The Tyranny of Liberalism

I finished reading this book a few weeks back and have been meaning to give it a brief review. James Kalb is an online acquaintance whose work I have been following for more than 10 years (see here and here), so the ideas and presentation were not new to me. Suffice it to say that no one, to my knowledge, has spent as much time and intellectual energy studying Liberalism in all of its sordid manifestations as Jim Kalb. This book, therefore, is essential for anyone who wants to understand Liberalism as a contemporary worldview.

I would think that liberals themselves would benefit the most from this book. Liberals (like most people, in truth) seldom understand their own ideas, or why they hold them, or what their implications are, and this book would be, for them, a very enlightening read. Kalb’s approach is more scholarly than polemical, so I don’t think fair-minded liberals would take offense.

The book was difficult for me to get through, however – not because of any flaw in the book, but because I lost interest in understanding Liberalism some years ago after becoming exasperated with its incoherence and fed up with its inner contradictions. Mr. Kalb is much more patient, taking a sociological approach and examining common ideological threads where they do exist.

The puzzle, for me, is how to reverse the accelerating course of Liberalism in Western society and the rapidly approaching tyranny. Kalb is a recent convert to the Catholic Faith and he concludes, as I do, that only the Roman Catholic Church is capable of presenting a single, viable, coherent alternative worldview in the public square.  At the same time, he recognizes that Catholicism does not have the history or the momentum in the United States to effectively resist Liberalism on its own. Therefore, he suggests a restoration of the broad religious consensus that prevailed for so long in this land:

“For example, the initial public religion in a more traditionalist America would likely be the one America had before the judicial coup of the sixties: an informally established, minimally doctrinal, and basically Protestant Christianity. Such a restored informal establishment, however minimal, would move American public life closer to what most people and traditions (including those which reject the American public religion as such) believe proper than does our current increasingly pefectionistic establishment of advanced liberalism. Such an arrangement would not satisfy everyone, but the same is true of every conceivable arrangement. Anything more specific (such as Catholicism) would lack the necessary public support; anything more abstract (such as ‘Judaeo-Christianity’) would be an artificial construction not taken seriously. An establishment that reflects how most people actually understand the world could be more moderate and could accomodate varying views more easily than could an absolutist principle of disestablishment. Catholics and Jews did not like it when psalms from the King James Bible were read in public schools, but that practice was far more friendly to Catholicism and Judaism than what succeeded it.”

This is common sense, for the most part. I hope for the same. Apart from restoring an informal religious establishment, Kalb calls for the decentralization of government power and authority (a renewal of subsidiarity), repealing certain antidiscrimination laws, and other measures that would facilitate more local, traditional, familial and cooperative ways of life.

Nevertheless, I can’t be as sanguine as Kalb about the prospects for success. He refers often to what “most people” consider normal, sane, sensible, etc., and generally assumes that if only people were free from harassment by their liberal masters and overlords, Liberalism would go away. That oversimplifies his view, I am sure, but it is my lasting impression from reading his work. Yet in my experience most people are deeply complicit in the reign of Liberalism. Most people – even most so-called conservatives – are ideologically committed liberals whether they know it or not. It has become the default religion of the masses as well as the elites. The masses do retain some conservative and traditional habits of mind, but it usually doesn’t take much to talk such people out of “imposing” their “personal beliefs” (i.e., living out their beliefs in public life) on others. These habits of mind are typically habits without depth of conviction.

“The Tyranny of Liberalism” is an important contribution to the world of ideas, and can be ordered from ISI Books – one of the “good guys” – at an agreeable price.

8 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Liberalism

  1. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for the comments, and the plug!

    You point to some real issues. How much should we focus on ultimate goals? How much on building consensus, e.g. for weakening social management and dogmatic secularism and sticking in a few public nods to God and traditional moral standards? Also, how corrupt are We the People? And what would it take to turn things in a better direction?

    The book probably did play up the build consensus/emphasize the positive/make the best of what you have side of things. That was partly because I wanted to appeal to people who aren’t already Catholic or traditionalist, and it seems to me that one way to do that is to develop some thoughts they may already have, at least implicitly, and show how they point in the right direction. I suppose it was also partly because as a recent convert and constitutional skeptic I tend to look at the world from the standpoint of confusion coming into focus, unbelief sliding into belief, all roads leading to Rome etc.

    I think I put in the other side of things as well: the apparent pragmatic hopelessness of the present situation, and the absolute necessity of spiritual authority, with the Church as the obvious candidate, for rebuilding local traditional community from the ground up, and for presenting a genuine alternative to the situation people are stuck in today. I’d agree that side of things has a lot more to do with the One Needful Thing than the other. It’s a big world, though, so you need a lot of people doing a lot of things–even analyzing present-day society more or less from within–to deal with it.


  2. I too have been following Kalb’s work for a decade or more and am grateful for his work. His book is on my “to-read” list.

    What anti-discrimination laws does Kalb target? I’ve been pondering the effects that state bans on marital status discrimination in housing have had on our country. They actively forbade “taboos” on immoral relationships from having any real-life effect. They also prevented towns from self-segregating into respectable and disreputable parts.

    Thanks to opportunistic segregationists who tried to sink civil rights laws by adding radical protections, federal law actually bars housing discrimination based on sex. So Mrs. Grundy’s Boarding House for Young Women is treated the same as the Nathan Bedford Forrest Whites-Only Apartments.

    This eliminated the “nosy landlady” (and the frolics that come from dodging her) from our society. She was actually helping couples avoid becoming too intimate and her suppression is a loss.

    Conservatives would be well advised to seek out seemingly minor laws that suppress good communities from forming.

