May 13, 2009


Illiberal Arguments: a review of The Tyranny of Liberalism by James Kalb. (William English, 05/13/09, First Principles)

“Liberalism,” according to Kalb is based on the ultimate goals of freedom and equality, which may sound good in the abstract, but become pernicious because their total achievement requires the destruction of other substantial goods. Moreover, the ideal of equality within liberalism masks a serious sleight of hand. Ostensibly, equality ought to entail treating everyone equally. That is, it should mean being tolerant of all and neutral between our specific claims. But, of course, this notion of neutrality can’t go all the way down. Your freedom comes to into conflict with my freedom, and government needs to draw a line somewhere to demarcate legitimate boundaries. All laws constrain some parties, and the idea that government can remain neutral with regard to all of our particular claims is chimera. At the end of the day all governments must make decisions about the hierarchy of goods that will be expressed in legal protections and administrative decisions.

So, liberalism, in Kalb’s view, wreaks havoc in two ways. First, it promotes a vision of itself as substantially neutral, with the implication that it is illegitimate for citizens to publicly advocate (and in some cases even privately act) on behalf of their own particular ethical convictions. Thus it has the effect of robbing our communal life of recourse to our deepest sources of meaning. Second, liberalism in fact holds and advances its own ethical system, based on what Kalb calls the “equal satisfaction of preferences”—a kind of vulgar, hedonistic utilitarianism that is dismissive of many “traditional” boundaries. Kalb thinks liberalism’s intrinsic values are ultimately nihilistic and destructive of “higher” human goods, and that these liberal values find increasingly expression in and power through government bureaucracies, judicial elites, and technological rationality.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 13, 2009 9:18 PM
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