Liberalism and how to decide

My liberal lawyer correspondent (previous exchanges here and here) has asked how to compare and decide between a liberal and a more traditionalist and Catholic approach to politics and society. Here’s an edited version of the exchange:

Liberal Lawyer: Is it possible to come up with an objective standard by which one could compare liberal and traditional Catholic understandings of how a state and a society should be organized?

Jim Kalb: It’s hard to find a set standard, but here are some things to ask: Do the views seem true to experience? Do they work on their own terms? Are they practically self-defeating? Are they consistent with what else we know? Do they help us understand things and know what to do about them? Does the life they offer seem worthwhile?

I’ve written several pieces setting forth what I see as the internal contradictions of liberalism, for example PC and the Crisis of Liberalism and The Tyranny of Liberalism. One problem I see is that if the highest social goals are freedom and equality, with no substantive goods that can come before them and so limit their demands, the government will go to extremes because the goals are too abstract and demanding. For the sake of perfect freedom and equality the government will end up insisting on controlling everything absolutely so it can keep us from oppressing or getting some sort of advantage over each other. It will be a sort of PC socialism. In order to avoid that you have to recognize other goods that come before freedom and equality, but if you do you aren’t liberal any more.

Another problem internal to liberalism is that people’s goals conflict and no government can resolve the conflicts without taking sides. A liberal government will have to pretend it isn’t doing that because its claim of neutrality is its claim to special legitimacy. What it will have to do, for the sake of attempted neutrality, is give the preference to goals that are totally personal and don’t involve any participation from other people. Otherwise it’s too complicated to treat goals equally and there are too many possibilities for various sorts of oppressive and manipulative behavior. So the people in a liberal society will be trained to be dissolute asocial consumers.

I should add that Alasdair MacIntyre is well-known for his treatment of the question in a sort of trilogy, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, and Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition. A couple of weeks ago I asked for comments on my own long piece that goes through the internal problems of liberalism, asks how it’s possible to do better, and eventually ends up with Catholicism. So the piece is intended to answer the question you ask without begging the question by simply presuming the answer. It’s just a draft but I think most of the argument is there.

LL: I think you misunderstand liberalism if you think equality is as much a central goal of liberalism as freedom. Equality, in classical liberalism, is only legal and political, NOT economic. Look at the platforms of mainstream liberal Democrats; there is no call for equality of result, only further attempts to level the field.

JK: You speak of “classical liberalism,” but classical liberalism changed into what we have now. For the past 100 years or so liberalism has had a strong egalitarian streak. I think the change was natural. If you take content-free abstractions like freedom and equality as final standards that trump everything else their demands escalate without limit.

I agree that for liberals freedom is primary, but equality is also essential. The goal is equal freedom, and if I have less money and position than you do my freedom isn’t equal. As to me, the situation is oppressive. I think Rawls has the liberal view right—he says that while freedom comes first of all equality is also a fundamental principle of justice, and the government should intervene in favor of equality as much as it can without actually reducing the well-being of those at the bottom. So inequality is allowed only as a grudging concession to minimal efficiency.

Liberals who criticize Rawls on this point, by the way, complain that depending on circumstances his theory might allow very great inequalities. They’re uneasy about that. Liberals aren’t really happy about the collapse of socialism, or the cutbacks in European welfare states. I speak of various intellectual and academic liberals here, who presumably have the best grip on the implications of the liberal view of things.

I agree that in mainstream politics people talk about equal opportunity more than equal results. As a practical matter though the two are the same. Equality of opportunity can’t be directly observed, there’s too much that might make opportunities unequal, and it’s not nice to say people are less successful because they’re lazy, stupid, or vicious. The result is that unequal results are presumed—pretty much irrebuttably—to reflect unequal opportunity. “Poor” and “underprivileged” are taken to be synonymous.

Getting rid of artificial barriers like the Jim Crow laws has never been the basic concern in the modern “civil rights” movement. The ’64 CRA was interpreted almost immediately to require affirmative action of various sorts. Also, since the ’70s talk about “equal opportunity” has mostly been replaced by talk about “diversity,” which really does mean “equal results.” Equality of results is the way you get a workforce that “looks like America,” “reflects the communities in which we do business” and so on. I agree that when the question is raised people say “affirmative action” is temporary. We’ve had it for more than 30 years, though, and no-one’s cutting back on it. Justice O’Connor says another 25 years ought to do the trick. Why take that seriously?

