connection with economics. They'll
tell you that economic freedom is fraudulent when it's freedom to starve.
Unless the social order makes goods available that are worth choosing, freedom
to choose whatever happens to be on offer isn't worth much. That point gets
lost in connection with lifestyle freedoms. What good are they when they create
a situation in which short of moral heroism there aren't any lifestyles on
offer worth choosing?
Still, we're stuck with liberalism right now. As things are, to live a life as
free as possible from its poisons probably does require moral heroism.
Certainly it means a break with the usual middle-class lifestyle. I can't give
a lot of useful advice to moral heroes, but it seems likely that a better way
of life today will require things like homeschooling and other forms of
intentional separation. We need settings in which a different pattern of life
can be established. We all do the best we can, though.
I'd add that we all need to work together to build settings in which a normal
good life is possible and indeed likely in the normal course of events. That, I
think, is what Catholic social action should be about.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Book Excerpts:
What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
Liberal Democracy as a Culture of Death: Why John Paul II Was Right | Dr. Raymond Dennehy
Religion and Socialism | Peter Kreeft
The Comprehensive Claim of Marxism | Peter Kreeft
"Certain Fundamental Truths": On the Place and Temptations of Politics | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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