Complaints about ‘The Tyranny of Liberalism’

A correspondent passed on the following comment by another reader of my essay “The Tyranny of Liberalism”:

I read the first part of the article, but I am not going to read the rest, though I did skim through it. It is so bad that it is not worth the time. The first part of the article is basically a giant strawman argument against “liberalism” that largely misunderstands liberalism and liberals. This article, like many other pieces by social conservatives, makes the same mistakes that Critical Theorists, Critical Legal Studies scholars and other leftwing thinkers make when they attack liberalism. It would seem that the Right and the Left don’t understand the Center. Liberalism does not purport to be neutral on issues of morality. And it is clearly not only about the satisfaction of desires. Any criticism built upon such assumptions, like this article, shows a deep ignorance about liberal thought. A quick reading of serious liberal thinkers like Rawls, Nozick (libertarians are liberals in the broad sense), and Dworkin, or of more mainstream liberal sources, would demonstrate this to any remotely fair reader. If anything, the criticisms the author makes are far more applicable to capitalism than to liberalism. It is the defenders of capitalism who try, more than any others, to portray that system as neutral. Perhaps one day social conservatives will learn what Marx compellingly argued 150 years ago—that the creative destruction of markets celebrated by so many does far more to undermine traditional value systems than any version of liberal or Liberal political thought ever could.

My response:

Thanks for forwarding. It’s always helpful to know how what one says appears to others.

It seems to me that the problem is that the “liberalism” I discuss is less liberalism as opposed to libertarianism or capitalism, or the specific thought of particular thinkers, than liberalism as a longstanding tendency of thought and institutional development that tends ever more to treat individual preferences as the source of value and those preferences together with formal logic and means-ends reasoning as the basis for a complete system of social morality and politics. It seems to me OK to call that grand tendency “liberalism” because the thinkers and movements called liberal are, it seems to me, its best and most successful representatives and they forward that tendency in an ever more comprehensive and thorough way.

All of which would probably also seem like nonsense to your correspondent. On issues like these people most often don’t understand each other unless they already almost believe the same thing. Also, it’s easier to see grand patterns if you’re outside a tendency than if you’re within it. If you’re within the views of outsiders seem like uninformed fantasy. Such is life.

As to more particular points:

  1. Locke, Mills, Rawls etc. are very useful witnesses to liberalism but they do not define what it is for analysis any more than particular thinkers who favor and promote any other large and long-lasting social movement define what that movement is for analysis. One must step back and ask what it all amounts to, what the decisive principles really are, and where it’s all going.
  2. Libertarianism and capitalist ideology seem to me less developed forms of liberalism. In other words, I agree with liberals who call themselves progressive and consider classical liberals reactionary, frozen in time, stuck on old-fashioned dogma etc. The point of that belief is that both classical and contemporary liberalism are stages in the development of the implications of common fundamental understandings and aspirations, with contemporary liberalism a more developed stage.
  3. Everybody thinks he’s at the center. What’s ordinarily called liberalism is admittedly more stable and cautious than other forms of progressive and leftist thought. Still, there’s a question whether liberal theory is able adequately to take into account the whole range of human characteristics and concerns so that it can continue to provide a tolerable setting for people to live. Basically, my view is that since the 60s and especially since 1989 liberalism has become too comprehensive and ideological, partly because it’s had no serious principled competitors. So far as I can tell the step-by-step manner and strong connection to institutional practice that makes it seem centrist to its adherents just means that it’s all the more effective in leading us all over a cliff. Like the mills of the gods, in comparison with Leftism liberalism grinds slow but exceeding fine.

Once again, thanks for forwarding. The comment raised important issues, although naturally I don’t agree with the formulation or conclusions.

12 thoughts on “Complaints about ‘The Tyranny of Liberalism’”

  1. What a Maroon
    Liberal nominalism at work by a silly-head. This self-important silly-head attempts to define liberalism in the terms of Karl Marx, one of history’s worst political scientists. Mr. Kalb’s rebuttal was highly useful to his peers, but maybe it did not get to the core problem: the existence of hateful berserkers such as the silly-head. This silly-head purports to define liberalism in a way no average American liberal could come close to understanding. What a maroon.

  2. Liberals and their self-image
    I’m satisfied with Mr. Kalb’s measured comments, but I’ll add some random thoughts.

    1. Liberals don’t take criticism very well, but of course Liberals are liberal with their criticisms of other worldviews (Recall liberal commentary about the Catholic Church and Christian dogma during the death and funeral of John Paul II).

