More on liberal tyranny

A couple of years ago I wrote an essay on The Tyranny of Liberalism. Now I have a sequel that I’m revising because it didn’t get published where I wanted. I thought I’d post it here to see if anyone finds it interesting enough to comment:


by James Kalb

Many people find something deeply oppressive about the world advanced liberalism has given us. Some have particular objections. Affirmative action has victims, even though they get little media coverage. Others complain about restrictions like political correctness. Many complaints, however, are obscure. People feel stifled, but cannot say just how. They make jokes or sarcastic comments, but when challenged have trouble explaining themselves. When there is a public issue, it is liberals who have the last word. It is very difficult, after all, to object seriously to efforts to promote equal freedom.

The persistent feeling that something has gone wrong nonetheless needs to be accounted for. What is it that bothers a truck driver who complains bitterly about liberals? Is he only objecting to change, to loss of an unjustified status, to people who are different from himself? Or does he sense that he has been deprived of something essential that accepted ways of thinking about politics hide from view?

To accuse liberalism of tyranny seems absurd. The goal of liberalism, after all, is to enable all of us to control our own lives as much and as equally as possible. Abortion is the right to choose. Welfare gives access to things needed for the exercise of ordinary choices in daily life. Affirmative action tries to give women amd blacks the same practical options white men have. Gay marriage gives equal rights to nonstandard intimate relationships. There are objections to such things, but at first glance they hardly seem despotic. Critics used to complain that liberalism was relativistic and permissive. How can they now call it dictatorial?

Moderates and neoconservatives sometimes view tyranny as a risk created by one-sided pursuit of liberal goals. They worry, for example, that centralized control of social life isolates the individual, even when the control is ostensibly in the interest of his freedom and well-being, and that insistence on making social life measure up to simple abstract principles weakens practical safeguards such as the widespread distribution of power. Those concerns suggest that liberalism may go too far, but not that its aims are anything but admirable. All liberalism needs, it seems, is a little modesty.

The problem is not just lack of prudence, however. Liberalism—at least advanced liberalism, the kind that matters today—is the attempt to make equal freedom to do as one chooses the ultimate goal of political and moral life. That attempt is necessarily a failure, because to treat freedom as an ultimate goal is to misconceive it. Individual self-rule can be an important element of a social order that is oriented toward substantive goods such as human virtue, but it cannot itself serve as the basis of order.

The reason is that basic liberal concepts like freedom cannot define themselves without reference to superior goods. Freedom is freedom to pursue some goal, but we make sense of our goals by reference to a larger scheme that tells us what things are, how they relate to each other, and what they are worth. Things are precious to us because we recognize something in them that does not depend on us and cannot be had for the asking. Treating our goals as a final standard simply because they happen to be our goals turns the entire procedure of choosing goals and pursuing them into a pointless waste of effort. Why chase after something whose only value is that we have decided to chase it? Wouldn’t it be more rational to become a Buddhist whose one desire is liberation from the burden of having goals at all?

The inability of basic liberal concepts to define themselves has practical political consequences. Consider free expression, which liberalism seems to guarantee equally and absolutely to all. Expressive freedom is at the heart of liberalism, because it has to do with meanings, and liberalism must leave meaning—the significance things are understood to have—up to the individual. Anything else would subject men to a spiritual authority outside themselves, and that would utterly negate liberal freedom. As the Supreme Court points out, “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992, 505 U.S. 833, 851.)

In a liberal society, freedom of expression is therefore expansive and open-ended. Liberalism lets you say, write and publish anything you want on topics that have traditionally been held sacred. It allows you to attribute any significance to anything, and call anything art that you present as such. You can smear dung on an image of the Virgin Mary, and if you mean it as art you can have the result hung in a museum and treated respectfully by critics. Nor is freedom of expression limited to speech, the arts and the written word. It extends to “lifestyle,” to the expressive aspects of how we live. In the case of sex, for example, freedom now trumps moral principles that have always seemed fundamental to the family and so to social order itself. Whatever the practical effects of sexual freedom, to oppose it would be to prescribe the meaning of something that touches us deeply, and for liberals that would be an outrageous act of oppression.

It is true that the appearance of absolute expressive freedom is not altogether accurate. Like other systems liberalism finds ways of suppressing views that undercut its dominance. Even in scholarly settings, expressive freedom may not include freedom to say plausible and important things about sensitive topics such as group differences. More importantly, meaning cannot be expelled altogether from public life. Equal freedom, it has been concluded, presumes equal dignity, and respect for equal dignity has come to limit expression no less than respect for royal and ecclesiastical dignity once did. You can burn a flag but not a cross, debunk Martin Luther but not Martin Luther King.

