The recently revised New York City Health Department form for parents requesting birth certificates asks the “woman giving birth” whether she is female or male. The question is obviously absurd. But why do absurdities of this sort keep popping up? And why do most people fall in line, pretending—at least in public—that they are perfectly sensible? The natural reaction is to roll our eyes: These things cannot be serious, and they will go away if we ignore them. But they do not go away, and the absurdities become more common, extreme, and compulsory.
The birth-certificate madness is of a piece with recent developments: guidelines encouraging schoolteachers to avoid gendered expressions, for example, and court decisions regarding sex-change therapy for military prisoners. Meanwhile, no one of prominence seems able to argue against these trends in a coherent way. It is becoming evident that the people who run things in our society think about the world in ways that alienate them from common sense and human reality. What else could possess government officials to imagine that someone giving birth might be male? Or that government documents are properly used to accommodate women who, on giving birth, wish to declare themselves men? There is a whole school of gender theory that answers these questions, but it too presents a surreal view of human life.
The problem, therefore, is fundamental, so much so that we must struggle to gain the perspective to see it for what it is. We should begin by characterizing our elites’ view of the human condition. We are dealing, it appears, with what might be called the technocratic project—the modern attempt to turn the social world into a universal machine for maximizing the satisfaction of preferences. This project’s goal is best understood as eschatological, or perhaps counter-eschatological: a social world that recognizes no transcendent authority above it, no history behind it except the history of its own coming into being, and no nature of things beneath it that cannot be transformed technologically into what we choose. It is a secular saecula saeculorum, a world unlimited by the divine, by the past, or by nature’s laws—including the biological principle distinguishing male from female.
In this world, what counts as real is narrowed to two things: individual subjectivity, and objects of the kind studied by the hard sciences. This understanding of reality has come to prevail, not just among our elites but in the practices and institutions that characterize modern life and shape popular understandings. It reflects the methods of modern science and technology, and it informs the strategies of technological rationalization that dominate our world ever more completely. These strategies have given us the modern state, with its extensive bureaucracy and unlimited claims, and modern capitalism, with its energy, innovation, and global reach—and have radically weakened all other forms of social organization.
Restricting the category of the real in this manner abolishes higher goods and does away with traditional understandings of morality. This result once seemed to forebode chaos, but the principles of utility and equality are now accepted as substitutes for old moralities. The former principle requires us to treat human interests as desires to be satisfied (utility) or frustrated (disutility), while the latter tells us that all desires deserve equal favor to the extent consistent with the coherence and effectiveness of the system. The result is maximum equal preference satisfaction, achieved through technology and applied to the whole of life, as a supreme moral and social guide.
This approach to human flourishing implies a thin view of human experience. To our rulers, though, it seems inevitable. It rationalizes decision-making and harmonizes political and social systems with the capitalist project of maximizing wealth—often a proxy for maximizing utility—and with the political maintenance of what they consider a just and beneficial social order. It has led to a continuing reconfiguration of social life, through the replacement of traditional precepts by technological methods keyed to utility and equality. People organize their lives around—instead of religion and inherited ways—money, contract, and the decisions, based in social and organizational science, of ostensibly neutral bureaucrats. Why should inherited norms and assumptions determine how we live? Far better, the thinking goes, to reengineer institutions according to “objective” and “scientific” standards than to be dominated by irrational moral and religious beliefs, those veiled strategies of oppression that once supported such horrors as patriarchy, homophobia, and fundamentalism.
As the process of rationalizing social life extends itself, the tendency grows to view all opposition as evil. Older understandings are presumed irrational, arbitrary, oppressive, and violent. Our elites no longer even argue against them. Justice Kennedy asserts, with the support of the majority of the Supreme Court, that no one could wish to retain the natural and traditional definition of marriage unless from a desire to injure homosexuals. For those who think as he does, it goes without saying that there are no natural patterns of human functioning. The social order can only be a construction, and it should be constructed by the wise and powerful—by the technocrats—for the purpose of achieving subjective satisfaction for the greatest possible number.
