Magazine article The American Conservative

Liberal Paradox

Magazine article The American Conservative

Liberal Paradox

Article excerpt

[The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command, James Kalb, ISI Books, 308 pages]

JAMES KALB calls attention in his very thoughtful book to a disturbing development in contemporary America and Western Europe. People who affirm traditional moral beliefs, or who dissent from the Left's egalitarian dogmas, often are subject to harsh repression.

In 2004, Kalb notes, "the High Court in Britain upheld the conviction and firing of an elderly preacher who held up a sign in a town square calling for an end to homosexuality, lesbianism, and immorality and was thrown to the ground and pelted with dirt and water by an angry crowd." Two years later, the president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, was forced to resign after an outcry over his "rational and cautious remarks suggesting some innate basis for the lesser representation of women in the sciences made at a closed academic conference." Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents: political correctness is ubiquitous.

If we lived under a Communist regime, all this would be understandable. The Communists disdained "bourgeois" liberties. But of course the dominant ideology today is not Communism but liberalism. Kalb thinks that the pattern of repression under the rule of liberalism presents us with a paradox. Contemporary liberals claim to champion individual freedom--if, for example, you burn an American flag or spew out obscenities in public, the ACLU will combat all efforts to interfere with you. But if liberals officially support freedom, why have they created a climate of opinion so hostile to dissent from liberalism itself?

Kalb argues that the liberals' stress on certain kinds of freedom is not at all inconsistent with a propensity toward tyranny. Indeed, the same pattern of thought explains both their theory of toleration and their practice of intolerance. "How people think affects what they do," he explains, "and ways of thinking are no less systematic than languages. Each has its own 'grammar,' its own system of fundamental abstract principles that determine what makes sense and how particulars are to be classified. Such principles have consequences independent of the goals of those who live by them."

Liberalism's key tenet, Kalb thinks, is that values are purely subjective: "The ultimate basis of liberalism is rejection of moral authorities that transcend human purposes." From this fundamental mistake, malign results follow.

If values are subjective, then whatever goals you choose to pursue are as good as any others; no objective standard can establish a hierarchy of what is good or right. There is no way, then, for you to figure out through reasoning what you ought to want--reason cannot discover absolute, outside values, it can only tell you how the values or desires you already have might best be obtained. If, for example, we want to live in an economically prosperous society, we should support a free market rather than government intervention. (Unfortunately, this is an objective truth that contemporary liberals neglect.) But whether we want a prosperous economy depends on our desires. As David Hume classically put this view, "Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions."

If this is the way you look at values, what follows for public policy? Since reason cannot say that one goal is objectively better than another--in Bentham's famous phrase "pushpin [a children's game] is as good as poetry"--our only basis for action is the actual desires that people have. Our aim then should be to promote the maximum possible satisfaction of these desires. This is Kalb's understanding of liberalism, according to which equal freedom for all becomes the highest principle of politics.

Liberalism thus has a technocratic notion of reason. It supports social institutions that accord with its confinement of reason to the efficient procurement of arbitrary ends. …

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