You are here

Political theory

Interview at 2Blowhards, part III

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

2Blowhards: I think that, while many people are sympathetic to the critique conservatives make of liberalism, many of them are also suspicious of what conservatives would like to replace liberalism with. They fear stuffiness, intrusiveness, bossiness. Conservatives are often accused of wanting to legislate morality, for example. Is that wrong?

Kalb: These concerns are based on the modernist idea that society is basically something rationally administered from above. On that view social order is forced on people from outside, so the natural response is to want as little of it as possible. Conservatism though stands or falls on the idea of tradition, on the ordering of social life by things that grow up somewhat autonomously and with their own standards and then become part of how people understand themselves and their world. Legislation can support those things but it can’t be the main factor. So it’s not basically a matter of forcing things on people but how man can live naturally as a social animal and how to get there. If such ideas make no sense then conservatism makes no sense. I’d be a libertarian if I thought that.


Interview at 2Blowhards, part II

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

2Blowhards: What was it like going through Yale Law when you did in the ’70s, having the convictions you do?


Two Blowhards interview

An interview from January 2004 with “Michael Blowhard” of


Interview at 2Blowhards, part I

The following is the first part of a three-part interview run at 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.


Liberalism and its meaning for Christians

The following essay appeared in the Spring, 2005 issue of The New Pantagruel.

Liberalism has enormous power as a social reality. When liberals call themselves “progressive” they make it stick. Their views dominate all reputable intellectual and cultural institutions. Judges feel free to read liberalism into fundamental law, even without historical or textual support, because it seems so obviously right.

Nonetheless, many people resist the notion that something called “liberalism” can matter so much. After all, liberal views have changed over time and will change again. Everyone holds some such views, few people hold all of them, and most normal people who hold them cut back on them in various ways. Besides, the results attributed to liberalism can be attributed to other things, non-ideological social developments for example. So why not forget stereotypes like “liberalism” and look at particulars?


Multiculti and creativity

Steve Sailer has in interesting comment on a question I’ve thought about from time to time, why multicultural societies are less creative. Basically, he says that necessity is the mother of invention: if there had been a lot of black musicians in early-60s Liverpool, the Beatles wouldn’t have had to come up with their own rock ‘n roll. If you can go out and get multiethnic cuisine, you don’t bother developing your own cooking.


What's Wrong With Human Rights?

The following essay appeared in the December 11, 2002 issue of FrontPage magazine. It is also available in Spanish.

The fountainhead of the modern human rights movement is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Today, when so much is up for grabs in the world, and the United States is fighting an enemy that combines contempt for human rights with readiness to use or misuse them to cover its own operations, the UDHR and what we make of it are more important than ever.


Freedom, Discrimination and Culture

The following essay appeared in the July 1997 issue of Pinc.

Most objections to civil rights laws have to do with their empirical basis, with things like affirmative action that can be seen as abuses, or with libertarian principle and abstract economic reasoning. However cogent those objections are, they get shrugged off. It remains the popular impression that the laws are somehow irrefutably a “Good Thing”, whatever particular objections a few social scientists or ideologues might invent. To address that impression broader arguments are needed. The essay therefore considers the effect of the laws on social life in general—on concrete human relations, on morality, on political life, and on the health of families, businesses and other organizations.


Personal identity in liberal society (snippet)

There is a conception of identity that grows up and takes hold in liberal society, if only because we can think about ourselves and our actions only by reference to what we are. As always, we define our identity by reference to the common goods the community recognizes. If I say I am American the claim is insignificant unless Americans are united by something they recognize collectively as good. In liberal society, however, the only thing recognized in common as a substantive good is the goal implicit in all individual desire, the ability to get what one wants. That ability is most readily recognized in the form of money, power and success, so liberalism turns society into an assortment of individuals related by such things. A liberal world is thus one in which the authoritative social reality, the thing by reference to which we are what we are, is a hierarchy of money, power and influence that excludes all substantive values and so is strictly quantitative. We are allowed public recognition only as employees and consumers, as nodes in a universal network of production and consumption, individuated and ranked by organizational charts, bank balances, and consumption choices. Under such conditions we lose substantive connection to others. Social and personal identity become purely hierarchical or quantitative, and self-realization becomes equivalent to pursuit of financial and hierarchical superiority and conspicuous consumption of one sort or another. Everything else becomes a personal idiosyncrasy of no public or objective importance.


Vindicating Stereotypes and Discrimination

The following essay appeared in the December 1998 issue of Pinc. It is also available in Czech.

No one treats a policeman like any other man. The response is elemental; we can not help but feel the force he represents. Our attitude is not simple fear of consequences, which rationally would usually lead to less cooperation rather than more. It is not just a reaction to formal legal power, since anyone could ask questions that lead to arrest and prosecution. Nor is it personal regard; police officers are not high in the class system, and respect for them individually is aside the point. Rather, it is a matter of a social stereotype fundamental to our kind of society. To deal with a policeman is to deal with government power and to view one as just another man would be radically to separate oneself from the government-dominated social order in which one lives.



The following essay appeared in the April 2000 issue of Pinc, and has also in large part been published in Danish. It may be of some interest because general discussions of anti-racism as an outlook and phenomenon are so exceedingly rare, given the importance of the subject.


