16 thoughts on “Symposiasts and tyrannical liberals”

  1. Which Tradition?
    I’m very glad this Symposium is taking place, because your book deserves it. I actually bought several copies of the Tyranny of Liberalism for friends and am hoping these review articles will stimulate further discussion.

    Having read English’s review, I found his strongest point to be that tradition in general is not necessarily a good thing, even liberalism has a tradition. I would have liked your book to have argued for more concrete tradition, a particular form of Christianity that would serve as the semi-official standard for our society.

    I think pluralism is essentially divisive and must be rejected as a social ideal (though tolerance should be accorded to various Christian groups and other respectable religions). As I see it, the key to accomplish this in the most humane way is to make a clear distinction between civil and political rights, according to all citizens civil rights but restricting real political rights to those who would support the semi-official establishment of Christianity.

    • Thanks for the comment
      Thanks for the note, and I’m glad you’ve found the book of interest.

      I thought Chapter 9 dealt reasonably clearly with the weaknesses and limitations of tradition in itself, the consequent need for a definite authority in ultimate matters, and the superiority of Christianity and specifically Catholic Christianity. I even put in a plug for extra ecclesiam nulla salus. It’s true I didn’t explicitly say “you people should all become Catholics” but the publisher thought the book’s appeal would be broader if it weren’t specifically an apologetic work. I deal explicitly with specific problems of the traditions of liberal modernity on p. 204 but implicitly throughout the book.

      Some sort of distinction between civil and political rights or among political rights would make sense, at least in many settings, but the book concentrates on the need to change direction and the general direction needed rather than specific arrangements that would make sense given a general social reorientation. One can only do so much in one book.

  2. Jonathan Haidt
    I don’t know if you are familiar with the work of Jonathan Haidt on conservative/religious morality vs. libral morality (right liberal and left liberal). Here is an article on religion and morality he did for Edge. It is very much concerned with the themes of your book.

    There are some links to some illuminating lectures and interviews here, here, and here.

    Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is due out in early 2010. You can access all his papers through his website.

  3. Abstract
    I too found that the book could be a bit abstract. That is, you would talk about how liberalism would lead to this and this consequences, but then wouldn’t provide any detailed real world examples. Now, I, as a traditionalist conservative, know all about the things that have gone wrong, but if a liberal came to the book they would undoubtedly just dismiss the whole thing as airy theorizing.

  4. What was inevitable in the evolution of liberalism?

    Wilson’s review notes: “As Kalb argues, the decline of procedural liberalism into substantive liberalism is no narrative of grand ambitions spoiled by ignoble ones. Liberalism from the beginning bore within itself the principled seeds of its own destruction.”

    (In this comment I will use libertarianism as shorthand for classical liberalism a.k.a. procedural liberalism, and leftism as shorthand for substantive liberalism a.k.a. equality-of-outcomes liberalism.)

    I am not sure about the argument that libertarianism must inevitably evolve into leftism. As a traditionalist conservative, I have plenty of disagreement with libertarianism, but the current existence of libertarians who are well versed in classical liberal writings and vehemently oppose the leftist agenda (because it encroaches on personal liberty) seems to me to be a proof by existence that the evolution into leftism is not inevitable.

    My theory is that when libertarianism is combined with a Rousseauian view of human nature, then the inequality of outcomes observed in any human society can only be explained as some systemic unfairness within the society. The Marxist view that the game must be rigged and procedural equality will never be enough becomes mainstream. Thus, it is the combination of the Rousseauian view of human nature and libertarianism that leads inevitably to leftism.

    The libertarians that I have engaged in discussion seem to believe that unequal outcomes are the norm and do not imply systemic injustice. They lack the Rousseauian worldview and hence oppose leftism and will never evolve into leftists.

    I will concede that classical liberal premises might be more appealing to those with the Rousseauian view of human nature than to others, leading to a correlation between the groups. Hence, libertarians are in the minority.