Nonetheless, one could argue that the goal of equal freedom remains genuine and coherent in spite of such restrictions. Everyone recognizes that freedom must be limited to keep the freedom of some from violating that of others. Why, someone might ask, does compelling respect for another’s dignity violate freedom more than compelling respect for his property or physical integrity? Do not freedom and dignity depend on each other?

The answer depends on how far the demands of dignity go. In advanced liberalism they go far enough to eliminate all but trivial freedoms. Liberal dignity, which consists in the equal respect due each individual, has come to require equal respect for the meanings individuals place on things. Expressive freedom must be granted to all equally. Since meanings are a matter of individual choice, none can be treated as superior to another. Treating them differently would, for liberals, be simply showing their proponents different degrees of consideration with regard to the things they hold most dear. It would be burdening the freedom of some to assert their own conception of things for the sake of expanding that freedom for others.

Advanced liberalism thus tries to give all attributions of significance equal status. What you make of things is not to be preferred to what I make of them. That principle is limited somewhat by the need for common standards in public life. Contemporary liberalism therefore insists on general respect for the law, at least when the law has been brought into line with liberal thought. It also insists on acceptance of human dignity and equality as liberals understand them. Those whose understandings are different must accept liberal rule even though they are not treated as legitimate participants in public life. Nonetheless, many meanings, for example many of those connected with religion and the fine arts, are neither necessary nor directly opposed to the liberal regime. It is intended that such attitudes, values and beliefs fall within the scope of liberal freedom, and it is on the breadth of that freedom, its acceptance of the broadest possible range of optional meanings, that liberalism stakes its claim to superiority.

An objection to liberalism that shows it to be radically self-defeating is that the requirement of equal freedom for each of these optional meanings can be satisfied only by suppressing all of them. The problem is that expression is directed at others, so to express a view is at least to a degree to impose it on others and suppress their contrary views. If some say “Merry Christmas” and observe Mothers’ Day those who reject Christianity and traditional gender roles are put at a disadvantage. If I am allowed to make a speech, you must put up with an environment in which my attitudes get more attention than yours. The very purpose of the speech is to create such an evironment! The consequence is that for expressive freedom to be equal it must radically limit expression of the views it protects; to do otherwise would be to license the energetic or culturally powerful to impose their meanings on others.

Advanced liberalism thus proves itself self-defeating. In the name of freedom to choose one’s own meanings it either makes all meanings compulsory, if they are necessary to the liberal regime, or forbids their public expression. Liberal ideology and views that support it therefore become unquestionable dogma. To dispute them would constitute “hate” and “intolerance.” They are the inevitable content of public celebrations and holidays, of all education that is not strictly technical, of respectable religion, and of art, most notably officially-subsidized art that proclaims its own adventurousness. All other ethical, aesthetic and cultural matters must be kept strictly private or otherwise trivialized.

Liberalism thus leads, in accordance with its own principles, to a pervasive spiritual tyranny. Its principle is choice, but in the end the only choices it can permit are personal consumption decisions among things that from a public standpoint are interchangeable. If more were permitted, the choices of some would impose on others and thus violate equal freedom. Burger King’s “have it your way,” the right of each individual to choose independently among preset choices that the established system finds equally easy to provide, is the epitome of freedom in an advanced liberal society.

Nor does advanced liberalism recognize any external limit on its pursuit of its goals. Like other philosophies that attempt to reconstruct society on simple principles, it eventually tries to extirpate whatever it does not command. In the absence of substantive contrary principles, the insistence on equality of meanings becomes comprehensive and rigorous. Its conception of freedom and equality trump even common sense—“deeply rooted social expectations,” as the phrase now is. What seem like remote theoretical consequences of its principles eventually become very practical, and 300 years after John Locke they confront us everywhere.

Advanced liberal society therefore suppresses Christmas and promotes Kwanzaa, gives equal status to pop culture and the classics, abolishes dress codes and instructs children in alternative sexualities, all while making arrangements to keep such things from affecting anything that matters. Equal respect becomes an equality of compulsory irrelevance indistinguishable from equal contempt. We end with perfect freedom to flail about in a vacuum; perhaps more accurately, since the system does require us to respect the conditions of its functioning, the perfect freedom a gear in a machine might have to choose the color it is painted.