LL: I don’t understand your point about liberalism being unable to handle conflicts. On the contrary, liberalism is specially qualified to handle conflicts in that fair, open, processes are in place to ensure that these conflicts are handled peaceably and as reasonably as possible.

JK: A philosophy that claims that neutrality as to values gives it a right to rule that trumps all other rights will naturally claim that it doesn’t impose anything, it just establishes fair open processes that facilitate coming to reasonable results that reflect various opinions in a balanced way. It’s obvious though that such an approach can only apply to issues that don’t matter all that much to people, for example matters of marginal economic advantage. If an issue is really important then the liberal tendency is to handle it prepolitically, for example through constitutional adjudication and now increasingly through international standards of “human rights”. What that amounts to is defining basic conflicts out of existence by defining one side of the conflict as illegitimate and politically impermissible. Taking sides in fundamental conflicts and denying you’re doing so by defining one side as something that can’t legitimately exist is what I call inability to handle conflicts.

I think the liberal tendency to expand the role of “expertise,” “professional standards” and the like also shows the dislike and fear of conflict, and the desire to somehow define it out of existence, that you’d expect in a philosophy that exalts neutrality above all. A basic problem with that tendency is that expertise and professional standards can’t in fact remain neutral when they tell us what to do about actual issues. They claim to be neutral but aren’t because neutrality doesn’t say enough to resolve actual problems. The attempt to present them as ways of to avoid facing divisive issues squarely always involves fraud.

LL: Even on social issues, any Supreme Court decision can be overruled by a later Supreme Court. State and federal constitutions can be amended.

JK: An absolute monarch can be overruled by his successor, and various sorts of influences can be brought to bear on him. He’s only one man, after all, and needs to get the cooperation of others to do anything. So he’s never as absolute as he seems.

More to the point, the stronghold of liberalism is the class of those who claim the right to rule because they claim to possess disinterested expertise of one sort or another that means that their views should trump the views of other people. That is a class like any other class and it has interests just as doctors or automakers or munitions manufacturers have interests. That class includes the top people in law, academia, and journalism and it is overwhelmingly liberal—which is not surprising, given its interests. Because of the centralization of public discussion in America today and the prestige associated with expertise in mass hi-tech society it’s very hard to push through constitutional change if the top people in law, academia, and journalism are outraged by what you’re doing. And if you do push the change through it will be difficult to get it to stick because after all laws must be interpreted and it’s the members of that same class who do the interpreting. I agree that the fact it’s at least theoretically possible to push through constitutional change is a moderating influence compared with the situation is say the old Soviet Union. Still, the possibility shouldn’t be overestimated.

LL: Liberalism’s strength is its legitimacy. If it works as it should, every side to an issue gets aired freely. Then the people’s representatives decide the issue. Since everyone is equal politically and legally and everyone’s voice is heard, then everyone can accept an adverse decision. Plus there’s always the ability to work on changing minds to review the issue and perhaps get a different result.

JK: You’re talking about an idealized version of representative democracy and not about liberalism. The two aren’t at all the same. Do you believe that the present role of courts, regulatory bureaucracies and experts of various sorts in American public life is anti-liberal? Do you believe that international human rights law is anti-liberal?

LL: The fact that many Americans act as dissolute consumers is not due to liberalism. People choose to be that way. What would you have the government do? Force people to be “better”?

JK: It seems to me that it matters what ideas of good and evil a social order is based on. If that weren’t so why would the question of a religious establishment be considered so important? If it doesn’t much matter that liberalism is the established view why would it matter to you if the government recognized Catholicism as true?

What people become depends on what they choose, but they choose within a setting and by reference to what is publicly considered good, bad, honorable, disgraceful, and so on. I think it matters that in America the education of children is mainly a matter for the government and for certified experts. I think it matters that children are trained by public authority to view making money, rising in the world, pursuing their own personal goals, and accepting what experts tell them as genuinely worthy things, and to view religion, culture and sexual conduct as matters of purely personal choice and thus as matters of taste, so much so that it’s considered a vice to think there’s a real difference between good and bad in such matters. I think it matters that public authority tells people it’s illegal to refuse to rent an apartment to an umarried couple or for a municipality to put a Nativity scene on public property, and that courts are beginning to say that defining marriage as a union of a man and a woman is impermissible bigotry. Man is social, and what authoritative social institutions say is good and admirable gets reflected in the lives of those around us and eventually our own lives.

