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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 | Ignatius Insight | November 12, 2009
James Kalb, who holds degrees from Dartmouth College and Yale University, is a
lawyer and independent scholar who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. His
book, The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered
Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command, was published by ISI Books last year. He spoke recently with Carl E. Olson,
editor of Ignatius Insight, about conversion, liberalism, conservatism, and
Ignatius Insight: I've seen it noted
that you are a convert to Catholicism, but I've not seen any details about your
conversion. Can you talk a bit about your background and your journey into the
James Kalb: My upbringing was
mostly secular and suburban. We sometimes attended one mainline Protestant
church or another. It was pretty sporadic and indefinite.
For a long time religion stayed that way for me. It seemed obvious that the
concrete things around me weren't the whole story, that they had some larger
setting that made them what they were. It was hard to say what that setting was
though. You can't step back from life and see it as a whole.
I've always been skeptical and maybe a little inert by nature. I'm inclined to
leave things undecided. So my conversion to Catholicism was a gradual thing. It
was like the development of a tradition as I describe that in my book, with
things slowly coming into focus through various insights and experiences.
There were also personal factors. Life has its bumps, and they shake us out of
the belief that we can understand and control it on our own. Also, how do we
understand our connections to others? What tells us what they are and what we
should do about them? Questions like that can't be avoided, and you can't
answer them without something outside immediate experience.
Eventually I found I wasn't able to make sense of the world apart from
Catholicism. It seemed more awkward and artificial to stay outside the Church
than to accept it. So for me conversion was a movement from confusion to
clarity and reality, a matter of growing up and facing facts.
Ignatius Insight: What were some
of the formative influences on your theological and philosophical thought?
James Kalb: I've been influenced
by all sorts of things, not just Catholic thinkers. All roads led to Rome,
Burke and Confucius were helpful on culture and tradition, Pascal and Newman on
the need for a transcendent point to give culture and tradition their meaning
and purpose. I think those four had the most immediate and obvious influence on
Liberal and modern thinkers and a liberal secular education helped sharpen the
issues. Why were the things all intelligent people were expected to believe so
irrefutable and at the same time so obviously wrong? In a way, that's the
question the first part of my book is intended to answer.
Going farther afield, various artists and poets showed me how the transcendent
is present in the world around us. The Daoists, an ancient Chinese group of
thinkers, gave me the same sense.
I suppose I've also been influenced by my legal and mathematical training. What
are the basic principles? How do you formulate them in a way that makes
everything else clear? What is the argument that always wins and explains a
whole string of developments?
Ignatius Insight: You spend
quite a bit of time, understandably, in the book defining liberalism and
variations thereof. For the sake of clarity, what is a relatively concise
definition of the liberalism you critique? What are its core principles and
James Kalb: By liberalism I mean
the view that equal freedom is the highest political, social, and moral
principle. The big goal is to be able to do and get what we want, as much and
as equally as possible.
That view comes from the view that transcendent standards don't exist--or what
amounts to the same thing, that they aren't publicly knowable. That leaves
desire as the standard for action, along with logic and knowledge of how to get
what we want.
Desires are all equally desires, so they all equally deserve satisfaction.
Nothing is exempt from the system, so everything becomes a resource to be used
for our purposes. The end result is an overall project of reconstructing social
life to make it a rational system for maximum equal preference satisfaction.
That's what liberalism is now, and everything else has to give way to it. For
example, traditional ties like family and inherited culture aren't egalitarian
or hedonistic or technologically rational. They have their own concerns. So
they have to be done away with or turned into private hobbies that people can
take or leave as they like. Anything else would violate freedom and equality.
Ignatius Insight: What are some
current events or situations that, in your mind, illustrate and evidence this
James Kalb: What doesn't
illustrate liberalism? An obvious example is the emphasis on personal autonomy
and fulfillment. To get a bit more concrete, there's the reduction of marriage
to a subjective personal commitment. Another example is the insistence on
abolishing personal distinctions. If I distinguish Tom, Dick, and Harry I'm
denying Tom's ability to choose to be what Dick and Harry are. That's why
everyone's on a first name basis, discrimination is the biggest possible
violation of human dignity, and so on.
Ignatius Insight: It might
surprise some readers to find that you are just as critical of many forms of
conservatism as you are of liberalism. What are some of the concerns you have
about conservatism today in the U.S.? What are some of the key mistakes made by
conservatives in dealing with liberalism?
James Kalb: Conservatives have
trouble dealing with fundamental issues. Their basic view is that bright new
ideas usually aren't all that bright. That means social engineering doesn't
work, so we should trust the way things are.
That approach usually makes sense, but if people do crazy things, and keep on
doing them, that shows there's a fundamental issue somewhere. Conservatives
think the issue is just going to go away. If we point out what's going on
common sense and normality will triumph.
That's not what happens though. The problem is that today the way things are
includes radicalism. For example, everyone seems to accept that freedom and
equality are the highest political goals and take priority when there's a
conflict. It's hard to argue against that. After all, if you like something
better than freedom and equality you must like slavery and oppression.
The problem is that freedom and equality don't make sense if you take them
straight. After all, normal people don't think getting what they want is the
supreme goal of life that everyone has to have an equal amount of. They have
other concerns that they think matter more.
So we need to ask about the effects of the principles people say they accept on
the things they actually care about. If you always put freedom and equality
first it destroys other goals. It becomes hard to argue for the traditional
family, for example, and say why it should be treated as the standard or even
So what we need is a conservatism that is more than just conservative, that has
some idea what life is about apart from getting what we want or maintaining
things as they are. That's one reason conservatism, like everything else, has a
hard time in the long run getting by without something very much like
Ignatius Insight: You argue that
liberalism "began as an attempt to moderate the influence of religion in
politics, [but] ends by establishing itself as a religion." How is
liberalism a religion? What are some examples of its religious nature? What
significant challenges do these pose to serious, practicing Catholics?
James Kalb: People in authority
treat liberalism as true, ultimate, and socially necessary. So far as they're
concerned, it gives the final standards that everyone has to defer to because
they're demanded by the order of the community and also by the fundamental way
the world is. That's what it means to say it's the established religion.
Like other religions it helps maintain its place through saints, martyrs,
rituals, and holidays. A candlelit vigil for Matthew Shepard is an example.
There's also education. All education is religious education, so education
today is shot through with liberal indoctrination. Liberalism even has
blasphemy laws, in the form of the laws against politically incorrect comments
on Islam, homosexuality, and other topics that you find in Europe and Canada.
It also has some special features. Liberalism is a stealth religion. It becomes
established and authoritative by claiming that it is not a religion but only
the setting other religions need to cooperate peacefully.
The claim doesn't make much sense, since religion has to do with ultimate
issues. The religion of a society is simply the ultimate authoritative way the
society grasps reality. As such it can't be subordinate to anything else.
Liberalism has been successful at obfuscating its status as a religion, and
that's been key to its success. People believe they are keeping their own
religion when they give first place to liberalism. What happens though is that
their original religion gets assimilated and becomes a sort of poeticized
version of liberalism.
You can see that tendency vividly in my former denomination, the Episcopal
Church. At least at its upper levels "mission" now means promoting
things like the UN Millennium Development Goals. I was in an Episcopal church
recently in which the Stations of the Cross had been replaced on the wall by
the Stations of the Millennium Development Goals.
That's not a special oddity of the Episcopalians, of course. You can see the
same tendency in all respectable mainline Protestant denominations. You also
see it among many Catholics. That kind of assimilation is, I think, the biggest
danger to the integrity of religious life today.
Read Part Two of "The Religion of Liberalism"
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