Having mentioned James Kalb in the item below, I thought I’d post the “Briefly Noted” review of his book we published in the June/July 2009 issue. It was written by then-Junior Fellow Stefan McDaniel. I commend the book, as he does, though I would have used “should” or “will” instead of the “may” he used in his second sentence.
The Tyranny of Liberalism by James Kalb (ISI, 330 pages, $28)
There is no shortage of treatises against liberalism, but James Kalb’s new book is distinguished by remarkable comprehensiveness and a refreshing freedom from rancor. It is an excellent resource for those new to this debate, and those steeped in it will commend Kalb’s clarity and may even find something to learn from or profitably argue with.
Kalb begins by defining liberalism, which he understands as the belief that the ruling imperative of politics is to achieve equal freedom by “rational” means. To be rationally administered (that is, administered through markets or government bureaucracy), freedom must mean the license valued by a preference utilitarian, excluding all reference to goods transcending individual human desire. Liberal practices, institutions, and ideas therefore lead to the destruction or trivialization of all communal and religious life. Liberalism justifies itself by identifying its controlling (utilitarian) concept of rationality with the technical rationality that has yielded so much fruit in the modern scientific project. Capitalizing on the prestige of modern science, liberal discourse excludes nonliberal views of the proper organizing principles of society as self-evidently irrational.
But despite its current dominance and apparent impermeability to critique, Kalb thinks there are many good reasons to believe that liberalism is ultimately doomed. For instance, it cannot achieve or even intelligibly describe the state of equal freedom to which it constantly aspires, and it must therefore end (despite its claim to total rational transparency) by justifying its policies through dogmatic, coercive irrationalism; liberal societies could not survive without the nonliberal forms of association that liberalism corrodes (especially the Church and family); liberalism’s insistence on rationality and open debate makes it especially vulnerable to critiques it cannot answer; men find the liberal exclusion of transcendence intolerable in the long term and will rebel.
Opponents of liberalism can therefore attack with confidence, but Kalb warns against supporting alternatives that are themselves unviable or that represent mere reversions to earlier stages of liberalism. It is this description of such blind alleys (which include most contemporary versions of conservatism or classical liberalism) that is likely to attract the most opposition from otherwise friendly readers. Kalb goes on to lay out his positive alternative: a religiously grounded traditionalism that does not reject reason but recognizes that reason is not coterminous with technical rationality and that it is interdependent with, not antithetical to, tradition. He provocatively suggests that the Catholic tradition is the most viable basis for a neo-traditional society under modern conditions. The book ends with various strategies for undermining liberalism and promoting traditionalism, including recommendations for publicly challenging dominant secularist assumptions.