Why is liberalism so durable?

Liberalism sees technology, bureaucracy, and markets as uniquely rational ways to promote the fulfillment of preferences, and therefore the only legitimate sources of authority.

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Liberalism tells us everyone should be able to do, be, and get whatever he wants, as much and as equally as possible. People believe that represents a new and higher stage in political and moral evolution that can’t be reversed short of horrific civilizational collapse. Why?

There are a couple of points to notice here. One is that like all systems liberalism limits people’s goals. It guides them toward manageable goals that support the system and don’t interfere with other people. So they are encouraged to be politically correct careerists and otherwise mostly interested in consumer goods, leisure time activities, personal indulgences, and so on.

That leads to a second point, which is that liberalism sees global markets and bureaucracies as the only truly rational and therefore legitimate principles of social order. Traditional ordering principles, like religion, settled family forms, and inherited cultural community, don’t fit the system and are considered irrational and oppressive.

Such views are radically at odds with the views the Church and indeed most people have generally favored. These views involve a natural law perspective that bases politics on human nature. By nature, they say, man is a social being who joins together, starting with the family, in communities oriented toward a common good. That good can’t be chosen arbitrarily, because our goods are mostly natural to us, and define a universal natural law all communities should respect.

The traditional view includes more of reality. Even so, liberals more and more find it incomprehensible and indeed hateful. Why?

Ultimately, behind that attitude lies a tendency associated with modern natural science to view the universe as defined by numerical features and mathematical law. That approach has been enormously successful in the natural sciences, so much so that educated people today accept its unique validity, and generally accept that the real world is the wholly numerical and mechanical world of modern physics.

But that leaves out essential aspects of experience, like good and evil, that are neither numerical nor mechanical. The result is that such things, which are outside the scope of science, become subjective. “Good” means “I like this,” “evil” means “I don’t like this.” But that paradoxically leads to a fairly clear system of morality: morals tell people what to do. Subjective desire also tells them what to do, and Occam’s razor tells us not to multiply entities beyond necessity. It follows that satisfying preferences is the summum bonum. And since all preferences are equally preferences, they all have a presumptively equal claim to fulfillment.

But why aren’t educated people struck by the obvious problems with that view?

One reason is that modernity has been so very successful on its own terms. It is hard to argue with tanks, bombers, the Internet, modern medicine, constant distraction, and trillions of dollars. And within modernity liberalism has won decisively, so it too has the argument from success.

Another is its practical intellectual defenses. Science and technology tell us what rationality is, liberalism tells us what morality is. The system seems to work, so to treat anything outside it, for example human goods other than preference satisfaction, as more than optional private opinion would be to impose an unnecessary assumption on other people. Why should they put up with it?

The biggest reason though that liberal modernity seems invincible is that it is basic to the way people do things today.

We live in a hyper-connected age in which electronics makes every person, place and thing immediately present to every other. It is also a hierarchical and hyper-organized age in which even amusements and breakfast food are provided by huge bureaucratic organizations. In such a setting, there is no hiding place for anything at odds with dominant institutions and understandings.

But what are these institutions?

Liberalism sees technology, bureaucracy, and markets as uniquely rational ways to promote the fulfillment of preferences, and therefore the only legitimate sources of authority. For that reason it leads ultimately to a technocratic and oligarchical society. In doing so, it suppresses natural and traditional arrangements, which work on entirely different principles.

It also suppresses popular government. Liberals appeal to democracy rhetorically, but they have always had an uneasy relation to it. Voting lets the majority makes decisions that the minority—who may be severely disadvantaged by them—must accept. Also, the voters may be illiberal, self-centered, and ignorant of the facts and likely consequences of their choices. And they can be manipulated, especially in an electronic age that dissolves reality into a whirl of images and soundbites that can be reassembled to tell any story whatever.

So voting can’t be relied on to maximize equal freedom or public benefit. The result is a tendency to move away from voting (and consumer choice) toward decision-making by supposedly expert bureaucrats. Consumer choice becomes thoroughly regulated, and voting becomes an ultimate check rather than a normal way of making serious decisions.

That tendency conforms to the technocratic vision of social engineering. It also gives business and other institutions an opportunity to exert influence behind the scenes and ensure that government actions are not too much at odds with their needs and desires. That helps the system by making it more coherent overall.