Liberal society, like any other, tells us what we are as well as what we can do. It claims to let us be what we choose, but forbids us to be anything specific with a recognizable value, because that would deny the equal value of others. There can be no heroes, because heroes call cowardice and mediocrity into question, no honest men, because honesty denigrates the stratagems of the oppressed. Distinctions in moral worth, after all, correspond to social hierarchies. “Respectable” once had to do with the middle class and “honn�te homme” with the aristocracy. How can such distinctions be allowed in a liberal society? We are therefore allowed public recognition only as employees and consumers, as nodes in a universal network of production and consumption that makes us all manageable and mutually equivalent, individuated only by bank balances, organizational charts, consumption choices, and personal idiosyncrasies of no public importance.

Modern freedom leaves us nothing definite and solid and becomes freedom to choose nothing. Cheap and easy travel seems a fine thing until TV, world markets, mass tourism and immigration make all places alike. The same principle applies to radical freedom generally. If we can be whatever we want we can be nothing in particular. Limitless versatility seems to offer us things that are new, exciting and satisfying, but the glitter dissipates as we approach the reality and find that nothing significant has changed. The consequences are anxiety, depression, and addiction to intoxicants that distract us from our eternal imprisonment in a featureless here and now.

Advanced liberalism in fact imposes on us the greatest possible moral deprivation, loss of what we are. What, after all, am I? A man, someone with definite connections, history and moral character, a member of this family and that people, an adherent of some system of ultimate understandings that defines the world and my place in it. A liberal regime recognizes me as a citizen only to the extent I agree that none of these things matter. I am allowed to give them whatever private significance I want, but the permission is all but meaningless since the goal of the regime—equal freedom—requires that the effect of such private preferences be reduced to the vanishing point.

Of course, the abolition of personal qualities cannot be the whole story. To understand ourselves and others we must be something or other, and what we are depends on the principles that order our world. Public authority necessarily has moral as well as practical influence. In liberal society the highest authorities are money and bureaucracy, the abstract forms of social power that order and reconcile the desires liberalism is committed to favor equally. A liberal world is therefore 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. To the extent we are social, self-realization thus becomes equivalent to pursuit of financial and hierarchical superiority. Careerism becomes an ethical absolute.

Advanced liberal society is thus pervaded by an obsession with money, power and position that it must disguise and deny, a spiritual force that is all the more fascinating because of its irrationality, emptiness and radical opposition to the society’s proclaimed morality. That force is experienced as irresistably powerful as well as demonic and obscene. It returns us inwardly to the primitive state in which the sacred and the accursed are one, in which the fundamental spiritual problem is separating ourselves from the evil to which we are irretrievably bound, and the necessary response is denying it and transferring it to another by driving out the scapegoat—the man who rejects freedom and equality, the “bigot,” the “hater,” the “extremist.”

This collapse into irrationality is the spiritual side of a tyranny that destroys what it claims to value most highly. The liberal state is centered on man but attacks what he is and denies what he cares most about. In the name of tolerance it insists on constant re-education. It serves humanity by rooting out the qualities—natural inclinations, concrete loyalties, aspirations toward the transcendent—that make us human. It abolishes freedom, culture, religion and private life for the sake of securing those things to all. It makes thought and speech offenses. It takes children from their parents to re-educate them morally and religiously. It adopts policies whose function is the practical destruction of family life, communities and whole peoples. It comprehensively supervises private associations—universities and cultural institutions like all others—and tells them whom they must admit and in what capacity, and requires them to adopt the practical abolition of ethnicity, gender and religion as their own highest goals.

The advanced liberal state is able to do these things almost invisibly because of the very scope of its ambition. It is to ordinary tyranny what conquest is to common theft. It does not bother with instances but seizes whole institutions and the very principles of their being. Old-fashioned tyrannies invaded households, confiscated estates, proscribed eminent men and exiled dissidents. Advanced liberalism does better—it abolishes the family, redefines property, eliminates eminence through quotas and sensitivity training and destroys every homeland by eradicating all particularities. By abolishing all sense of an authority that transcends human institutions it makes its ruling class a self-contained absolute. What could only be a dream for the emperor who built the Great Wall, burned the books and slaughtered the scholars is today becoming reality.

Modern liberalism makes opposition almost metaphysically impossible. Because it dominates the bureaucracies of knowledge and communication it is able to make effective criticism impossible by redefining facts, moral standards and even language. Objections cannot be recognized. If need be, language and even the authority of logic and truth are sacrificed to avoid doing so. People feel something has gone horribly wrong but cannot say what. All authorities tell them they are wrong; those who persevere in disagreement cut themselves off from the world and can only be classified as crazy or evil.

