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Interview at 2Blowhards, part I

The following is the first part of a three-part interview run at 2Blowhards.com on January 20-22, 2004. The 2Blowhards version includes extensive comments from readers with responses by me.

2Blowhards: Can you explain what you mean when you write about (and criticize) “liberalism”? The way you use the word will be unfamiliar to many people.

Jim Kalb: By “liberalism” I mean the form of political modernity that’s triumphed. Modernity is the attempt to base everything on human thought and purpose rather than tradition and religion. If you apply that to social life then society becomes something for people to reconstruct in the interests of whatever goals they happen to have. Naturally, different goals are possible, so the real question becomes whose goals count. If it’s group goals that matter then the whole enterprise boils down to group self-assertion and you get fascism. If it’s goals of the individual, you get liberalism. So liberalism is basically the view that society should be understood as a kind of conscious arrangement or machine that should be reconstructed and adjusted continuously to give people what they want, as much and as equally as possible.

2B: I find the terms “rationalism” and “rationalists” (in the Oakeshott sense) very handy. Do you? Can you explain what they mean?

Kalb: I don’t use them a lot, but the things they refer to are very important and I talk about them all the time. In politics “rationalism” is the attempt to remake the world so it is rational in terms of a few simple standards. What’s behind it, I think, is the idea that the order in society should be something we put there and can understand completely. Anything else—anything unstated or inherited or simply natural—is a kind of slavery. In order to be acceptable everything has to be planned and controlled. An expression like “technocracy” covers the same ground and seems more descriptive, so I probably use it more.

Also, I’m focused on finding out where rationalism comes from. It seems to me people are rationalists because they don’t like the idea that they have to trust something outside themselves that they can’t fully grasp. I think it’s productive to discuss things from that broader perspective, so I also use terms that reflect it, like “self-contained” as opposed to “transcendent.”

2B: I always found Hume’s view of reason agreeable. He seemed to see it as a terrific tool, but as nothing but a tool, and appropriate only for certain kinds of tasks and chores. The French always seem to make the mistake of looking to reason for ‘way too much. But I blab. How do conservatives see reason?

Kalb: Hume is more skeptical than most conservatives are. There’s a tendency today to interpret reason in a very restrictive way, as formal logic together with scientific observation and theorizing. If you do that then reason becomes very limited in its scope, and Hume’s comments become very sensible. Most conservatives I think tend to avoid Hume’s skepticism by accepting a broader understanding of reason that includes whatever has to do with being reasonable, with dealing with the way things are and coming to sensible conclusions. They’re likely to view Pascal’s intuitive mind as well as his mathematical mind (here), and even his recognition of the need to make commitments where proof is lacking, as part of reason.

2B: I like to suggest to people that we need to get over our fear of the word “conservative” because we’re all conservative to some extent. We have to be in order to survive. How and why did people get scared of the word?

Kalb: As you say, to function at all everyone has to accept things that are traditional or anyway not chosen. It’s all a matter of degree. People should be thinking about the role different ways of thinking, including conservative ways of thinking, play in dealing with the world. Once they do, the conservative case is mostly made. The point of modernism is that there’s going to be one clear theory of everything. If you admit that conservative ways of thinking have some permanent value then the modernist dream of a single system of ever-more-perfect rationality falls apart. Greater acceptance of tradition becomes the coherent way to go forward.

I think the ultimate reason people are afraid of conservatism is that they don’t want anything to touch them. It’s frightening to think that we don’t make the world and can’t control it, that we have to accept and trust things that lie outside of us that we don’t understand completely. After all, the world can seem very threatening, and it’s nicer to think that there are experts somewhere who understand things and take care of everything for us. Also, telling people they just have to accept some things makes them worried someone’s going to put something over on them. The conservative answer is that there’s a kind of cumulative implicit consensus we can look to, but someone has to discern and interpret the implicit consensus so it’s hard to get rid of the worry altogether.

2B: I find many media conservatives (Bill O’Reilly, etc) unappealing—gloating bullies who like to use ridicule and tell people, “Tough, kid, suck it up.” To what extent to such people represent the kind of conservatism you discuss?

Kalb: They are indeed conservative, since what makes their views what they are is that they choose some things that are inherited or natural at the expense of liberalism—that is, at the expense of a direct attempt to maximize the equal satisfaction of individual preferences. They’re not thoughtful, though, so they can’t explain why they reject the liberal program in favor of something else. The result is that their conservatism takes on an aggressive and arbitrary quality, at least in style.

2B: What’s the typical urban person’s nightmare version of “a conservative”?