    2. “Liberalism does not purport to be neutral on issues of morality.”

    This comment is more insightful than the writer intends. Liberalism does pretend to be neutral on issues of morality (for a primer, read the SCOTUS decision, and the dissent, in Lawrence v. Texas). But Liberalism is decidedly not neutral. For liberals, Liberalism itself is the governing moral system, and it must be obeyed on pain of exile and exclusion (again, simply consult the competing arguments before the SCOTUS in the Solomon Amendment case for reference).

    3. “If anything, the criticisms the author makes are far more applicable to capitalism than to liberalism. It is the defenders of capitalism who try, more than any others, to portray that system as neutral.”

    This is an interesting comment. Perhaps the promoters of capitalism defend it as “neutral” in the same way that Darwinists defend natural selection as “neutral.” It is, however, more likely for capitalists to use phraseology like “equal opportunity” and “a rising tide lifts all boats” than to promise anything like neutrality. One attraction of capitalism is its emphasis on competition, a conflict that liberalism detests.

    4. “Perhaps one day social conservatives will learn what Marx compellingly argued 150 years ago — that the creative destruction of markets celebrated by so many does far more to undermine traditional value systems than any version of liberal or Liberal political thought ever could.”

    This is also interesting, although perhaps I misinterpret it; apparently, to the liberal mind, Marx was a social conservative, defending traditional arrangements against the depredations of capitalism.

    The relationship of the structure of capitalism (and it has had differing permutations depending on time and place) to liberalism is a big subject, but traditionally capitalism and its rise in the West has been more closely associated with a conservative Protestantism than with any progressive or leftist tendencies in society. Whether this association, whether self-referential or not, is or was hypocritical is another question. The ethic of capitalism includes such traditional notions as fair play, honesty, thrift, hard work, planning for the future, self-reliance, competition, commercial law, accurate and reliable bookkeeping, trust, and the reliability and enforceability of contract. This ethic does not appear, at first blush, as a destabilizing force within a Protestant society.

    It is when capitalism is turned into a system of consumer satisfaction that individual desires, preferences, and wants begin to color the analysis (one could argue that this entire take on capitalism is the product of liberal thought). In this view, consumers have “rights,” because presumably they are the intended beneficiary of capitalist largesse, or perhaps the victims of capitalist greed and/or malice (they are not; the intended beneficiaries are shareholders).

    One could also argue that capitalism has taken the shape it has in the West subject to and only within the limitations imposed upon it by a conservative Protestant society, and as the traditional mores of that society have degenerated capitalism itself has assumed different forms and functions. For purposes of this discussion, I assume that Scotland, England, Northern Europe, and the United States were “conservative Protestant societies” until at least 1945.

    Finally, the purported social devastation wrought by the “creative destruction of markets” depends on the market. A market is the junction of supply and demand. In the absence of demand, there is no market. A culture establishes which goods and services are in demand. A conservative Protestant culture will have different demands than our present liberal culture. A “market” cannot act unilaterally to either alter or devastate a culture; the culture must change first, and participate by endorsing some demand that is destructive to the existing culture (such as Native Americans demanding whiskey and guns; that demand created a market, and the market then did its work).

    One must distinguish between Capitalism and Industrialization. We (like Marx) tend to conflate the two, but they are two separate developments. A society may industrialize without a touch of capitalism, such as the former Soviet Union. The massive social dislocations of the 19th century, to which Marx and others responded, were produced by Industrialization, not by capitalism per se.

    The West is now in a period of de-Industrialization (“loss of manufacturing jobs,” “the Information Age,” etc.), which is also producing social dislocations. As society de-Industrializes, the illusion arises that all work is a gender-free zone; in a non-Industrial and non-Agricultural setting, this may be true. So long as the West divorces itself from Agriculture and Industry, this illusion will seem like reality. Of course, few if any of our Liberal elites are involved in, or know anything about, either Industry or Agriculture. This illusion then drives an ideology of gender equality, a change in social roles, a loss of a distinctive masculinity, the emergence of the “sensitive male,” the transformation of traditional symbols into liberal icons (Jesus of Nazareth as a sensitive, suburban Nice Guy), and so on.

  3. the Autism of Liberalism
    “On issues like these people most often don’t understand each other unless they already almost believe the same thing. Also, it’s easier to see grand patterns if you’re outside a tendency than if you’re within it. If you’re within the views of outsiders seem like uninformed fantasy. Such is life.”

