Modern liberalism as a Despotic Religion

James Kalb’s illuminating, Kirkian critique of it.

“Now the first task for the imaginative conservative, I think,” wrote Russell Kirk in A Program for Conservatives, “is the hard duty of frank criticism.” A few pages later he noted, “To criticize, a man must have some standard to which he can repair, some system of values superior to the fashion of the hour.”

Perhaps the highest praise I can give The Tyranny of Liberalism, writt en by Brooklyn-based lawyer and scholar James Kalb, is that it is Kirkian. It is filled with frank and illuminating criticism, and it rests solidly on a cogently expressed and cohesively articulated system of principles.

Despite its attention-grabbing title— a title that Kalb readily demonstratesis far less polemical and far more prescient than it might appear at first blush—this is one of those rare books of political and cultural criticism that is clear without being simplistic, complex without being esoteric, and wide-ranging without being scattered. (The book, to further the Kirk connection, is an expanded version of an essay, “The Tyranny of Liberalism,” written by Kalb for the Summer 2000 issue of Modern Age, the quarterly founded by Kirk in 1957.)

More specifically, Kalb has writt en a book describing and analyzing the current situation in the West by adeptly using a wide range of tools: historical research, political philosophy, moral theology, psychology, sociology, Christian apologetics, common sense, and— last but certainly not least—Catholic social doctrine. By the end of the book, that last tool provides a primary part of a sobering but never despairing explanation of where we are and how we came to be here.

And where is here? Nearly everywhere, really; it is where liberalism has established “a general schema for life in society that has thoroughly triumphed in the West and finds substantial acceptance elsewhere.” This liberalism “is equivalent to the political, social, and moral understandings now most authoritative in the West.” This includes, Kalb asserts, the governing consensus in the West about the ends and means of governmental and social organization, the abstract concepts behind that consensus, and “the liberal political and intellectual tradition that has led to all those things, at least when its history is recounted from an American perspective.” The key names in this tradition are Hobbes, Locke, and Rawls (though not limited to them), figures who have provided the “common ground for American political discussion.”

Some readers will recognize here the general shape of what has sometimes been called the “cultural radical” Catholic perspective. Put simply, it contends that liberalism as we know it today exists not because it rejected the Enlightenment’s founding principles but because it has followed, in however winding a line, those principles to their implicitly oriented and logical conclusions. The noted theologian David L. Schindler, interviewed in this magazine in 1994, stated, “As paradoxical as it sounds, Western liberalism may present a deeper threat to the Church and to human dignity in the long run even than Communism did” (“The Culture of Love,” Catholic World Report, October 1994).

In a very similar vein, Kalb writes that “advanced liberal society is reproducing the error of socialism—the attempt to administer and radically alter things that are too complex to be known, grasped, and controlled—but on a far grander scale. The socialists tried to simplify and rationalize economics, while today’s liberals are trying to do the same with human relations generally. The latter involve much more subtle, complicated, and fundamental aspects of human life.”

At the heart of the liberal system is “a very simple principle: equal freedom.” Fleshed out further, this involves the promotion of “some combination of freedom, equality, and the satisfaction of preferences, in the form of prosperity, opportunity, security, consumer and worker protection, and so on.” Again, in keeping with Schindler, Kalb traces the origins of this now ever-present and pervasive worldview back many centuries, but locates a key moment of fruition and concretization in both the American and French Revolutions. After the First World War and the decline and collapse of European monarchies, authority as it had been generally understood for many centuries was essentially dead. “In the absence of God and natural order, the will of man became the source of all authority.”

A key point, which Kalb revisits throughout the book from various perspectives, is that individual desire (selfishness), technical proficiency (specialized skill), and the collapse of a substantial belief in the transcendent (skepticism) resulted in a universal system aimed at equality of satisfaction of desire. Traditional distinctions rooted in ethnicity, gender, religion, and local culture were undermined or banished altogether. On the political level, global markets and massive bureaucracies exist to fulfill material desires; on the moral and religious level, “it implies a religion of individual man as the source of value, the doctrines of which are equality, autonomy, and hedonism.” Such words, of course, echo statements made by Pope John Paul II, whose descriptive term, “the culture of death,” was meant just as much for a utilitarian, agnostic system of liberal democracy as it was for a totalitarian, atheistic system of socialism or communism.