Why the classes and masses don't like each other (another snippet)

The attitude of elite and populace toward each other sums up the situation today. Elites consider the people ignorant and bigoted, the people think their rulers pretentious, hypocritical and self-seeking. The reason for the dislike and suspicion is less personal qualities, with regard to which elite and populace may differ little, than social position and function.


PC and the Crisis of Liberalism

The following essay appeared in the February 1998 issue of Pinc.

Political correctness spreads, and once it arrives it stays; few like it, but no-one can do anything about it. In America most thought it was a hobbyhorse for a few cranks, while Europeans shrugged it off as an outlandish fad. We have all discovered our mistake. In America PC dominates our intellectual and cultural life, and Europeans find it creeping in everywhere. Worse, it is becoming legally compulsory, in Europe through laws against inciting hatred and in America through interpretations of civil rights law that create a right to freedom from a “hostile environment” and expose employers who do not insist on it to lawsuits.[1]


Snippet the first

The collapse of the liberal regime into irrationality, contradiction and tyranny, and the inability of limited adjustments to restore it to health or even stability, suggest that a basically different direction is needed for our public life. Liberalism is an attempt to make freedom the ultimate principle of public life. The attempt makes no sense, and ultimately defeats itself, because freedom is always freedom to do something in particular and is therefore always subordinate to some more basic goal. When freedom becomes equal and open-ended it conflicts with itself. The myriad opposing possibilities cancel each other out and a comprehensive system of suppression is the result.


Can a Catholic oppose mass immigration?

Here’s an edited version of a usenet discussion I had on immigration in a Catholic newsgroup:

Ille: In the US the government is discussing new rules on how to keep THEM out of the US.

Ego: What’s with the “THEM”? Disagreement on immigration does not mean stupidity and malice.

Ille: The THEM is any group that is not ourselves. They can be from Bangla Desh or they can be from New Orleans.

Ego: Do you think there’s something wrong with distinguishing “us” from “them,” and looking after our interests more than theirs? To my mind it’s the same issue as private property. In some grand sense everybody’s responsible for everything, but to have a system that works you have to divide things up so that individuals and groups have something definite to look after.


What is the state?

We’ve had a little back-and-forth on the modern state and what to make of it, so I thought I’d put together some notes for whatever anybody can make of them:

  • Most fundamentally, it seems the state is based on itself as a system of power. You’re recognized as the government of a region if you actually have stable control of that region. As the government you have the presumptive right to obedience, for the sake of public peace if nothing else. So in this case might really does make right.
  • In modern times the state has generally been understood as the ultimate and most authoritative social reality. That makes sense. The state is because it is, so it has its own I AM THAT I AM. Also, it has power over life and death, and from a modern this-worldly standpoint there is nothing more important than that. It has therefore been the most important source of social identity. Betray your family or your religion and that’s normal, betray your government and there’s something really wrong with you. That view seems to have declined in Europe but it’s still very much alive in America.

Back to the Founding

A reader wrote to comment on my essay on Traditionalism and the American Order, saying that I overstate the liberalism and understate the traditionalism of the American order. My response:

I don’t think I said that the U.S. as it has existed has been basically a product of liberalism or that it was stable because of its liberalism. I said it was a compromise between explicit liberalism and implicit traditionalism that was stable because it worked and there were various things like intellectual conformity and a preference for the practical over the speculative that kept us from pursuing the consequences of our stated principles of freedom and equality.


Discriminations and our common life

There’s a recent piece at View from the Right pointing out that while the call of Harvard academic Noel Ignatieff to “abolish the white race” sounds radical, it is really no different than the usual liberal and even mainstream conservative position that we should all work toward a state of affairs in which race doesn’t matter, and so has been done away with as part of our understanding of man and society.

The point can be expanded. People have no feeling at all for how radical the antidiscrimination principle is that is now universally accepted as basic to ordinary moral decency. In understanding the situation I think it’s a mistake to emphasize “race” and “whiteness,” which today have a purely biological meaning that may matter in some respects but in most ways doesn’t point anywhere in particular. What’s more important is the general teaching of the antidiscrimination principle: not only race as a biological category, but any ethnic, cultural or national heritage, any attachment to the inherited historical community one grows up with, is supposed to disappear as something relevant to anything significant someone might ever legitimately want to do. The same goes for sex and religious affiliation. None of those things is supposed to affect anything significant in our life together. If they did, that would be discrimination and inequity, and it would be everyone’s obligation to use all possible means to root it out. That’s what “diversity” and “inclusiveness” mean, and no mainstream conservative is willing to take a principled stand against diversity and inclusiveness.


Down with Madisonian pluralism!

John Rao, whose NYC lectures on Church history I mentioned a while back, has a new website that includes his writings he thinks worth making public. They touch on some of the same issues I write about, the bizarre inversions of pluralism for example, but in a more outraged, partisan, stylish, distinctly Catholic, and (some would object) anti-American manner.


Is realism realistic?

The smart guys say that since the Wars of Religion politics has been able to build solidly because it has aimed low, at stability and prosperity rather than any transcendent good. It turns out there’s a problem with the strategy: if the Good is excluded from public life the low eventually becomes very low indeed. Politics wholly divorced from the transcendent comes to aim at the abolition of the things that make us human, because they complicate markets and administration. It is no longer war but the degradation of the people that is the health of the state.



Subscribe to RSS - Political theory