The advanced liberal state is nonetheless considered the normal and only legitimate form of government. Nor is it simply forced on an unwilling public. Everything in modern life favors it. Material prosperity and technological prowess make up for the weakening of human relations. Its readiness to make use of what remains from the past (while they last) mask its moral and cultural consequences. The electronic media aid its destruction of fixed character by their constant fragmenting and reformatting of experience. Experts support it because it makes expertise the key to human happiness, elites because it increases their power, the middle classes because it alone is respectable, those at the bottom because it takes away their shame and supports them economically. All men desire it as they desire intoxicants, because it presents an illusion of limitless choice that allows them to deny life’s limitations.

More than anything, the strength of advanced liberalism is due to its application to social and moral life of the technological principle of defining what is wanted, and rationally organizing resources to achieve it. That principle is the basis of “social policy.” It gives liberalism the weight and prestige that goes with the success of modern natural science, as well as enormous power to destroy competing principles of authority. It can not give universal success, however. The features that make the technological principle effective on its own ground make it destructive as a principle of morality. It succeeds with material objects by reducing issues to numerical terms and solving them one at a time, ignoring considerations of quality and context. Liberalism attempts to do the same in the moral realm. It promises happiness by satisfying particular desires, ignoring their value and the overall setting in which they operate. As a consequence, the happiness it promises can only be illusory.

The exclusive concern of liberalism for equal satisfaction of particular desires means that it has no place for the connections that define us and make us social. Those connections—sex, family, culture, class—are based on human particularities, and inevitably give some advantages over others. Since they are fundamental to what we are, they can not be wholly voluntary. They thus fall short of liberal standards of freedom and equality, and a liberal regime must try to eradicate their practical importance. That attempt inevitably fails, because life must go on as it can. Men and women still form couples, parents look after children, common background leads to common interests and enterprises, and the rich, well-placed and powerful have dealings with those who are less so. The effect of liberalism is that the public standards that once helped civilize such relationships to some degree, and bring them into relation with the whole range of human concerns, can no longer exist because the legitimacy of the relationships is no longer recognized. When distinctions of sex and class are abolished there can be no gentlemen. The consequences are manipulation, faithlessness, aggression and resentment in public and private life.

What then is to be done? Something so catastrophic must be fought in a thousand ways. As always, everyday life and politics are the immediate battleground. While theory can make advanced liberalism seem invincible and monolithic, it can only show tendencies. Life is more complicated and ambiguous, and there is always a great deal practical to do here and now.

The battle is very much one of the intellect and spirit. Liberalism permeates established institutions and ways of thought so thoroughly that it can be difficult even to present the issues clearly, let alone carry out an effective counterattack. Those who oppose advanced liberalism must therefore deal with basic questions. What is liberalism? How does it work? What are its strengths and weakness? What alternatives are there? We have argued that the fundamental character—and weakness—of liberalism is that it turns freedom and equality into ultimate standards. The most effective intellectual response to it, the response from within, therefore requires that we point out what is needed to make freedom and equality worth having and consistent with substantive goods.

That response very quickly takes us to the heart of liberal morality and sets us in opposition to it. To matter, freedom must be part of a world of common goods and meanings that transcend particular desires and show what choices are worth making. For the recognition to be concrete enough to be useable it must reflect a particular culture, and for it to be stable and effective it must take some definite institutional form. Freedom therefore requires things that are very like ethnocentrism and established religion, at least as currently and broadly construed. In the absence of such things, transcendent goods become personal prejudices, and what particular men want the only possible standard. The consequences of such a state of affairs have become all too familiar.

Further, if freedom is to matter we must be something definite. For it to matter that I am doing something it must matter that I am doing it. Without substantive personal identity to anchor freedom and make it part of a continuous course of conduct by a stable moral agent, freedom cannot be distinguished from whim. Nor can it have a specific owner to defend it, and must therefore remain at the mercy of government officials, whether Supreme Court justices or welfare administrators. Freedom worth having and capable of defense therefore requires that each of us have a settled personal character recognizable by ourselves and others.

To be distinctly our own, and be capable of effective action, that character must include definite roles and spheres of authority that we and others understand as attributes of who we are. In the absence of such particularities, which give us each a limited but definite place in the world, there is no settled basis for reciprocal influence and exercise of authority. Society becomes a formless aggregate of individuals in which the alternatives are the simple domination of the weak by the strong that liberalism fears, and the mutual isolation and impotence it imposes as a remedy.