In such a society practical life comes to depend wholly on markets and bureaucracies. Independence of the kind once possessed by the Church, local communities, independent producers, and families in their internal life disappears.

The result is that personal identity—what people think they really are and their reasons for valuing themselves—comes to depend more and more on their relation to money and large institutions. Everyone with talent and energy becomes a careerist devoted to getting along as a bureaucrat or market participant.

The point of education becomes careers for the students and technical expertise, trained operatives, and compliant subjects for their rulers. To that end we now have not only mass university education but mass graduate study. The absorption of women into the full-time paid workforce has added daycare and early childhood education to the mix.

The result is that minds and plans of life are fully formed by liberal institutions. Children are still influenced by their parents and others outside the educational, childcare, and pop culture industries, but those ties are weaker than in the past, and the people exerting influence have also been formed by liberalism. The effect of liberal institutions and understandings thus becomes cumulative.

Under such circumstances questioning liberalism becomes incomprehensible. It would be an attack on basic social reality and on everything our contemporaries have been taught to hold sacred. It would also be an attack on the life history, personal identity, social affiliations, and dearest hopes of everyone who matters.

Further, it would call for relying on institutions like family, Church, and local community and culture that are less and less functional, have no recognized grounds for claiming authority, and therefore hardly count as institutions.

The result of all this is a governing outlook that will not last forever, but is certain to cause a great deal of damage while it lasts. The job of those who see what is going on is to survive the current situation, defend and carry forward as much of the Faith, civilized life, and sanity as we can, propagate those things as opportunity offers, and eventually prevail as liberalism and modernity destroy themselves.

The Church, in spite of her corruptions, has resources that make all those things possible. She gives us a point outside the world from which it can be understood and moved. And she gives us a community worthy of supreme loyalty that by its nature fosters tradition, recognizes natural law, embodies transcendent standards acceptable to reason, and possesses a structure of authority capable of resolving make-or-break issues.

These things can be obscured, but they can’t be lost. For 2000 years they have repeatedly brought the Church back from what seemed certain death. And even from a human standpoint, by establishing a pattern that works durably, they are perpetually leading her to revert to type.

So in spite of our weakness, we have everything we need to prevail. When we recognize that God is at the center of all things, the fictitious anti-world of liberal modernity dissolves. That recognition is a task for a lifetime, but what has been done can be done again. And that is what we are here for.


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About James Kalb 95 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

7 Comments

  1. I wonder if Kalb recognizes the irony that the very world he hates was brought about by the ‘moral majority’ and Christian conservatives of the 70s/80s, whose values he trumpets here. They were the ones that said these policies would bring about the greatest amount of Christian and moral revival. You can’t have the moral majority -without- the fiction of ‘free markets’ and the post-industrial landscape, which has taken away most resources and leisure for people which would have otherwise gone into having and raising children, and being active in civic/religious life.

    When your average couple has to work 2 jobs, plus a ‘side hustle’ (the disgusting euphemism crafted by the successors of ‘conservatism’), who has time for kids? Or religion? When you are stuck in survival mode you fall into petty escapism, entertainment, and worshiping at the altar of political cult of personality. Wait for a boomer to tell me how he earned $4.00 an hour back in the day and had it rough (before doing the inflation calculations, lol).

    It makes the ranting about ‘liberalism’ (which I guess to Kalb means some homogeneous group of Democrats who are Islamic atheist communists) besides the point. He’s still another spoke on the same wheel.

    • Joe K.,
      Your comments don’t make a lot of sense in part because the Moral Majority and Christian conservatives were not nearly as powerful as you ascribe. Instead, American culture continued to corrode during the 70s and 80s — there was never a reversal.

  2. “Liberalism tells us everyone should be able to do, be, and get whatever he wants, as much and as equally as possible.” Where does this guy get this from? Set up a strawman so you can knock him down. For crying out loud, what in the world is he talking about? He sounds as crazy as President Trump.

    • So far as I can tell, that’s the goal of respectable political thought today. It’s expressed in a variety of ways of course – choice, preference satisfaction, equal freedom, autonomy, self-determination, living our dreams, whatever. It all has to be done in a manageable way of course so you have a stable society in which people don’t get in each other’s way. But I say that.

      You think that’s nonsense. But there don’t seem to be any mainstream politicians who say “I don’t think that freedom and equality stuff matters so much, I think this other thing is much more important (God, natural law, the way of the ancestors, national glory, the will of the Leader, whatever).

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