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 | Nov. 12, 2009The 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.

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:

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
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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