Kalb: A self-satisfied but inwardly fearful person who wants to suppress everything that differs from what he is. At the extremes, an incipiently violent bigot. Naturally, I don’t think that’s a true picture. I think modernism is much narrower and more intolerant than conservatism. It’s hard for me though to characterize conservatives as a group. They differ as much as anyone else. To take a broad sociological view, in the pro-Bush red states crime rates tend to be quite a bit lower and rates of charitable giving higher than in the pro-Gore blue states. That’s rather at odds with the nightmare image. I think it’s a reflection of the tendency for life to be more settled and local and for many ordinary ties to be stronger in the conservative red states. I think it’s important for someone tempted by the nightmare version to see conservatism as a very natural human possibility. There’s a lot of conservatism in all societies, and most societies have been extremely conservative by current Western standards. It can’t be reasonable or right to reject almost the whole human race.

2B: So what is conservatism?

Kalb: It has a negative and a positive aspect. On its negative and theoretical side, it’s a rejection of political modernity. It says that the project of basing society on human thought and purpose can’t work. One reason it can’t work is that purposes and thoughts need a social setting to make sense. If our purposes and thoughts need a setting they don’t also construct the setting. It has to be something that already exists that we’re entitled to take for granted.

A reason liberalism in particular can’t work is that the goals of individuals conflict, so by themselves they don’t give rise to any kind of order. If you try to base social order on giving individuals what they want you have to claim that everyone really wants the same thing, or that you’ve got some neutral way to give everyone what he wants equally. The first claim is obviously false, and the second claim can’t work unless the only things people want are things like consumer goods and private indulgences that don’t essentially affect other people. That’s not what people are like, though. So in either case you end up telling people what they have to want. The individual who chooses his own values can’t really be the standard.

2B: What’s the positive side of conservatism?

Kalb: On its positive and more practical side, conservatism is an attitude of trust toward basic features of the social world, an attempt to make sense of social life and carry it on by reference to inherited habits and understandings. It’s based on a sense that loyalty is a good thing, that what’s worked for a long time probably has something to it, even though what that thing is can be difficult to articulate without some thought.

2B: What do these definitions have to do with the kind of liberalism and conservatism we read about in the news?

Kalb: In the case of liberalism I think the fit’s pretty good. It’s a mature philosophy that’s won its battles, so it can present itself in a clear and straightforward way. Slogans like “social welfare,” “inclusion,” “equal freedom” and so on are very much in line with my definition.

In the case of conservatism it’s more complicated. Conservatives don’t trust logical systems, and they like to go with what’s settled and seems to work. That takes away from coherence, especially once anti-conservative views have become established in society. You get people who call themselves conservatives and claim to be the real egalitarians or revolutionaries, for example.

Another problem is that people who are in the business of providing explanations—academics, journalists, various experts—are almost always modernists. A big reason for that is that attempts to reconstruct society on rational principles give people who write and explain things a much bigger role in the scheme of things.

Anyway, the result is that liberal views become the accepted background of public discussion while conservative views seem odd, contradictory, and generally hard to make sense of. A conservative is always someone who rejects at least part of the liberal campaign to reconstruct society in the interests of equal freedom. The specific things conservatives resist and the reasons they give vary and usually don’t form a logical system. So the point and justification of their views can become quite obscure.

2B: You speak as if the non-logicality and the nonsystematic quality of conservatism is a plus. How can this be so?

Kalb: The nonsystematic quality is only comparative. Like other people, conservatives try to think in an orderly way. What they come up with seems non-logical in contrast to modern rationalism. Still, the question is how to deal with reality as it is. If you try to be true to how things are you don’t end up with a single method that gives the right answer for everything. From that point of view the less tidy quality of conservatism is a plus.

2B: Even so, isn’t it a terrible drawback, if only from a p-r point of view? It leaves you open to criticism as “the stupid party,” no?

Kalb: It has some drawbacks. Conservatives often get confused about their own views and can’t explain themselves. Unlike modernists, they can’t promise clear solutions to everything. Also, people today think organized expertise is the only kind of knowledge you should pay attention to, and that’s an anti-conservative view. Organized expertise is an attempt to put knowledge in clear usable form so that whoever is in charge can control things. Conservatism says that can’t be done to any great extent in social affairs. The result is that conservatism is seen as stupid and ignorant almost by definition. It rejects expertise as a final authority.

2B: It seems to me that people often have a hard time understanding conservatism because they want a program that can be explicitly spelled-out. And that’s not what conservatism is.

Kalb: That’s right. The conservative tendency is to take social practices on their own terms and work with them. Conservatism lets religion be religion, commerce commerce, family life family life and so on. It sees connections but doesn’t try to make everything a simple rational system. Of course, that tendency requires a setting that allows for it. When that’s attacked conservatism becomes much more well-defined and decisive. If there’s a modernist revolution going on, an attempt to reduce everything to a few simple standards like equality and utility, then the conservative program is “let’s not have this modernist revolution.” That can be quite a clear program, even if it mostly looks negative and obstructionist to people who don’t see the point.

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