    Any attack on Liberalism must be indirect, and it must also draw the support of some “fusionist” coalition of groups. The libertarian-moral conservative alliance has its dangers, such as conservatives becoming infected with permissiveness, but that alliance could conceivably modify the aforementioned laws. I could even see some “separatist” feminists getting on board regarding sex discrimination, and the attack would play into some accepted themes of “consumer choice” advocacy.


  3. Jim, I appreciate your response, and must apologize for really not doing justice to your fine book in my review. It was certainly a worthy project and I expect it will influence many thinking people for the better.

    With respect to prospects for shaking off the Liberal yoke, in this country we suffer from a crisis of imagination. American conservatives are understandably attached to the systems and institutions that seem to have “worked” for us in the past, but without much thought to their intrinsic flaws which have led us to the edge of the precipice.

    Restoration, as you have often argued yourself, can’t be a purely conservative undertaking. We’re going to have to rethink some of our American ideals and adopt some things that seem foreign to our own cultural and political heritage – hopefully while preserving the best of it. I believe you’re correct in that the exaltation of Equality and Freedom as ultimate goods is fundamental to the problem. This usurpation happened because Americans, ideologically committed to religious pluralism, needed something to replace the Creed, and because the informal Christian religious establishment we once had was not strong, specific, or authoritative enough to prevent its own demise.

    Therefore, while I would be pleased with a return to our old generic Protestant “establishment”, it doesn’t strike me as something compelling or inspiring enough to hold things together. This is especially true with the doctrinal and demographic collapse of the mainline Protestant denominations in the last 40 or 50 years.

    As Kevin Jones suggested in his comment, traditionalists may be forced to appeal to Liberal principles for the sake of our own preservation. Personally, I recoil at the very thought! But maybe an alliance with libertarians, for example – and libertarians are nothing but a peculiar species of liberal – will help secure little places here and there where traditionalists might begin to rebuild. Apart from mass conversions to the Catholic Faith, we are probably stuck with begging for tolerance and starting over on the level of small communities and neighborhoods.


  4. There are scarcely any libertarians left in this world who would defend a landlady’s right not to rent to an unmarried couple. The homosexual rights activists have co-opted most of the libertarians for their agenda, though that agenda is distinctly un-libertarian, requiring enormous coercion against property owners and businessmen. And the homosexuals know perfectly well that allowing a landlady to “discriminate” on the basis of marital status is contrary to their whole agenda. Forcing her to rent to a guy and his girlfriend is a _given_ and is now old hat. The new agenda is forcing her to rent to a guy and his boyfriend, or to a guy who calls himself a woman and wears a dress and his wife, who married him while he still admitted to being a man, or to… You get the picture. You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of old-style libertarians in some given town where this is the present agenda who will stand up and say, “Heck, if you want only to rent to Catholic females under the age of 40, that’s your prerogative. It’s your property!” You’ve gotta be kidding.

    Oh, and while I’m giving out bad news, I’ll add this: Guess where all of this started and where all the old libertarians died? With the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Try saying, “If you want only to rent an apartment to Scots, that’s your prerogative,” and what does everything think? Race, of course. That broke down what was left of our sense of the prerogatives of communities to shape themselves. It’s all been over for a good thirty years now, guys. The “transgender rights” movement is just the latest front. Use a large magnifying lens, and maybe you’ll find one or two libertarians with whom to make common cause to defend morality.


  5. Kevin and Lydia, thanks for the comments. I don’t recall which antidiscrimination laws Jim would have specifically repealed, though from my exchanges with him over the years I could make a guess. Maybe he’ll come back with an answer. In my opinion, with all the water now under the bridge, a few such laws should remain in certain public contexts, but I would repeal the majority of them.

    Lydia is probably right about the futility of alliances with libertarians. Heck, I was just trying to be positive for a change. Trying to fight my curmudgeonly reputation. :-)


  6. I’m actually in favor of making alliances with libertarians–of the right sort. It’s just that they have become an endangered species, so there’s little point in trying it. They’re welcome to join the fight in my town right now about extending “non-discrimination” on the basis of “sexual orientation and gender identity”!


  7. My proposal is rather quixotic, but what traditionalist proposal isn’t?

    I figure attack where they least expect, using concrete policy suggestions.

    A fight against excessive sex anti-discrimination could be more easily depicted as a matter of consumer or personal choice. It’s just weird that men and women can’t legally advertise a preferred sex in their housing postings.

    And reform might be possible without abolition. Some discrimination exemptions are granted for residences of about six people or fewer. Simply increase that number to make single-sex rental rooms, boarding houses and such more economically feasible.

    The time is ripe, too, since cheap housing appears more necessary in a bad economy.

    And you’re right that libertarianism is more about posturing than about liberty. There are many more vocal libertarians on the internet than there are in real life.


  8. I checked this book out of the library because the title intrigued me. However, I have to say that it is very hard for me to figure out where the author stands because he doesn’t specify what he would change.

    The word “traditional” comes up over and over but I don’t know what it means to him. It seems to be an attribute of past societies. But how far back does he want to go? Does he want the Huckleberry Finn era? Does he want the King George era? Does he want Papal rule? Does he want small town Americana of the 1950s? Does he want anarchy? Does he want a bunch of ethnic and religious enclaves peacefully coexisting but not intermarrying? Does he want the Warsaw Ghetto? And what is to be done about the destructive side of human nature that liberalism is seen to ignore? Let it run wild?

    He doesn’t seem to be a fan of unbridled capitalism but I can’t tell if he wants government regulation.

    I could be sympathetic to the notion that “liberalism” is a fog so pervasive that we can’t see it. But he needs to show a little more clearly his vision of what lies beyond.




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