    You hint at the incommensurability of Liberalism with any competing worldview in general, and with any principled conservatism in particular.

    Some think that Liberalism is merely an extension and softening and broadening of traditional conservative arrangements. This isn’t true. Liberalism is a radical break from traditional conservatism. One of your other pieces discussed Liberal dissatisfaction with existence itself, its strong gnostic tendencies, and its idealist foundations (by “idealist” I refer to its idealist ontology, a fact that many conservatives have yet to comprehend about Liberalism). A Note to Mr. Kalb: Perhaps you could write a piece about Conservatives’ inability or refusal to digest and comprehend and appreciate the idealist ontology of Liberalism, and the fact that Liberals really believe it.

    Conservatives, for the most part, hold to a realist ontology. Liberals, on the other hand, hold to an idealist ontology. These two views of reality are incommensurable, and make intelligent communication nearly impossible. Each ontology leads to a radically differing view of man and humanity (a difference that is most dramatically illustrated in the abortion debate), a radically differing view of human possibilities and limits, and a radically differing view of the good for man (and whether that good is determined or derived by any power or reality outside or beyond man).

  4. Liberal Ontology
    This comment actually follows the earlier comment on the autism of Liberalism.

    Alvin Plantinga is a conservative, Christian professor of philosophy at Notre Dame (he is not Catholic). He provides a good summary of liberal ontology, which he calls “creative anti-realism,” and which he traces to Kant in the history of Western thought. Here is his description:

    “Here the fundamental idea—in sharp contrast to naturalism—is that we human
    beings, in some deep and important way, are ourselves responsible for the
    structure and nature of the world; it is we , fundamentally, who are the architects
    of the universe. This view received magnificent if obscure expression in
    Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason . Kant did not deny, of course, that
    there really are such things as mountains, horses, planets and stars. Instead, his
    characteristic claim is that their existence and their fundamental structure have
    been conferred upon them by the conceptual activity of persons—not by the
    conceptual activity of a personal God, but by our conceptual activity, the
    conceptual activity of us human beings. According to this view, the whole world
    of experience— the world of trees and planets and dinosaurs and stars—receives its
    basic structure from the constituting activity of mind. Such fundamental structures
    of the world as those of space and time, object and property, number, truth and
    falsehood, possibility and necessity and even existence and nonexistence—these
    are not to be found in the world as such (do not characterize those dinge an sich ),
    but are somehow constituted by our own mental or conceptual activity. They are
    contributions from our side; they are not to be found in the things in themselves.
    We impose them on the world; we do not discover them there. Were there no
    persons like ourselves engaging in conceptual, noetic activities, there would be
    nothing in space and time, nothing displaying object-property structure, nothing
    that is true or false, possible or impossible, no kinds of things coming in a certain
    number—nothing like this at all.

    We might think it impossible that the things we know—houses and horses,
    cabbages and kings, planets and stars—should be there at all but fail to be in
    space-time, fail to display object property structure, and fail to conform to the
    category of existence; indeed, we may think it impossible that there be a thing of
    any sort that doesn’t have properties and doesn’t exist. If so, then Kant’s view
    implies that there would be nothing at all if it weren’t for the creative structuring
    activity of persons like us. Of course, I don’t say Kant clearly drew this
    conclusion; indeed, he may have obscurely drawn the opposite conclusion: that is
    part of his charm. But the fundamental thrust of Kant’s self-styled Copernican
    Revolution is that the things in the world owe their basic structure and perhaps
    their very existence to the noetic activity of our minds. Or perhaps I should say
    not minds but mind ; for whether, on Kant’s view, there is just one transcendental
    ego or several is, of course, a vexed question, as are most questions of Kantian
    exegesis. Indeed, this question is more than vexed; given Kant’s view that
    quantity, number, is a human category imposed on the world, there is presumably no number n, finite or infinite, such that the answer to the question “How many of
    those transcendental egos are there?” is n.
    Until you feel the grip of this sort of way of looking at things, it can seem a bit
    presumptuous, not to say preposterous. Did we structure or create the heavens and
    the earth? Some of us think there were animals—dinosaurs, let’s say—roaming the
    earth before human beings had so much as put in an appearance; how could it be
    that those dinosaurs owed their structure to our noetic activity? What did we do to
    give them the structure they enjoyed? And what about all those stars and planets
    we have never so much as heard of: how have we managed to structure them?
    When did we do all this? Did we structure ourselves in this way too? And if the
    way things are is thus up to us and our structuring activity, why don’t we improve
    things a bit?