Freedom worth having thus requires something rather like the things now classified as classism, sexism, role stereotyping and so on. It requires rejection of the determination to eradicate all discrimination that in recent years has come to be viewed as basic not only to the American regime but to human rights and moral decency generally. Rejecting advanced liberalism thus requires changing something that it is unique in putting at the center of morality. If institutions other than the bureaucratic and market arrangements upon which liberalism relies are to play a role in ordering social life, then distinctions such as ethnicity, class and gender that those arrangements treat as irrelevant must be allowed to affect conduct. “Political correctness”—insistence on liberal standards of moral decency—must therefore be rejected more fundamentally than its respectable opponents now imagine.

That conclusion is difficult for many to accept. The strength of liberal tyranny is its ability to destroy the conditions for freedom to exist, so that it becomes hard to imagine an alternative or interpret opposition as anything but an attack on fundamental decency. The family may be necessary to political freedom, and sex roles to the family, but if the family is deprived of its functions then sex roles are too, and they appear to be simply a means for maintaining an arbitrary inequality. In a liberal state irresponsible centralized government even comes to seem an intrinsic moral good. Any distribution of power from the center, after all, increases the strength of some more than others, and to tie the distribution to human nature and established habit, as it must be if it is to serve as a reliable counterweight to central power, is to reproduce traditional power relationships. Such relationships, like all power relationships, have an abusive and irrational side, and in any event violate liberal freedom and equality simply by existing.

Our aim, however, must be the best life attainable and not utopia. Current conditions present difficulties, and perfection is unattainable, but we must attempt to go forward. Recovery from advanced liberalism requires rebuilding traditional arrangements that it has destroyed, and that cannot happen overnight or altogether by plan. Blueprints are useless; workable institutions arise through discussion, mutual accommodation, and the experience of life together. A necessary first step, however, is abandonment of the dogmatic attempt to suppress natural inclinations and rooted habits of the kind that any tolerable order of things must accept as basic to social existence. Even that first step will require radical changes in what are now taken to be our highest moral aspirations. To the extent rigid political correctness makes such changes impossible, even discussing the problems openly is an important step forward.

3 thoughts on “More on liberal tyranny”

  1. I hope you find a

    I hope you find a permanent place to post this essay.

    A couple of comments. I like your definition of liberalism as “the attempt to make equal freedom to do as one chooses the ultimate goal of political and moral life.”

    This definition coherently connects the liberal emphasis on equality (and freedom) with the radically individualistic understanding that liberals have of these terms.

    I think it’s better to place these facets of liberalism together, rather than tracing the effects of liberalism to “equality” by itself.

    Equality is a relatively empty term, and its real significance is how it is defined.

    Take for instance the issue of equality between men and women. Liberals understand equality to mean the absence of gender as an influence in determining economic, social and political outcomes. Conservatives could just as easily assert that equality means an equal value being placed on the distinctive contributions of men and women to society (or the upholding of those forms of love in which a deeper sense of equality and union are to be found).

    I don’t deny that liberals emphasise equality more than conservatives, but the key thing is the connection between their understanding of equality and their individualistic belief in creating themselves through their own will and reason.

    A second point. I don’t think you’re exaggerating when you argue that advanced liberalism eliminates all but the most trivial freedoms.

    I find it interesting to observe though the tenacious way that people cling (psychologically) to the little freedoms still left to them.

    For a long time, I couldn’t understand the emphasis that my friends put on consumeristic choices about restaurants, films and travel.

    I used to put it down to natural hedonism. I expect, though, that it is much more than this, and that they are trying to maintain part of their sense of self-identity through these choices.

    Perhaps this is less confronting for many people than admitting that they have lost significant freedoms. Who wants to accept the role of being a “slave” to a liberal tyranny? Why not pretend instead that consumer choices are a significant good in life and important in defining a free, modern individual?

    It will be very challenging to some people to tell them that they have only been left with the freedom to make trivial choices.

  2. Mark Richardson’s interesting point about

    Mark Richardson’s interesting point about people clinging to their consumerist freedom as a compensation for the real freedoms they have lost under liberalism reminds me of Kundera’s The Incredible Lightness of Being, in which the only freedom for people living under a Communist government is in their sex lives.

  3. “Equal freedom to do what

    “Equal freedom to do what one chooses” follows naturally from anti-transcendentalism. If there are no goods that can’t be reduced to actual desires, so that “good” is just a rhetorical way of saying “I want,” then rational ethics has to treat satisfaction of desire as the good. Since all desires are equally desires their satisfaction must then be equally good and the summum bonum becomes their maximum equal fulfillment. The important thing about liberalism is that it’s not some arbitrary construction, it’s the unavoidable result of basic philosophical choices. To oppose it requires radical rejection of current understandings.

    On a less grandiose plane it always seemed to me that the higher consumerism isn’t hedonism, it’s desire for distinction. And people do take it very seriously.

Comments are closed.