Liberalism: What, Whence and Whither?

A Lecture by James Kalb

Presented at a Telos Conference, May 20, 2001

Today I will present a very general perspective on liberalism: what it is, where it comes from, where it might go.

I’m a lawyer, and after preparing my remarks I realized that they took a lawyer’s point of view. What I had done was look at a series of decisions � the political changes people agree are liberal � and looked for the common principle that explained them. Then I looked at the authorities to explain the principle. Since it is political philosophy we are talking about, the authorities are accepted ways of thinking, how everyone thinks the world is, what seems sensible and rational. So what I will present is not a set of beliefs and institutions that constitutes liberalism, but a principle of change and its basis, together with some implications of that principle. It seems to me that presentation corresponds to the nature of liberalism as something that understands itself as progressive, and therefore changing, but also as universal and rationally compelling, and therefore unified at least in its concept.

Liberalism comes in different forms that look like very different things. Nonetheless, in some ways it looks like something that ought to have a simple definition. Also, it is extremely durable, in spite of attacks that have repeatedly left it for dead, which suggests that it’s not only simple but also a consequence of something quite basic in modern life.

So what is liberalism? It seems to me that it is the view that the goal of political and moral life is to further the ability of individuals to satisfy their subjective preferences—to get what they want—as much and as equally as possible. Acceptance of that goal is combined with a willingness to accommodate, to a large degree, existing institutions. Liberalism is therefore a mean between simple conservatism, acceptance of whatever is accepted simply because it is accepted, and radicalism, the demand for social reconstruction in accordance with the abstract demands of freedom and equality. Radicals are liberals in a hurry, conservatives are liberals with no vision.

The two aspects of liberalism, its ultimate goal and the relative moderation of its means, are coherent. A view that makes individual preferences the standard has to accept existing habits and expectations to a large degree, simply because they are incorporated into actual preferences. It may of course try to re-educate them and by stages bring about a more consistent system of freedom and equality.

The description is abstract, so a few applications should help. There is:

a. The myth of the social contract, which is visibly inspired by a sense that society is a collection of individuals with projects, that social order must be justified as a means for those individuals to defend and further their projects.

b. The classical liberal cry for “liberty and equality,” where “liberty” is the right to do what we want individually and “equality” is equality with regard to that right, both in opposition to established religious authorities and social inequalities that had lost their grip to the point that it seemed realistic to restrict or abolish them.

c. The current belief that individuals should be able to choose their own values, and have access to the options and resources they need to make those choices effective, in opposition to capitalist economic hierarchies, which are now subject to modification by the government, and also in opposition to traditional cultural expectations, which have become less important functionally because of the tendency to rely on market and bureaucratic institutions rather than traditional arrangements like the family in ordering personal life.

These examples present the distinction between classical liberalism, with its negative freedom, and the much more active liberalism of the modern managerial state. That distinction rests on accepting features of the social order, such as private property, sex roles and established cultural standards generally, as given rather than seeing them as human institutions that could be otherwise. The distinction corresponds to the difference between the social contracts of John Locke and John Rawls. The former preserves property, a pre-existing institution, and accepts whatever informal race, class and sex distinctions may exist, while the latter is more comprehensive and determines what property and other institutions are legitimate.

The change from the older liberalism to the new is a natural one. No change in fundamental principle was needed, only a change in what institutions enjoyed general consent and what things seemed possible. Once the growth of the bureaucratic state offered a way to do something about economic inequalities and race and sex distinctions, it was very difficult for liberalism to view the sanctity of property, social arrangements that limit the equal freedom of women, and the privileging (for example) of WASP habits and attitudes as worthy of recognition and protection by a liberal legal order.

For liberals, the strongest argument in favor of such institutions has been the danger of giving government the power needed to reconstruct them. However, it’s not clear from a liberal standpoint why the power to preserve and enforce them is less dangerous. After all, the power to recognize and enforce something that has a coherent liberal justification and can be rationally defined and limited seems less dangerous than the power to enforce something now considered arbitrary. The classical liberal approach reduces the scope of state administration but at the cost of increasing the scope of private power—the power of the property owner, the husband or whatever—that falls outside the system of equal freedom that liberalism makes the highest social and moral good. That seems hard to accept from a liberal standpoint.

If I am right about the nature of liberalism, that it has a definite essence, and that essence is what I say, it may help to consider why liberalism is what it is, why it has been so durable, and why it seems so universally and necessarily valid to so many. It will confirm my definition if those things can be explained consistently with it.

Liberalism seems to me an extension of the scientific outlook. That outlook discounts tradition and revelation, as well as habitual common understandings—common sense—and to the extent possible accepts as real only what we can clearly and surely perceive, quantify, control and make clear to all observers.

Limiting thought as much as possible to what we can see, grasp, measure and master, to what can be made clear to anyone with the necessary ability and technical training, has moral consequences. It favors views that amount to variations on utilitarianism � to treating satisfaction of preferences as the goal of morality and social order. After all, the things that everyone recognizes as relevant to action, that all of us can recognize in ourselves and others without regard to views on good and evil, are pleasures, pains, desires and preferences, what works and what doesn’t.

What men want and how to get it is therefore the basis for modern morality, just as our senses and ability to control nature are the basis for modern natural science. All that is needed to turn the utilitarian bias that makes human preferences the standard of value into full-blown liberalism is to add the logical consideration that since all preferences are equally preferences, as such they have an equal claim to favor. Modern natural science, after all, allows no privileged observers or observations.