    Creative anti-realism can seem a bit hard to swallow; nevertheless it is widely
    accepted and an astonishingly important force in the contemporary western
    intellectual world. Vast stretches of contemporary Continental philosophy, for
    example, are anti-realist. There is Existentialism, according to which, at least in
    its Sartian varieties, each of us structures or creates the world by way of her own
    decisions. There is also contemporary Heideggerian hermeneutical philosophy of
    various stripes; there is contemporary French philosophy, much of which beggars
    description, but insofar as anything at all is clear about it, is clearly anti-realist. In
    Anglo-American philosophy, there is the creative anti-realism of Hilary Putnam
    and Nelson Goodman and their followers; there is the reflection of continental
    anti-realism in such American philosophers as Richard Rorty; and perhaps most
    important, there is the linguistic anti-realism of Wittgenstein and his many
    followers. It is characteristic of all of these to hold that we human beings are
    somehow responsible for the way the world is—by way of our linguistic or more
    broadly symbolic activity, or by way of our decisions, or in some other way. And
    of course creative anti-realism is not limited to philosophy; it has made deep
    inroads in many areas of the humanities and even into law.[6]

    Like perennial naturalism, creative anti-realism is to be found even in theology,
    which is heavily under the influence of Kant. Indeed, it is a bit naive to say that it
    is found even in theology; in the sort of theology that, according to its exponents,
    is the most up to date and au courant , these notions run absolutely riot. Creative
    anti-realism is developed (if I may speak loosely) in theological fashion in Don
    Cupitt’s book Creation out of Nothing . The blurb on the back of the book nicely
    sums up its main claim:

    ‘The consequence of all this is that divine and human creativity
    come to be seen as coinciding in the present moment. The creation
    of the world happens all of the time, in and through us, as language
    surges up within us and pours out of us to form and reform the
    world of experience. Reality … is effected by language ….’

    This is said to be “a philosophy of religion for the future” (we may hope the very
    distant future) and “a genuine alternative to pietism and fundamentalism” (as well,
    we might add, as to any other form of Christianity). The same view has made its
    way into physics or at least the philosophy of physics. It is said that there is no
    reality until we make the requisite observations; there is no such thing as reality in
    itself and unobserved, or if there is, it is nothing at all like anything we can make
    sense of. In ethics, this view takes the form of the idea that no moral law can be
    binding on me unless I myself (or perhaps my society) issue or set that law.
    Perennial naturalism and creative anti-realism are related in an interesting
    manner: the first vastly underestimates the place of human beings in the universe,
    and the second vastly overestimates it. According to the first, human beings are
    essentially no more than complicated machines, with no real creativity, in an
    important sense we can’t really act at all, any more than can a spark plug, or
    coffee grinder, or a tractor. We are not ourselves the origin of any causal chains.
    According to the second, by contrast, we human beings, insofar as we confer its
    basic structure upon the world, really take the place of God. What there is and
    what it is like is really up to us, and a result of our activity.”

    Some of Plantinga’s writings are catalogued at

    • Things in themselves and other nonsense
      Another description of this view of the world is provided by David Stove, a deceased Australian philosopher. He called Kant’s position, and the general position of idealist ontology, the “worst argument in the world.” He also pointed out how pervasive this way of thinking is in the modern (supposedly sophisticated) world.

      You can find an article on Stove’s “worst argument in the world” at

      An excerpt:

      “Perhaps that argument does not look familiar at first glance. It will be argued that it is extraordinarily common, and that it has underpinned many irrationalist programs in the history of thought, from classical idealism to recent relativisms in the philosophy of language, the philosophy of science, ethics and elsewhere.

      But to start closer to home. Two short passages from Stove’s later book, The Plato Cult, deal with people everyone has actually met. Speaking of the typical products of a modern high school, he writes:

      ‘Their intellectual temper is (as everyone remarks) the reverse of dogmatic, in fact pleasingly modest. They are quick to acknowledge that their own opinion, on any matter whatsoever, is only their opinion; and they will candidly tell you, too, the reason why it is only their opinion. This reason is, that it is their opinion. (Stove, 1991, 168).’

