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 Catholicism.
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 Catholic Church?
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, though.
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 my outlook.
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 beliefs?
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 liberalism?
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 allowed.
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 Catholicism.
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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