LL: It’s easy to take pot shots at liberalism’s weaknesses, but you don’t have a real-life alternative to liberalism, do you?

JK: We certainly have to start where we are, so in that sense I don’t have a real-life alternative to the general outlines of how things are now. Here are some of the reforms I’d propose, though:

  • Abandon judicial doctrines that forbid the recognition of religion and moral standards that are arguably religion-based in public life.
  • Reduce the role of the courts in public life generally. The resolution of social issues should not normally depend on supposed interpretations of the law by judges.
  • Radically reduce immigration, so that a more settled people with more settled mutual relationships and common understandings becomes able to participate in running its own affairs in a more genuine way.
  • Radically cut back on equal opportunity laws, so people can form the connections they find rewarding based on their actual habits, understandings, and affinities. (That means, among other things, that private institutions can have all the affirmative action they want but government can’t pressure them into it.)
  • Decentralize government. Why are the Feds always trying to force the states to comply with policies that don’t have to be decided at the national level? An extreme example of over-centralization would be the Convention on the Rights of the Child. What’s the justification for an attempt to make parent/child relations a matter of international law? Hasn’t something gone very wrong when that seems normal to people?
  • Find ways to reduce the role of expertise in our public life. Some ideas: decentralize public education and increase local responsibility for funding it. Reduce formal requirements for teacher certification and for that matter formal requirements for all sorts of positions and occupations.
  • Something has to be done about the welfare state—the well-being of particular individuals should not be the responsibility of national government.

There are lots of other right-wing reforms I’d approve of. Collectively these things would change the direction of things away from the further working-out of liberalism. Not all of them can be put into effect by a simple act of government. There’s plenty for everyone to do, a great deal of intellectual work, persuasion and personal conversion of life for example. There’d also have to be reforms within religion and higher education, and new or reformed cultural institutions.

LL: History has proven the success of liberalism. Can you point to a society, in existence right now, that is not liberal but has achieved a better way of life, however you define that term, than liberalism has?

JK: At various times in the past the same question could have been asked about established Christianity or hereditary monarchy or societies with established nobilities. We live in a civilization that’s been very successful in many ways. What’s made it successful has been a mixture of things, some of which have been liberal in tendency and some of which have been distinctly non-liberal. (I go into the issues a bit in my Traditionalism and the American Order.)

The West has tended to become increasingly liberal over time. No civilization lasts forever, and no simple principle of action can be extended more rigorously into more aspects of life indefinitely without running into problems. At present we’re more successful in some ways than in the past but not in other ways. The question to my mind is whether whatever benefits have been associated with the increasing dominance of liberal principles in the West have played themselves out, so that the continuing development of those principles is now destructive and a different orientation is needed.

5 thoughts on “Liberalism and how to decide”

  1. “LL: I think you
    “LL: I think you misunderstand liberalism if you think equality is as much a central goal of liberalism as freedom. [..] there is no call for equality of result, only further attempts to level the field.”

    The blindness of somebody claiming liberals don’t call for equality of result when everyone knows that’s precisely how they define equality of opportunity is beyond astounding. Surely for LL to be so blind, liberalism must be a religion for him. Otherwise it’s either stupidity or bold-faced mandacity. (To see how these people combine fanaticism, stupidity, and mendacity into one, read the following interview: .)

    “LL: The fact that many Americans act as dissolute consumers is not due to liberalism. People choose to be that way. What would you have the government do? Force people to be ‘better’?”

    But when the American people as “consumers” choose all sorts of anti-liberal things such as opposition to excessive immigration in poll after poll, or binding referendums aimed at mitigating the ill effects of excessive immigration (since the elites won’t permit them to stop it outright), the liberal elites DO “force them to be better.” They simply tell them that what they want is impermissible (thereby “bettering” them, no doubt…).

    “LL: It’s easy to take pot shots at liberalism’s weaknesses […].”