These efforts, of course, require paternalism. Our elites do not respect the decision-making capacity of ordinary people, deeming their choices irrational, uninformed, unhealthy, and antisocial. The people must be protected from themselves. Over the past few decades, great energy has been expended on designing social programs that encourage the unenlightened to make different choices: to stop smoking, start exercising, cut down on sugary drinks, practice safe sex, reject antiquated social and moral prejudices, and listen to the experts. By contrast, the desires of upper-middle-class people, the people who score well on tests, go to the right schools, do well in their professions, and accordingly are fitted to control things, are presumed to be healthy and socially beneficial. Thus we have simultaneous campaigns against cigarettes and for gay marriage.
As a number of thinkers have recognized, something is missing from this technocratic project. It has no interest in ultimate goods, but only in the realization of whatever goods are chosen by the people or their paternalistic betters. In the liberal form of technocracy, individual satisfaction is the presumptive standard for action. But public and private interests sometimes differ, so the social order cannot endure without some acceptance of sacrifice for the common good. This sacrifice in turn requires the recognition of goods that transcend the desires of individuals. Indeed, even in the best of times we are not satisfied by the satisfaction of our desires simply as such. We want to know that our desires are justified, our satisfactions worth having. We need to live in accordance with some ideal, and to see ourselves as participants in a higher order of things.
This need is essentially a religious one. The liberal form of technocracy has addressed it by making the rejection of higher goods itself a higher good—calling it liberation, autonomy, or choice—and declaring it essential to human dignity. Liberal technocracy encourages us to imagine ourselves each a little deity whose wishes are commands that define moral reality. This religious view—which is rarely explicit—commits the technocracy to a spiritual-moral project, namely, the social recognition of the equal divinity of everyone. This project explains the moral passion behind causes such as inclusiveness and multiculturalism, as well as the seeming hyperbole in Nancy Pelosi’s assertion that the right to late-term abortion is “sacred ground.”
This way of thinking has a broad appeal. It enables liberal elites to claim that their power is not power at all; instead, it is a disinterested defense of the power of every human being. Increasingly, the people who run businesses and bureaucracies do not wield power, or so they say; they empower. And it allows fellow travelers in the liberation project to justify their private choices, to feel powerful by identifying with power, and to alleviate the boredom of their politically correct consumer society with the pastimes of moral preening and the smoking out and punishment of dissidents.
But a problem remains. Making a god of “liberation” does not give ordinary people practical guidance about how to live. The tenet “Whatever you want to do is okay, so long as it does not conflict with the equally okay things other people want to do” is not a substantive guide to life. It cannot be, since its tendency is to liberate individuals from those substantive guides that by their nature claim authority over our choices.
There are no supermen who can create their own values ex nihilo. And so “liberation” leads most people to do worse and a great many to founder. Some imitate their betters, keeping their lives in some sort of order through careerism. Others are recalcitrant, clinging to ways that the dominant system denounces as prejudiced or oppressive. Still others use their new freedoms poorly, so that their lives deteriorate in the manner described by Theodore Dalrymple in his essays on the British underclass and by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart. Whichever way prevails, the custodial state becomes more powerful. Government control is exerted to stamp out “prejudice” and liberate people from traditional ways of life. More government control is then needed to mitigate the bad consequences of freedoms poorly exercised, and to defuse conflicts that cannot be avoided or resolved through the common habits and understandings that once constituted a common culture. The whole approach seems a poor substitute for older, more sustaining, and coherent commitments such as local, family, and community attachments—not to mention the transcendent goals of religious faith.
o what to do? The religion of liberation is the spiritual side of the liberal technocratic project. This project—encompassing the universities, legal and journalistic professions, central banks, global corporations, and other centers of privilege and power—has an impressive record of success that is demonstrated by the great wealth of our society. What we are up against, therefore, is something powerful and deeply rooted. We have failed to see this, and this failure has hindered us.
For the most part, our efforts have been animated by feeling rather than principle—a sadly modern mode of opposing the technocratic reduction of meaning to subjective attitudes. Dissenters from the technocracy usually enjoy strong ties to family, faith, heritage, and community, and so their opposition tends to emphasize practices, symbols, institutions, and authorities rather than theory. The battle has therefore pitted ideological progressives against instinctive conservatives, those who favor dominant trends against those who repudiate the trends but lack an adequate counter-theory.
This conservative and instinctive opposition has taken various forms. The most straightforward has been moderation, the rendering of a tacit consent to present trends while proposing limits. Moderation is based on a common reaction to progressive initiatives, one that sees new demands as odd or as going too far too fast. “We’re not ready for it,” says the moderate opponent of radical changes. This approach works well enough politically to give the center-right enduring prominence in America. But it constantly gives ground, and eventually it surrenders on every issue that matters.