Both modern natural science and liberalism claim universality because they try to avoid dealing with anything that is not a demonstrable reality independent of particular cultural preconceptions.

In the case of modern natural science the claim is justified in many ways: TV and modern medicine work everywhere. The authoritative claim of universality is legitimate, however, only as long as modern natural science is treated as a limited enterprise, an effort that might or might not be successful to discover principles that enable us to predict and control nature. It loses transcultural legitimacy when it is treated as the key to the whole truth about the world, when physicalism and piecemeal analysis stop being procedural assumptions and become a comprehensive metaphysics that tells us what the world is like as a whole.

To extend modern natural science in such a way persuades many people, because it is in line with the way scientific hypotheses are generated, through minimal additions to what has already been established. However, to insist that such an unlimited extension of what can be confirmed be treated as true in the face of other considerations is to abandon the rigor and demand for evidence that make modern natural science reliable. If you have moral or philosophical or religious reasons for thinking that mind cannot be fully explained by reference to physical law, it seems to me reasonable to believe it can’t be so explained in spite of Ockham’s razor and the universalizing claims of modern natural science. You are not rationally compelled to believe that science will be as successful in dealing with all questions as it has in dealing with some questions. Nonetheless, today that argument goes against a strong tendency of thought.

Liberalism bases its claim to superiority on avoidance of unprovable axiological assumptions. However, it cannot govern without such assumptions. The strategy that defines liberalism is turning neutrality itself into a substantive principle of value. A neutral government would treat as good only those things on which Catholics, Muslims and modern secularists could all agree. That is not possible. A contemporary liberal government therefore makes what seems to be the minimum deviation from strict neutrality necessary for government to proceed by turning neutrality into a positive principle. It treats as good only those purposes that are themselves neutral—that is, that accept the equal goodness of all other (equally tolerant) purposes. Since neutrality is to be the standard, it enforces neutrality as broadly as it must to make the system work.

Liberalism is therefore a natural extension of the scientific attitude into a comprehensive moral and political ideology. It seems persuasive to those who have accepted that attitude, which includes almost all educated people today. Since it is a natural extension of the scientific method, which can legitimately claim universal validity, it is not simply one more particularism. In order to avoid liberalism it seems necessary to appeal to some source of knowledge other than modern natural science, and the success of modern natural science has made other possible sources of knowledge, especially moral knowledge, seem much less persuasive and lacking in objective public validity.

Liberalism is nonetheless based on a particular definition of goodness, one that in fact excludes all moral views other than its own quite particular view, and is hardly neutral. Liberalism attempts to achieve universality by limiting the considerations it will recognize to things that are universally demonstrable. The problem is that it cannot do so. Modern natural science can admit ignorance; liberalism cannot. As a philosophy of government it must deal with the whole man, and provide answers to whatever comes up. It must claim jurisdiction over questions of life and death, personal responsibility and punishment, the relation between the sexes and the education of children.

It has no sufficient basis for doing so. It therefore tries to pretend basic issues aren’t really there, that what liberal states do is not really coercion, that war and punishment are anomalies that can be done away with, that if anyone refuses to accept liberalism what he says is not really a discussible theory but rather insanity to be ignored or an attack on other people to be suppressed.

Moderate means can eventually reach ends that are not at all moderate. Liberalism in fact tends toward a sort of totalitarianism in the name of an absolutized pluralism. It starts with religious freedom but leads to enforced nihilism because publicly to express the view that one purpose is better than another is to create an environment that is oppressive for those who disagree. It starts by dividing power but in the end demands comprehensive state administration of everything to ensure the equal empowerment of all individuals. The bureaucratic welfare state and the world market are rational formal arrangements for promoting the mutual accommodation and satisfaction of individual preferences. In the end, they are the only principles of social order liberalism can allow. Other principles, like religion, sex roles and particular cultural norms, must be suppressed as irrationally unequal and oppressive.

Nihilism and the abstract purposes of atomic individuals do not seem to me a sufficient foundation for social order. If that’s right, then liberal governments are likely to lose both popular support and rationality, and consequently become increasingly unprincipled, ineffective, and ultimately despotic.

However, if my account is correct, it is impossible to reform liberalism because it’s too simple, self-consistent and firmly grounded. It doesn’t have complexities and internal resources that would permit renovation. You can try to fiddle with institutions, but the basic principle that governs institutional evolution resists change. Who would support fundamental change? Liberalism makes satisfaction of preferences the key, and the current order does give people what they want better than any alternative. People may hate it on the whole, but they love every particular and won’t give them up. Liberalism resolves disputes by letting each party do as he likes consistent with the equal freedom of others. Which part of that approach is to be rejected, and how? And if to avoid liberalism you need some other source of public knowledge regarding morality, what is that source and how do you get people to accept it?

So what now? We can neither go forward, backward, nor stay where we are. History may not have come to an end, but a particular history, the progressive development of Western society toward a particular kind of rational order, does seem to have ended. If that is true, then what we have to look forward to is not “history” as meaningful development, which intellectuals can try to influence by bringing its possibilities to expression. Instead, we are more likely to see incoherence, arbitrariness and the reign of brute fact. Eventually some new principle of coherence will no doubt emerge. In the meantime we may be in for a period in which speculative political thought, although desperately needed, is likely to have little direct public effect.