    • Where does freedom as a supreme standard take us?
      As to “inevitability,” the thought is that if freedom is the highest standard it eventually eats up all other considerations, so it ultimately becomes defined as getting whatever it is you happen to want. It also dissolves all standards of conduct and social institutions that are not simply in its service (e.g., proceduralism), so that the point of morality and social order becomes getting people what they want as much as possible. And it leads to egalitarianism, because if getting people what they want is the highest standard, then all people equally have wants, so getting people equally what they want must be the real highest standard. But if that’s the standard then it seems that some sort of managerial welfare state makes more sense than minimal government.

      It’s true that there are libertarians who don’t go that route, but people are idiosyncratic. The inevitability claim is only that people will tend to go that route, so that libertarianism won’t be stable as a movement or form of government. Classical liberalism will tend to become the contemporary version (which happened historically) and strict present-day libertarians will be few in number and a lot of them will tend to slide toward various government-compelled forms of liberation like antidiscrimination laws. Some say that sort of thing happens too although I don’t keep close tabs on what goes on in the movement.

      • “Libertarians”
        a lot of them will tend to slide toward various government-compelled forms of liberation like antidiscrimination laws.

        Prime examples of this are libertarians like Will Wilkinson and Kerry Howley. They don’t themselves subscribe to government suppression of speech etc., but they tend to get so worked up about sexism and racism and homophobia that the average liberal thinking person has to wonder that if these things are so bad, why isn’t the government doing something about them.

        And the fact is that the kind of deracinated society these kinds of libertarians like to live in is only possible with massive government interference, so that these kinds of libertarians are de facto left liberals.

      • Logical vs. Historical Argument
        “The thought is that if freedom is the highest standard it eventually eats up all other considerations, so it ultimately becomes defined as getting whatever it is you happen to want.”

        This is begging the question. By definition, getting what you want is a statement about outcomes, which is the concern of leftists. Libertarians are concerned about whether legal obstacles (not your own ability, etc.) prevent you from pursuing what you want.

        Thus, you have already engaged in proof by assertion in your first sentence.

        I think that there are multiple possibilities to explain the evolution of classical liberalism into leftism. One is that if you combine Rousseauian views with liberalism you get leftism, as I hypothesized. Another is that the combination of secularism (i.e. loss of transcendent truth) with classical liberalism produces leftism. Another is that modernism and a lack of respect for tradition, a negative view of the past, will combine with liberalism to produce leftism. We also could say that there are reasons why the same person tends to embrace secularism, lack of respect for tradition, a Rousseauian view of human nature, and liberalism, hence it is impossible to disentangle all four factors and identify just one or two smoking guns.

        I guess there are two lines of investigation: logical and historical. Logically, what must lead to what? I am not convinced that there is a logical inevitability here. Historically, what do the writings of classical liberals reveal over time? What influenced them? Rousseauian views of human nature? Secularism? Anti-traditionalism? All three? To what degree of each?

        We can make plausible hypotheses that are persuasive to our readers, but the historical questions can only be answered with primary sources. Tom Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions provided a lot of quotations showing the influence of the Rousseauian view. But, he might have found lots of other quotes on these other factors if he had looked primarily for them. In fact, he provides examples of anti-traditionalist liberal thought in his other writings (e.g. “the dead hand of the past” is how liberals refer to our heritage). So, again, which factors were the actual historical influences and to what degree? Hard to say just by logical argument.

        • Argument from human nature
          You could have other explanations as well, for example explanations by reference to how people generally act and what they generally find important.

          For example, someone might think that on the whole and in the long run people are more interested in how things work than in particular political structures. If so, he’ll expect that people who like the idea of removing restrictions, and so become liberal or libertarian, are mostly going to end up more interested in whether they’re able to get whatever they’re interested in substantively than in the specific structure of what’s restricted and what’s permitted. They’re likely to view the latter more as a means than the basic issue.

          Procedure seems a specialized concern that’s likely to lose out to substantive issues in political competition as in human action generally. I’m not sure that looking at the specifics of what this thinker or that said is likely to resolve the issue since theory does not transparently reflect basic human tendencies.