American conservatives who try to respond more actively to current trends often imagine that an emphasis on individual and corporate initiative and a return to national greatness will restore the old ways of life. They thus oppose government and transnational actors in favor of individual, corporate, and national ones. But their approach leads only to a different version of technocracy, one that is individualist and nationalist rather than collectivist and universalist. The ultimate goal is still maximum preference satisfaction for everyone through technology—though with more emphasis on production and less on equality—so the fundamental problems remain.
A few critics have tried to oppose technocracy itself. Recent popes have kept alive principles such as subsidiarity and natural law, which are fundamentally at odds with the system. Natural law is especially so. To say that things have distinct natural purposes offends the secular religion of individual and social choice, which declares all things neutral, just so much raw material to which only our choices impart meaning. Subsidiarity and natural law have had little influence, however, even within the Catholic Church. To further the goals of Catholic social teaching, Church leaders have sought common ground with dominant forces for the sake of marginal improvements. Effectively, they have supported expansion of the bureaucratic welfare state and thus of the technocracy. A rump of distributists propose the devolution of economic power to families and localities, but theirs has been a niche, mostly literary movement with little effect on either the Church or the society at large.
Others try different strategies. Social conservatives try to shore up the influence of traditional institutions. Populists insist on what they consider commonsense understandings of reality, seeking to maintain non-technocratic ways of doing things that respond to a broader array of needs and concerns. And libertarians turn the religion of liberation around in a way intended to limit some of its effects, constraining the power of the state so that individuals will have greater scope for voluntary action in everyday life.
All of these efforts have failed. Populism flares up periodically but is easily co-opted by technocratic ways of thinking—left or right—and soon disintegrates for lack of stable definition and leadership. Social conservatives have offered sporadically effective resistance on particular issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, but have been forced to retreat again and again—and they, too, have been co-opted. It is remarkable how readily the dominant voices on the American right turn social-policy debates into debates about fiscal or economic policy. Thus, for most conservative voters, immigration is a matter of concern in large part because of their sense of the fragility of our social ties and cultural commitments. But this concern is continually translated by the political class into a concern about how immigrants may affect wages and how they may contribute (or not) to the nation’s economic growth and global competitiveness.
Libertarians may appear to defy the rule of general failure, since the limits of bureaucratic administration and the importance of private economic decision-making are now generally accepted among influential people. The practical effect of libertarian victories, though, has been the extension and rationalization of markets—globalization, big box stores, and fast-food franchises in place of local and more-personal arrangements. Meanwhile, government retains administrative control, though now it places greater emphasis on markets for organizing production and distributing benefits. Obamacare’s use of regulated competition in health insurance is a classic neoliberal fusion of technocracy with libertarian insights into the virtues of market freedom. The result is a regime in which private property, while it may profit its owners, does not limit state power, support family life, or protect small businessmen or local communities.
The most thoughtful conservatives have addressed the religion of liberation as an enemy of what they call “the permanent things.” Religious conservatives have emphasized the continuing importance of sacred tradition, intellectual conservatives that of intellectual and spiritual concerns that cannot be reduced to things we endow with meaning by virtue of our choices.
But these arguments, too, have lost. Obamacare all but universally mandates the provision of contraceptives and abortifacients, and our governing classes are dumbfounded that anyone would object. Inclusivity requires us to permit everlasting mass immigration from everywhere. The Supreme Court treats gay-marriage opponents as unworthy of inclusion in political debate. Under such circumstances, it becomes impossible to appeal publicly to the roots of the social order in nature, to a principle of transcendence, or to a particular history and culture. All these are dismissed as oppressive, as forces to be overcome in the name of equality, rationality, and individual autonomy. The only principles that retain legitimacy are bureaucracy, contract, and technology.
Appearances are deceiving, however, for the triumph of technocratic liberalism spells its destruction. How can a society be governed effectively by those who will not recognize basic human goods, relationships, and patterns of behavior? How can it come to grips with problems if it forbids discussion of real human differences—the differences between not only male and female but all the inevitable range of human aptitudes and tendencies? The Los Angeles public schools are moving toward enforcement of their formal requirement that all high-school students pass two years of algebra. The ambition is well intended, but it lacks all sense of reality: As a practical matter, any broad-based nonselective student population will include a portion who cannot meet such a requirement and would benefit from a less academic approach. But our elites cannot face this fact. They believe that academic intelligence is what makes us human. To recognize that some people have less of it would be, they think, to view such people as less than human—which would belie the elites’ belief in the equal divinity of all.
