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 roots?
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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