          • Rousseauian views still seem central
            I appreciate what I have learned from your replies, but it still seems that something is missing here. Yes, many people will be more concerned with what they get out of a system than what the procedures are. I can understand why someone with a below average economic outcome would desire equality of outcomes rather than procedural equality.

            What about the person with an above average economic outcome? How do we explain his devotion to equality of outcomes? I guess it just seems obvious to me that he thinks he is on the side of moral righteousness by favoring redistribution. Why? Because his Rousseauian views imply that inequality is due to systemic unfairness. Therefore, he is on the moral high ground by advocating equality of outcomes and/or redistribution of wealth.

            What if inequality of outcomes were not due to systemic unfairness, but due to human choices and abilities? Then he would simply be advocating theft and injustice. In order to maintain his righteous self-image, he must have the Rousseauian vision of human nature and its explanation of human outcomes.

            You have spoken of the bureaucratic elite who are involved in managing the redistribution. Obviously, they have a self-interest in acquiring and holding power. But, this does not completely explain their rise, for they do not have a self-image of being greedy self-aggrandizers; rather, they perceive themselves as righting the wrongs of society. Why? Again, Rousseauian views.

            Also, what about all the liberal citizens and voters who have no positions within the bureaucratic elite, AND who are not beneficiaries of redistribution? My experience is that they perceive themselves as the seekers of justice and goodness as much as any other left-liberal.

            I don’t see how we can escape the centrality of Rousseauian views as enablers of the transformation of procedural liberalism into equality of outcomes left-liberalism.

          • Sorry for the delay
            Sorry for the delay getting back.

            To my mind it’s less a matter of Rousseau than of scientism.

            Scientism likes simple explanations that rely on demonstrable facts. It talks about Occam’s razor, but it’s Occam’s razor with a super-sharp edge that slashes us unless we agree that the world is such that the simplest explanations work. It’s a substantive and even ontological version of Occam’s razor (which most sane people understand as a procedural and therefore subordinate principle).

            So scientism insists on a metaphysics that tells us that what’s real is atoms and the void, or some equivalent thereof, plus subjective experiences that are somehow splatted here and there in a basically mechanistic universe.

            With such an understanding, scientism likes hedonistic utilitarianism as a theory of value, and individual equality as a theory of justice. We demonstrably have impulses, and they tell us what to do, so impulse plus technology defines rational action. We act to satisfy our preferences, whatever they may be, using available resources and scientific know-how.

            As to justice, we all equally have impulses, and technology is the same for all, so it is equally legitimate for all of us to pursue our own preferences. To avoid the war of all against all we agree on a scheme whereby we can all pursue our goals on an equal basis.

            The net effect, then, is a regime that makes equal freedom its highest standard.

            What that means depends on the state of social technology. If you think social technology is quite limited, and some social institutions like private property and the market are natural, you’ll be willing to leave people to their own devices within a formally equal regime of private property and market transactions, and let the chips fall where they may. You’ll be a classical libertarian or libertarian.

            If you think social technology is less limited, at least in justifiable aspiration, you’ll think social technologists can redesign human beings, property, markets, and social relations generally so the chips will fall equally and abundantly on all. You’ll be a socialist or advanced contemporary liberal.

            On such a view the effect and significance, not to mention the development, of human abilities and choices depends on the social order, which can be controlled. Your belief that it’s OK for those things to have whatever effect they have in the present state of society is therefore (on that view) at best narrow-minded.

            The tendency within scientism is toward belief in the omnipotence of technology. After all, it insists that the world must be such that scientism works, and human society is part of the world, so mechanical explanations that allow for any degree of control must also be possible in social matters.

            Put that all together and it seems to me that the basic intellectual tendency that leads to libertarianism eventually leads, as it unfolds its inner implications, to what we have now. And it does it without any belief in natural innocence, virtue, or whatnot. It does it by viewing the world as raw material for technology—for getting what we want through rational action as the standard of general rationality.

