James Kalb on why modern liberalism is not inevitable or built to last

Readers who have enjoyed the “Ecclesia et Civitas” columns by James Kalb for CWR will want to read his essay,“After Liberalism: Notes Toward Reconstruction”, now available on FirstPrinciplesJournal.com. There is plenty to chew on and consider. Here is the introduction:

Serious discussions of politics today, especially in the academy, routinely presume that liberalism is inevitable, the only tolerable form of political society available in the modern world. For that reason, fundamental objections to liberalism are considered pointless. Critics are told they must choose between irritable complaints that go nowhere and trying to restrain or moderate liberalism while nevertheless accepting its basic premises.

The reason, as John Rawls and others have emphasized, is pluralism. Prosperity, urban living, easy communication, mass mobility, and widespread advanced education mean that people go their own way for their own reasons. The result is that consensus regarding goods that society might pursue in common is not possible, now or in any foreseeable future. To base government on a specific view of the good would mean suppressing thought and discussion, and forcing people to live in ways they reject for reasons they consider fundamental. Such an effort would be at odds with how modern society works, and people would not stand for such “injustice.”

The lessons of history are said to buttress this view, supporting what Judith Shklar called “the liberalism of fear.” The premodern West was violent and oppressive because public life was tied to religious issues that could not be resolved; we have gotten beyond the violence by avoiding the issues. We have been able to do so, it is said, because agreement on the right and just is possible without reference to ultimate goods: it is right to treat everyone equally, and just to pay equal regard to their various goals.

It is also thought, in line with the modern technological outlook, that social order is a human construction that can be perpetually remodeled to bring it ever more into conformity with what is right, just, and rational. The conclusion, which is basic to today’s public life, is that government should intervene continuously in social life to put everyone more and more in a position to get what he wants, as much and as equally as possible. Such an approach gives each of us all that is possible without slighting others. The result is that no one has legitimate grounds for complaint, and a social decision as to the good is unnecessary.

To educated and responsible people today this line of argument seems unanswerable. Nonetheless, there are basic problems with it that make the indefinite continuance of liberal government doubtful and that open up possibilities for a different approach to politics.

Read the entire essay.


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About Carl E. Olson 1101 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 Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.