    By referring to the right’s criticisms as “pot shots taken at liberalism’s weaknesses” LL is here trying to dismiss those criticisms as mere nitpicking aimed at minor details unrepresentative of liberalism’s main thrust. We saw this recently in another thread, on the part of the liberal correspondent signing as Hal who—when it was mentioned that young public school children were being subjected to punishment and humiliation for saying grace before eating their snacks—responded as if that was some sort of minor aberration unrepresentative of liberalism’s real substance and therefore not worth bringing up. Hal and LL can’t understand that far from an aberration, that sort of unacceptable outrage is liberalism’s stock in trade, and people are losing patience with it—to put it mildly. So, no, LL—none of this discussion can be dismissed merely as taking easy “pot shots at liberalism’s weaknesses.” This is extremely serious criticism of what others see as liberalism’s fundamental nature, its main faults and central outrages.

    “JK: Liberals aren’t really happy about the collapse of socialism […]. I speak of various intellectual and academic liberals here […].”

    You can say THAT again! See the FrontPage Jamie Glazov interview I linked above, which sheds much light on Mr. Kalb’s comment here.

    “JK: What that amounts to is defining basic conflicts out of existence by defining one side of the conflict as illegitimate and politically impermissible.”

    This of course is exactly a big part of liberalism’s modus operandi: the people vote for an anti-liberal position in some binding referendum and a liberal judge simply comes along and strikes it down on dubius grounds. That’s what LL views as impartial fairness.

    “LL: History has proven the success of liberalism. Can you point to a society, in existence right now, that is not liberal but has achieved a better way of life, however you define that term, than liberalism has?”

    I can: the nineteen-fifties. No, the fifties aren’t in existence right now but with effort maybe we can bring them back.

    “JK: No civilization lasts forever […]”

    Why Rome fell, literally disappearing from the world stage, has never been adequately explained but doubtless can be, given further study, and the results applied to saving other civilizations—including perhaps the North-American Anglo-Saxon one—from Rome’s fate. Inevitably, part of what Turnabout, VFR, and similar sites are about is shedding further light on that subject.

  2. I think it’s a mistake to
    I think it’s a mistake to view LL and others as willfully blind, lacking in public spirit etc. They’re describing how the world really does look to them. The isse is whose view is reality and whose view is an optical illusion. The claim that your view is reality is more persuasive to the extent you show you understand why your opponent’s view is so persuasive to him and can argue against it from inside it or at least on the basis of things both sides in fact agree on. (It’s not always possible to do that of course.)

  3. I appreciate Mr. Kalb’s
    I appreciate Mr. Kalb’s helpful and gentle reprimand and I apologize for what I realize now was my comment’s inappropriate wording in spots. As regards LL’s jaw-dropping claim that liberalism doesn’t call for equality of results: how does one argue against an absolutely incredible untruth like that from within a liberal’s framework? It’s like trying to argue 2 + 2 = 4 from within the framework of someone who knows every bit as much arithmetic as everyone else, but insists nevertheless for some reason that it equals 5. (This is a rhetorical question for which I don’t expect an answer from Mr. Kalb—I realize examples like this may fall in his “It’s not always possible to do” category.)

  4. That tenet of liberalism
    That tenet of liberalism alone—its iron-fisted demand that there be equality of results—is one of its two or three central pillars and is responsible directly or indirectly for something like eighty percent of all of liberalism’s mischief. That any liberal could deny its existence—the existence of what is one of liberalism’s most fundamental doctrines and maybe its most noxious—is nothing short of astounding.

  5. LL mostly strikes me as
    LL mostly strikes me as old-fashioned, trusting and public-spirited, all of which are usually good qualities. Within living memory mainstream liberalism mostly emphasized equal opportunity, and that’s still a basic part of the rhetoric. Otherwise, why talk about “discrimination” and “exclusion”? The point of political rhetoric in America today is always to present yourself as reasonable, moderate, normal, and in line with the best of American tradition, and your opponents as extremists. Liberals control most public discussion, so if you trust the world around you why not believe them?

    Also, it’s easy to feel there’s something less than generous about the view that if people have problems it’s their own fault, or about rejecting the idea of special measures to include more and more people in the benefits of American life. So it seems to me natural for someone who trusts the good faith of public leaders and admired authorities, and who comes from a background (New York Jewish for example) in which it’s natural to emphasize the liberal, reformist and universalist aspects of American tradition, to maintain an old-fashioned high-school civics version of American government even when it looks amazingly unrealistic to someone who doesn’t share the view.


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