More theorizing about liberalism

In the current Telos Paul Gottfried has a “Reply to James Kalb” (not on line) in which he discusses several pieces about liberalism I’ve had in Modern Age and Telos itself. Here’s a draft reply to his reply. If anyone’s interested enough to read and comment it would be much appreciated. I think the piece is comprehensible without Gottfried’s piece.


By James Kalb

Paul Gottfried raises some difficult issues in understanding today’s politically-correct managerial liberalism. The most important is whether contemporary liberalism should be viewed as a natural result of liberal acceptance of liberty and equality as supreme political standards, or instead as a contingent historical formation that could easily have turned out very differently. In particular, Gottfried asks whether classical liberalism could equally well have avoided transformation into welfare-state liberalism, or welfare-state liberalism effectively resisted the post-60s turn to political correctness.

While such issues are difficult to assess, the effort is necessary if history is to be more than antiquarianism. In the writings Gottfried criticizes I have tried to deal with the issues mainly by emphasizing the logical implications of the most basic liberal principles. Logic is not everything, but it is constantly at work and has a cumulative effect on systems of thought and conduct, an effect that should be especially strong in the case of a tradition that emphasizes law and reason as much as liberalism. Opinions differ on why liberty and equality have been such durable principles. If (as I have argued) the reason is that modern understandings of knowledge and reality support them then those understandings should also support their logical implications. On the other hand, if they are durable because they reflect settled interests and practices so very closely, it seems likely that, because of the closeness of fit, their implications would also be consistent with those interests and practices.

Liberalism past and present makes liberty, in association with equality, the supreme political good. Liberty and equality are always limited and conditioned, and that can of course be done in various ways. What distinguishes classical, welfare-state and contemporary politically-correct liberalism is the manner of limitation. In classical liberalism liberty and equality are conditioned by respect for family, property and nation, in contemporary liberalism by acceptance of multicultural sensitivity and the managerial state. Succeeding forms of liberalism, as Gottfried emphasizes, therefore differ in very important ways. It may nonetheless be true that some ways of limiting liberty and equality are in a stronger position to survive objections from within liberalism itself. If so, it seems that the stronger forms would tend to replace the weaker ones, thus bringing about a legitimate development of liberalism in accordance with its own principles.

Liberals refuse to state any definite substantive good to which liberty and equality must be effectively subordinated. If liberty and equality were clearly subordinated to something substantive—virtue, the will of God, national greatness—then that other thing would be the supreme political good and the view would no longer be liberal. Because of that refusal liberalism is enduringly unstable. Since liberty and equality cannot be subordinated to anything definite they tend to become more and more absolute. Every limitation that is not purely formal or that differs for different people—personal wealth or sex roles, for example—is eventually damned as illiberal. Radical change can often be the practical consequence.

That result seems right if fundamental liberal principles are accepted. If the justification for property, family and nation is that they promote liberty and equality, why not criticize them by the standard of liberty and equality? And since they are sure to fall short of that standard in many ways, why not change them or replace them by something else? Such criticism makes the liberal conception of ordered liberty ever more abstract. In the end liberty becomes liberty to do anything at all and equality becomes equal status and equal ability to get what one wants, ideally subject in each case only to limitations that are neutral among persons, goals and ways of life.

It does not seem an objection to the foregoing to say, as Gottfried does, that forms of liberalism have differed greatly, that liberals have had various goals and motives, or that their views have often been mixed with Christianity, concern to avoid radical excesses, or a desire to protect social and religious traditions against tyranny. It is not those things that made liberals liberal but their allegiance to liberty and equality and their consequent refusal clearly to subordinate liberty and equality to any particular substantive good. My concern is to explore the effects of that refusal.

If contemporary liberalism is simply unprincipled the claim that it is the natural result of basic liberal principle falls apart. Much of what I have written on the topic is therefore devoted to showing how even in its oddities liberalism today follows a clear internal logic based on an ever more abstract and comprehensive understanding of the demands of liberty and equality. While Gottfried finds much of my account of contemporary liberalism “remarkably cogent,” he objects that changes in the liberal party line reflect not the working out of some inner logic in varying situations but only the ability of those in charge to “jerk around their subjects,” who suffer from a “servile disposition.” A problem with the objection is that it makes it hard to understand how those in charge—bureaucrats, judges, journalists, party leaders, academics—know what changes in party line to enforce. In the absence of a liberal Central Committee to settle disputed issues, the very existence and moral force of PC evidence an internal logic that is understood and accepted by a variety of somewhat autonomous elites.

