Interview at 2Blowhards, part II

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

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

Kalb: My convictions were a lot less concrete at the time, although I did find the place ideologically pretty alien. I just didn’t believe in any of it. I responded by taking myself out of the loop as much as possible and doing a lot of legal history. The place was flexible enough that on the whole I could enjoy it.

2B: We’ve been mighty abstract so far. What might be a conservative way of thinking about and approaching a concrete, in-the-news type topic?

Kalb: How about immigration? On a conservative view the key to immigration would be cultural and political coherence. America isn’t just a legal framework or a means to an end, it’s the American people and their common life over time. The American people isn’t simply an aggregate, it’s a complex unity. So even though America can absorb new citizens, without a generally stable population there will be problems because it won’t have the coherence and specificity to be a concrete object of loyalty. It will be an ideological proposition rather than a country. I’d rather have a country to love than an ideological proposition to sign on to. I should add that without a stable population there can’t be the common habits, understandings and loyalties that are needed for the American people to deliberate and act in a somewhat sensible way. Self-government becomes impossible. Which may be one reason American elites like wide-open immigration and ordinary Americans don’t.

2B: In one of your online papers, you distinguish between liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism. Jeremy Shearmur once talked about how, in his view, there are three main political traditions: conservatism, liberalism (subdivided into market liberalism, ie. Republicans, and welfare liberals, ie., Democrats), and socialism. Is that a taxonomy you can live with? Does it conflict with yours?

Kalb: I don’t object to Shearmur’s taxonomy. It’s a little different from mine but not really at odds with it. There are different ways of sorting things out. I mostly sort out politics by looking at ultimate standards of what’s good and bad. So when I say “liberal” I mean a tendency that makes equality and satisfaction of individual preferences the standards for what’s good. On that line of thought welfare state liberalism and ideological libertarianism are variations of the same thing. Both are basically concerned with satisfying individual preferences and both take all preferences as equal in worth. They contrast with conservatism because conservatism says the human good is more complicated than everyone getting what he wants.

In the paper you mention (here) the emphasis is on methods more than goals. I say there that a “leftist” is someone who favors bureaucracy, a “libertarian” is someone who favors markets, and a “conservative” is someone favors tradition—that is, who favors accepting institutions that have grown up more or less on their own terms. Leftists and libertarians in their different ways want to make everything completely rational and systematic, and conservatives reject that idea.

If you apply these classifications to American politics, then the Democrats are mostly left/liberals with very little tolerance for conservatism, while the Republicans are mostly libertarian/liberals who market themselves to some extent by appealing to conservative themes like religion, family, patriotism and whatnot—things people want to live by that don’t reduce to bureaucracy or contract.

A basic problem with conservatism in America is that in a country as big and complex as ours conservatism has to have a strong bias in favor of limited government and decentralization. Centralizing things here means rationalizing them on simple principles. People with ambitions in national politics like expanding the influence of national politics. The result is that American politics has taken on a tendency toward centralization and therefore rationalism in Oakeshott’s sense.

2B: Conservatism and libertarianism are both generally viewed as right-wing. Can you spell out the main differences between them from the conservative point of view? What, in your view, are libertarianism’s shortcomings?

Kalb: They’re both viewed as right-wing because centralized bureaucratic control is the main engine of social rationalization at present. From a theoretical standpoint ideological libertarianism is just another form of rationalism and not at all conservative. As a practical matter though it’s mostly an ally of tradition because it opposes the main current enemy, the PC social-services state. The shortcoming of ideological libertarianism is that it says that a very few simple principles are enough for the whole of government and social life. Depending on circumstances that shortcoming can cause serious problems. In practice of course things get complex. People who call themselves libertarians sometimes have a strong streak of philosophical conservatism. They might find libertarian terms a better way to explain their case to the American people and even themselves. That kind of fusionist position can work to the extent the political disputes that matter don’t involve government functions that conservatives want to keep and libertarians don’t.

2B: Is liberalism the opposite of conservatism? Or is radicalism the opposite of conservatism?

Kalb: I’d say that modernism is the opposite of conservatism. Liberalism and radicalism are both forms of modernism—liberalism is an individualistic form and radicalism an aggressive form.

2B: What about communism?

Kalb: It’s a radical attempt to combine liberalism, which makes individual preferences the standard of the good, with fascism, which makes group preferences the standard. So it’s supposed to achieve both the liberation of the individual and the unity and power of the group, and it’s very aggressive in its way of doing so. A lot of people have been drawn to it because it combines the appeal of liberalism—the ideal of everyone getting to do what he wants—with the appeal of fascism—comradeship, struggle, great events, smashing the opposition and so on. The combination doesn’t make sense, and in practice communism is the same as fascism.

2B: Conservatism seems comfortable with certain words and ideas that many present-day Americans find hard to digest: inequality and prejudice, for example. What’s the conservative view of these two words?

Kalb: I think the conservative view is that it makes no sense to take inequality and prejudice as the central issues of politics and base a whole theory of things on the idea that they’re evil and have to be rooted out. Society can’t function without differentiation and we can’t think or act without preconceptions. So if those things are natural and necessary, how can the attempt to extirpate them be the key to a good society? It’s often good to reduce some inequalities and prejudices, but the idea that simply as such they’re an ultimate evil makes no sense.

2B: Perhaps what underlies a lot of people’s fears of the word conservatism is their fear that it has something to do with racism, and maybe even fascism. Does it?

Kalb: I think conservatism is less antiracist than liberalism, in the same way liberalism is less anticommunist than conservatism. In each case there’s a sense that there are real evils to be condemned but the condemnation often extends to things that don’t deserve it and becomes a sort of generalized devil theory. People end up looking for commies or racists under every bed.