  5. Why are there unequal outcomes?
    Scientific materialism and lack of belief in the transcendent have a high correlation with left-liberalism, and I agree with a lot of your critique of them. The Occam’s Razor for me in this discussion is the question: What is the belief that is indispensable to leftism? I think the answer is that, to ALL leftists, unequal outcomes are explained as a systemic injustice of some sort. I think that, if you believe that unequal outcomes are often due to factors that are quite just, you will not favor a forced equalization of outcomes. On the other hand, if you think that almost all unequal outcomes reflect injustice, you will be hard pressed to resist mandated equality arguments.

    Two quick examples: The materialist camp of Steve Sailer et al. explains unequal outcomes by pointing to IQ differences and arguing for genetics. I don’t detect much belief in the transcendent, but I also don’t see a lot of leftist redistributionist sympathies in their writings. Why? Because they don’t think unequal outcomes imply that our social systems are unjust, and don’t feel any motivation to undo “natural” outcomes.

    Second, in my own life, I can say that I have made a conscious trade-off to spend more time with family and church and less time on career advancement. I appreciate the fact that other men made a different trade-off. They achieved more in their careers and made more money, but in some ways their family life or church life suffered from lack of attention. Even if I were a scientific materialist atheist, I could hardly fail to understand the injustice of making the trade-off that I made and then advocating that the men who are wealthier have to forfeit some of their wealth to me. That would mean I get to have it both ways, and they get the worse end of the deal in every way: Their family and church lives suffer, then they lose the financial advantage as well. But, if I had a world view that convinced me that those “fat cats” received more money because society is unjust, my attitude would be different.

    How we explain the source of inequality of outcomes makes all the difference in the world, and there are plenty of secular materialists whose explanation is non-Rousseauian, hence their prescription is not leftist, while there are liberal Christians who truly believe in God and want to do His will on earth, who have a Rousseauian view of human nature that leads them into left-liberal politics.

    I think I have phrased this as simply (and in as many different ways) as I can and will be happy to let you have the last word.

    • I agree that Leftists believe
      I agree that Leftists believe inequalities are unjust. The question (as I think you agree) is why they do so.

      The answer I just gave is that if technology is presumptively omnipotent, then inequality is presumptively something handed out by the social system, including the state in which the social system has left social technology. So it’s presumptively not just. Everyone’s desires are equally desires, and so have an equal claim to satisfaction. In principle it should be possible to deliver it to them, and we shouldn’t conclude that it isn’t until we’ve done a lot more than we have to figure out how to do it.

      But why should anyone presume that technology is omnipotent? Why reject the idea of “natural” outcomes? The answer I gave is that scientism is ontological. It insists that the world is such that modern natural science gives us all possible knowledge and understanding, so that everything has an ultimately straightforward mechanical explanation. Such explanations enable manipulation to bring about desired results.

      I should add that an additional very strong reason for those who reject God and the transcendent to believe in the omnipotence of technology is that if technology is not omnipotent, so we are not able to make the world what we please, then we are slaves of brute fact that doesn’t care in the least about us and sooner or later is going to destroy us. Most people can’t live with that. If there’s no God then we have to be God.

      As to Sailer, he’s not a scientific materialist. He’s said to be Catholic, and on his weblog he’s said explicitly that he thinks that biological reductionism is going to run into insoluble problems in the long run. He’s a journalist not a philosopher, and he talks a lot about IQ and genetics not because he thinks that kind of thing ultimately explains everything but because it explains a lot, by the standards of the human sciences, and other people won’t touch it.

      There are of course actual rightwing scientific materialists. Most of those I’ve known have either been young or personally odd in various ways. There are also some who just don’t think things through or have eccentric reactions on this point or that. I don’t think it’s a position that’s natural for most people so from the standpoint of explaining the basic tendency of thoughts and events I don’t think I have to worry about it.

      As to your situation, I don’t think Leftists object so much to some people satisfying their preferences by taking more leisure—people who decide to work 30 hours instead of 60 because they like to smell the flowers getting paid half as much—as to rewards that are grossly disproportionate or not due to the free choice of the individual.

      I have the feeling this won’t satisfy you either. Web discussions have their limits it seems.


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