      And who can fail to recognise Stove’s picture of another group of players in the intellectual world:

      ‘The cultural-relativist, for example, inveighs bitterly against our science-based, white-male cultural perspective. She says that it is not only injurious but cognitively limiting. Injurious it may be; or again it may not. But why does she believe that it is cognitively limiting? Why, for no other reason in the world, except this one: that it is ours. Everyone really understands, too, that this is the only reason. But since this reason is also generally accepted as a sufficient one, no other is felt to be needed. (Stove, 1991, 167)’

      These arguments – or, less euphemistically, dogmas – are versions of Stove’s `Worst Argument’ because all there is to them as arguments is: our conceptual schemes are our conceptual schemes, so, we cannot get out of them (to know things as they are in themselves). In Alan Olding’s telling caricature, `We have eyes, therefore we cannot see.’ (Olding, 1998; further in Olding, unpublished)

      • Just a Note
        One could characterize Larry Auster’s website, View From the Right, as a continual resistance to the liberal dogma: “We have eyes, therefore we cannot see.”

      • One more
        In addition to Plantinga and Stove, here is Hannah Arendt writing about the prevailing liberal dogma that not only don’t we know anything, we can’t know anything, and therefore we just make everything up as we go along, reducing all judgments to a matter of taste:

        . . . the birth of the modern idea of history not only coincided with but was powerfully stimulated by the modern age’s doubt of the reality of an outer world “objectively” given to human perception as an unchanged and unchangeable object. In our context the most important consequence of this doubt was the emphasis on sensation qua sensation as more “real” than the “sensed” object and, at any rate, the only safe ground of experience. Against this subjectivization, which is but one aspect of the still growing world-alienation of man in the modern age, no judgments could hold out: they were all reduced to the level of sensations and ended on the level of the lowest of all sensations, the sensation of taste. our vocabulary is a telling testimony to this degradation. All judgments not inspired by moral principle (which is felt to be old-fashioned) or not dictated by some self-interest are considered matters of “taste,” and this in hardly a different sense from what we mean by saying that the preference for clam chowder over pea soup is a matter of taste. This conviction, the vulgarity of its defenders on the theoretical level notwithstanding, has disturbed the conscience of the historian much more deeply because it has much deeper roots in the general spirit of the modern age than the allegedly superior scientific standards of his colleagues in the natural sciences.”

        This was published in 1958.

        Note her observation that this general epistemological doubt takes precedence over science (and its claim to “objective knowledge” of the external, physical world). This assertion is verified by liberal practice, which idolizes science when expedient, and ignores or villifies science in the face of science that challenges liberal dogma. Also note her observation of the general world-alienation of modern man, which was also observed by Mr. Kalb when he noted that liberals object, on general principle, to existence itself.

        • Interesting how our friend
          Interesting how our friend Kant, in his attepmt to ‘save’ knowledge (including natural science) and morality and set it upon what he considered ‘firm’ rational grounds, actually pulled the rug out from under them.

          If we cannot see or know things ‘as they are,’ we end up in a solipsistic state in which, as just pointed out, we are free to affirm something when it suits us, and deny it when it does not, all without regard for objective fact or that nasty, ‘medieval’ principle of non-contradiction. “Cause and effect? Nonsense!” In our broken world, truth is what we one wants it to be. Morality, nature, logic, even the data provided by our own two eyes fall victim to this pernicious idealism.

          • Power
            So what’s left? As Nietzsche pointed out: Power.

            And if the citizenry is deprived of tradition, culture, religion, reason, logic, or morality, how does it participate in, negotiate with, or contest Power? It can’t.

            Your two pithy paragraphs are an excellent summary of Alisdair MacIntyre’s book, “After Virtue,” in which he traced the historical roots of the phenomena you describe.

    • >Alvin Plantinga is a
      >Alvin Plantinga is a conservative, Christian professor of philosophy at Notre Dame (he is not Catholic)

      Indeed, he’s one of my people, Reformed. I sometimes get him mixed up with his Canadian third cousin, Theodore Plantinga, also a former Calvin College prof. and an essayist

      • Alvin
        According to his website biography, Alvin taught at Calvin College for a number of years before moving on to Notre Dame.

  5. Spineless Commentator
    Dear Mr. Kalb and Fellow Readers,

    The maroonish commentator cowardly exits the scene. This seems to be a characteristic of many neoconservatives/liberals. “Oh, we just haven’t the time or resources.” “Oh, we don’t debate Nazis.” “Oh dear oh dear.” If you get on their case politely, they still bar or ignore you. There must be exceptions because I am a fighter and know there are many fighters. But where are they on the liberal side? This evidence supports Ann Coulter’s conclusion that liberals are lunatics. Liberals lack the ability to think like the rest of us; therefore, they avoid rational argument.


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