Like John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Kirk, Kalb rightly insists that the core issue is not political or economic, however important those issues are, but moral and theological: “The ultimate basis of liberalism is rejection of moral authorities that transcend human purposes.” Religion is banished, for all intents and purposes, from the public square and relegated to the realm of the “private life.” Meanwhile, the government sets out systematically and relentlessly to establish formal equality in every realm of human existence: economic, political, social, cultural, and religious. This necessarily means the growth of experts, organizers, and bureaucrats; order becomes based on “money, government decree, and technical rationality….”

Chapters titled “Principles” and “Institutions” trace, situate, and explain these changes, some of which have developed almost imperceptibly while others have taken place in dramatic, public fashion (the “Sixties,” for example). In the chapter, “Through the Looking Glass,” Kalb highlights the inherent contradictions within liberalism, which promises freedom, equality, and tolerance, but in doing so has undoubtedly become unfree, unequal, and intolerant. The result is a secular theocracy in which liberalism, seeking to free politics of any religious presence and influence, establishes itself as a religion— an incoherent, demanding, and contradictory religion:

Liberalism presents us with sordid idealism, bigoted tolerance, mindless expertise, moralistic permissiveness, dogmatic agnosticism, mainstream extremism, rigidly uniform diversity, radically elitist equality, totally administered freedom, and compulsory established rebellion. It promises moderation but gives us overreaching. It prizes freedom of thought but insists on correct attitudes and suppresses contrary opinion as ignorant, irrational, oppressive, and dangerous. In the name of autonomy, it makes the state control everything.

Mindful of objections to such a description, Kalb has a chapter devoted to answering questions and further developing his arguments and overall critique. Anecdotal evidence and specific instances of liberalism in action are kept to a minimum, usually in the endnotes. The working assumption is that the serious reader is familiar with the details, so the steady, clear focus is on principles, inner logic (or illogic), and the big picture. In the chapter, “Irrationality and Self Destruction,” the nature of man is brought to the fore, along with further contradictions: “Liberalism is centered on man but denies what he is and attacks what he cares about.” The inherent dignity of man, solidarity, and subsidiarity— three key principles of Catholic social doctrine—are carefully developed; they are expressed more directly and openly in the final chapters.

The second half of the book, “Up from Tyranny,” begins with an overview of “Blind Alleys,” that is, possible responses and alternatives to liberalism. It is likely here that some readers who have agreeably followed along might balk, as Kalb assesses certain forms of conservatism—including simple conservatism, neoconservatism, and populism—as well as libertarianism. These are not discounted; on the contrary, much good is found in them. But a few readers sympathetic to the arguments of the first part of the book may part ways from Kalb in some manner or another at this point.

However, this shouldn’t keep them from the exceptional final chapters— “Putting It Back Together,” “Faith and Authority,” and “Bringing It All Back Home”—which offer a bracing mixture of practical insights, political philosophy, and religious apologia, especially on behalf of the Catholic Church. As always, the tone is measured, assured, thoughtful, and incisive. Unlike many other popular critiques of liberalism, Kalb avoids heat and sheds light with a calm dispassion. The chapter on faith takes up issues including the nature of knowledge, tradition, the place and necessity of religion, authority, church and state, and relativism. Among the conclusions reached: “The choice today is not between faith and reason, or between reason and chaos (by whatever name)—for chaos is not something we will live with—but among faiths anchored in revelation and capable of sustaining reason.”

Kalb offers many sound thoughts about engaging, combating, and living with (or within) liberalism, but does not offer a simplistic seven-step plan or a 12 step program. Here, too, he is much like Kirk, who apparently chose the title, A Program for Conservatives, precisely to mock the notion that tidy, ideological programs are the answer. The answer, Kirk and Kalb agree, is found in principles, order, reason, virtue, and faith.

“The first step for the restoration of tradition,” Kalb argues, “is for people to orient their lives toward concerns that transcend the pragmatic here and now and do what is needed to establish the new direction and guard it from disruption.” The Tyranny of Liberalism will help readers in that orientation; it is the work of an imaginative conservative who offers frank criticism and expresses the truth about authentic values and the permanent things with notable clarity, unusual insight, and welcome eloquence.


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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.