Interview with James Kalb, author of
The Tyranny of Liberalism
What's this book about?
Liberalism and what to do about it.
What's the message?
Liberalism has won overwhelmingly. It dominates all public discussion and all respectable institutions. Rejecting liberalism today is rejecting what counts as rationality and moral decency. There seems to be no place else to go. That means that conservatism has no idea what it is or what to do. It also means that liberalism—which is basically oppositional—has run through its possibilities.
Sounds a bit like the end of history. What's the problem?
The problem is that liberalism taken straight doesn't work and destroys what does work. It's not possible to maintain social order if you make freedom and equality the highest principles. Their demands increase without limit and they wipe out other things that are needed for a tolerable or even minimally functional way of life. The more dominant liberalism becomes the less possible it is to mitigate the consequences of its basic contradictions. The only serious political question today is how to get beyond it. We all have to rethink, and this book is intended to advance the process.
What do you mean by liberalism? Conservatism?
Liberalism is the belief that equal satisfaction of preferences is the highest social good, and the purpose of politics and morality is converting the world into a sort of machine that brings about that good. Conservatism is resistance to that view for the sake of other goods traditionally recognized:—God, country, family, traditional social relations and morality. Modern thought has no good way to make sense of those goods so insisting on them has come to seem irrational, obstinate, retrograde, and probably malicious.
If liberalism goes, what replaces it?
Recognition that government can't be based directly on clear concepts that apply always and everywhere. Acceptance that people differ in ways that matter and choices must be made. Recognition that some particular understanding of the nature of man and the good life is basic to every social and political order.
And that means ...
Recognition that choices must be made means abandonment of freedom and equality as supreme principles. Acceptance of diversity means decentralization, local initiatives, and fewer attempts to do away with discrimination. Downplaying clear universal concepts means reliance on prudence, established practice, particular negotiated settlements, and general principles we don't fully grasp. And recognition that government is always based on a particular concept of the good means recognizing that government can't be neutral on basic moral and religious issues.
So you reject freedom, equality and tolerance?
No. They're often very good things. Where they work and people like them people should have them. The point is that they can't be supreme principles. Freedom only makes sense, for example, when you know what it's for. That requires some idea of what's good in human life.
How about justice and reason?
Justice and reason aren't found pure. They always have a setting. If you try to make them abstract and content-free, so they're equally acceptable to everyone no matter what his outlook and way of life, they go mad. We need tradition to know what things are and what they mean, so that we can reason about them and deal with them justly.
What's special about this book?
It ignores partisan disputes and deals with basic issues like tradition and scientism and the nature of knowledge and reason. It takes liberalism seriously and asks what it is, why it's so powerful, and what's really wrong with it. And it's willing to reject liberal pieties fundamentally.