Conservatives think traditions and attitudes and institutions that just grow up are important to how people live. That makes them less suspicious than liberals when people with a particular history like to live with others who share that history and the things that grow out of it. It’s conservative to think that we aren’t always remaking ourselves from scratch, that background matters.

As always, there are complications. Mainstream conservatives in America today insist they’re the real antiracists. A big reason is that the left has been promoting minority ethnic assertiveness as a way of unsettling majority habits and understandings. There’s also the argument that if background matters then personal responsibility doesn’t apply, and the government should step in to rearrange the situations people get themselves into. So ideas like colorblindness and rugged individualism function in a conservative way in America now, and conservatives adopt them. I should add that conservatives normally have a genuine respect for individuals and their differences, so if the choice is ideological racism or ideological antiracism they’ll usually go for the latter. I do think though that antiracism is fundamentally a less natural ideal for conservatives than for liberals.

As to fascism, the view that conservatives are really fascists or proto- fascists is an illusion that it’s natural for liberals to fall into. Liberals look at social order as something constructed to advance someone’s purposes, so if you reject liberalism, which is the view that social order should be constructed to advance the purposes of everyone equally, it seems that the point must be to get your own way and ride roughshod over everyone. That’s a sensible line of thought if you’re a social constructivist and you think the basic political issue is whose interests get advanced. Not everyone thinks that way. Someone might think that society can’t be constructed, or that the basic question is not who gets what he wants but what’s good and bad and what the public interest is. If the latter is the way you think, then rejecting liberalism doesn’t make you a fascist or anything close to it.

2B: I sometimes look at computers, ads or the new Times Square and think, well, gee, there it is: the revolution has arrived. I know that in your view too the liberal revolution is with us, here and now. Can you explain what phase of liberalism you see us as having arrived at now? And why is that a problem?

Kalb: I think the liberal revolution matured in the ’60s and early ’70s. After that it could be taken for granted that society is a human construction that should be constantly reconstructed for the sake of individualistic freedom, equality, and efficiency. That’s why things like a public role for religion, more-or-less traditional family relations, and various informal social distinctions came to seem illegitimate and wrong. Limitations on government like “states’ rights” became disreputable. Everything had to be changed.

That has created lots of problems. Liberal individualism dissolves connections, so government and people become disconnected. The people lose interest in politics and their rulers become manipulative and ideological or self-seeking. The sexes and generations don’t connect, so society doesn’t reproduce. There are fewer children and they’re less well-off. Educational standards go down. Young people out of school fail to establish themselves and start families.

The revolution was supposed to be for the sake of the individual and private life. It turns out that it dissolves those things. Formal institutions take away the serious functions of private life, and what’s left are purely personal relationships that become fleeting and insubstantial. Practical ties that make us irreplaceable to each other are done away with and we become interchangeable units of production and consumption. The only way most of us can matter individually is to claim victimhood. So the system puts individual satisfaction first but doesn’t satisfy much of anyone.

The most basic problem is that the stated goals of liberalism necessarily contradict themselves. “Equal freedom” means we have to be kept from oppressing each other. There’s no limit to the demand and nothing to counterbalance it. If you take it seriously as a final standard then guardians have to be appointed to supervise us in all things and keep us from infringing each other’s equality and freedom. The result is gross inequality and universal suppression. PC and compulsory re-education programs, “diversity training” and so on, are examples. No doubt we’ll see bigger and better examples.

2B: I don’t think it would hurt to spell out a little more explicitly what you’ve got in mind when you refer to the fundamental contradiction within liberalism. I take it that you’re referring to the old conundrum—in an egalitarian regime, how do you enforce egalitarianism? But perhaps I’m wrong.

Kalb: That’s not wrong, but I think in liberalism freedom is more basic than equality so I’d formulate it as the impossibility of enforcing freedom. In order to set everyone free you have to abolish all the despotisms of social life. Since man is social, though, that requires total control of everything anyone does. Otherwise people will somehow impose on each other.

2B: Media conservatives often seem oblivious to sensual and aesthetic pleasures. I’ve floated the idea that a part of leftism’s appeal is that it’s attractive. People are convinced as much by aesthetics and emotions as they are by arguments. Is this a fact of life that conservatives simply have to live with? Or should conservatives learn how to package and present what they’re selling more appealingly?

Kalb: I think political commentators generally are oblivious to sensual and aesthetic pleasures. I’ve often thought that the fact I spend more time thinking and writing about politics than Southern Sung landscapes or whatever must show that I lack something important. Still, in the case of conservatism you’ve got the problem that liberalism is based on the immediate promise of pleasure—of giving people what they want—while conservatism is not. Conservatism has a more complicated idea of what’s good. I think that the conservative pitch has to be that pleasure doesn’t work as a primary goal, at least not as a general thing. As Dr. Johnson said, “Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment” (here). Most pleasures are a side effect of something else.

So I think that what conservatives have to present is an ideal of a way of life that’s known to be good, the sort of thing liberals write off as “nostalgia,” with pleasure as an aspect but not the main point. Conservatism has to rely on love of fairly concrete ideas of what’s good—God, country, neighborhood, family, traditional ways and so on—and not on seduction by pleasure. There’s evidence, by the way, that conservatism is not anti-pleasure, anti-beauty or anti-happiness. Conservatives are on the whole happier than leftists (here), the advance of liberalism hasn’t done much for the fine arts, traditional foods are better than rationalized productions (here), and there’s more sexual pleasure within than outside marriage (here).