Gottfried points out that some supporters of the managerial liberal state rhetorically oppose rationality and liberty. Even so, they continue to cooperate on the basis of contemporary liberal conceptions of those things. An academic may say he opposes rationality and liberty because of philosophical qualms, or to save himself the trouble of presenting arguments and evidence in favor of what he is convinced is morally and socially necessary. It is not clear, however, how he can expect others to be convinced of the same necessity unless he expects them to accept liberal principles and their logical consequences. To speak and act cooperatively is implicitly to accept rationality, and “liberty” in the contemporary liberal sense of the ability to get what one wants is now more highly valued than ever. The practical effect of skepticism about reason and objectivity in an interdependent society is in fact to strengthen liberalism. Liberalism claims to make cooperation possible while minimizing substantive common commitments. It is therefore attractive to those who have no hope of agreement on substantive issues because they have given up on rational discourse. Rhetorical denial of rational discourse has the benefit of making liberal hegemony impossible to contest, since liberal principles are still implicitly understood and accepted by those who matter. In any event, appeals to reason and liberty continue to pervade much liberal practice. Assertedly pro-liberty groups like the ACLU and Amnesty International maintain their influence, their stated purposes, and their commitment to managerial liberalism, and judges and bureaucrats continue to claim that their decisions follow rationally from principles of liberty and equality.

Gottfried treats claims of continuity between classical and contemporary liberalism as fabrications based on hindsight. That treatment is certainly ill-founded to the extent past theories of social evolution have predicted changes like the ones that have occurred. And such theories have been proposed. For example, Tocqueville thought a steady trend toward equality since the 12th century had led to American society as it stood in the 1830s and might well lead in the future to a clientized populace and custodial state. Plato likewise suggests a certain inevitability for developments like the ones that have taken place within liberalism. He argues that once an orientation toward transcendent good has been abandoned society reorients itself by stages toward honor, then wealth, and then the equal enjoyment of pleasures. Many have seen a resemblance between Plato’s wealth-oriented oligarchical city and the classical liberal state. While the subsequent democratic city lacks a modern managerial bureaucracy, it does have features suggestive of contemporary liberal society: the beginnings of economic redistribution by an incipiently tyrannical government, feminism, lifestyle freedoms, equality between foreigners and citizens, and even animal liberation. Whether one admires these theories or not, their existence ex ante shows that it is not simply post hoc rationalization to claim that the tendencies that gave us nineteenth-century liberalism also gave us the politically-correct social welfare state.

If earlier forms of liberalism were intrinsically unstable and led to contemporary liberalism, it makes no sense to adopt them as political standards in opposition to the latter. Gottfried’s final question is whether the same applies to other possible bases of opposition to contemporary liberalism, for example conservatism and Christianity. Conservatism, in the sense of simple attachment to settled ways and the goods implicit in them, is not itself destabilizing in the way all forms of liberalism are. In a liberal age it is nonetheless too insubstantial to serve by itself as a useful principle of opposition. Christianity is different. The basic Christian loyalty is to something much more concrete and complex than formal concepts like liberty and equality. That is especially true in the case of Catholics who recognize the authority of the Roman hierarchy and magisterium, and of Eastern Orthodox who accept a long-settled and rather demanding conception of sacred tradition. Gottfried correctly points out that much contemporary Christianity is shot through with liberalism and that much in contemporary liberalism has Christian sources. It seems at least possible, however, that that there could be a stable Christian orthodoxy that rejects such developments. I see no similar possibility in the case of classical or pre-60s liberalism. The latter, unlike Christianity, cannot treat anything particular as sacred and so in the end must follow abstract principles wherever they lead in order to remain persuasive.

Posted by Jim Kalb at August 16, 2002 11:00 AM | Send

There is a persistent failure to recognize that modern managerial liberalism, communism, and fascism are all natural progressions of classical liberalism. Each involves a rational working out of basic liberal principles as they encounter particular facts and circumstances in history, and yet classical liberals cling to the untenable notion that they represent gross perversions rather than natural progression. I suppose if these are rational progressions then classical liberalism could be said to be _at fault_ for modern managerial liberalism, communism, and fascism; and since such a result would morally require the repudiation of classical liberalism itself the association of classical liberalism with its later developments must be avoided at all costs.

Posted by: Matt on August 16, 2002 1:07 PM

I suppose in some ways my comment validates Gottfried’s point that things could have turned out differently. But I would think the fact that three different classical liberal encounters with history produced three different mass murders (communism with its murders, fascism with its murders, and feminism with its murders) might give pause to the idea that if we just give it one more try everything will turn out fine.

Posted by: Matt on August 16, 2002 7:12 PM

Just as a quibble with my own comment above, I should have said “produced history’s three largest mass murders ever” rather than just “three different mass murders”. The fact that the three largest mass murders in all of human history lie at the feet of liberalism is one consideration that makes the notion of giving classical liberalism one more try dubious.

Posted by: Matt on August 17, 2002 3:13 AM

How does one acquire said issue of Telos?

Posted by: Jim Carver on August 17, 2002 4:05 PM
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