Still more ominous for liberal technocracy is its dependence on the idealism by which it secures the dedication of its ruling class. The ideals of equal freedom and self-conferred meaning keep these elites loyal by inspiring them and granting them legitimacy. The elites see themselves as working toward the greatest liberation of the greatest number. Their heroic self-conception, though, will grow steadily less believable as the system they are building becomes steadily less free—as the custodial state expands, its requirements become more explicit and comprehensive, and greater force is exerted against those who remain attached to traditional restraints, or who live without any restraint at all.
It will be less believable, too, as we become increasingly divided by class. This division is already well advanced, as Charles Murray documents in his analysis of “SuperZIPs,” those privileged neighborhoods now inhabited by homogeneous concentrations of our ruling elites. Other neighborhoods, which Murray also documents, are inhabited by those for whom liberation has not worked at all as a substitute for traditional ideals, nor careerism as a substitute for traditional restraints. Nor is a coherent and public-spirited elite likely to survive our multicultural ideology, which tends to accentuate grievance and erode social trust. Our elites view themselves increasingly as either entitled meritocrats or entitled recipients of compensation for claimed oppressions—or both. Why expect such people to work together for anything resembling the public interest?
The most basic problem for liberal technocracy, however, inheres in its reliance on an ideal of liberation that has become metaphysically absolute. In earlier eras there were slaves or serfs to liberate, and then workers to empower over against the owners of capital. The civil-rights movement in America wanted to liberate blacks from obvious racial subjugation. But today the project has become more abstract and therefore more radical, seeking to gratify the modern fantasy of freedom from every limitation of history, culture, and nature, even the limitations of our own bodies. Thus the liberation imperative now revolves around sex, gender, reproduction, and questions of identity. It has become less political than metaphysical, bent on revising the meaning of the word is—so that a man is not necessarily a man, nor a woman necessarily a woman, if his or her choices run otherwise.
Everyone senses the unreality of this situation, even those who are loyal to technocratic liberalism. Yet our sense of unreality is not effectual. Technocratic liberalism purports to have a monopoly on reason. In consequence, the ordinary sources of collective self-criticism and self-correction—common sense, tradition, the consensus gentium, the everyday human ability to recognize patterns—are excluded from discussion. Whatever cannot be “objectively demonstrated”—which means, shown to be part of the project of preference satisfaction and utility maximization—is disqualified as prejudicial.
And yet our ruling elites, who endorse all manner of liberation in their official capacities, conform in their private lives to much of the traditional wisdom concerning human flourishing. They are moderate and prudent in their indulgences. The traditional—stable and heterosexual—model of marriage is now stronger among them than among the masses whom they seek to liberate from traditional social forms. So the technocrats are loyal to the technocracy and at the same time disloyal. This dissonance is a symptom of our fragmented society, which not only lacks common faith and loyalties but is run by people who speak one way and act another—not cynically, but because their vision of public life is motivated by a moralism increasingly detached from reality. Eventually, this incoherence and the loss of mutual trust will destroy the possibility of public reason—and the current system along with it.
I have presented a gloomy account of our circumstances, possibly too gloomy. People are not complete fools, our governing elites least of all. As we see in the renewal of traditional marriage among those very elites, the social order depends for its basic rules on some degree of common sense. Natural human ways of thinking and acting are still with us, and always will be. It is therefore possible that people will simply grow tired of silliness.
But we must not underestimate the staying power of the technocratic regime. It will be difficult for our rulers to retreat from commitments that legitimate their position so irrefutably. Moreover, the regime has a remarkable ability to keep things going, even amid growing weirdness. People are getting rich designing smartphone apps; medical science advances apace; riots and disruptive protests are coordinated via Twitter, tending to occur in places our rulers neither live in nor care about. So it may be quite a while before things get better or even stop getting worse.
What, then, is to be done? It is of limited use to push specific causes when the entire basis of public life is so radically defective. Few public figures understand the reasons behind our positions—few, for instance, recognize natural-law morality as a rational possibility—so they dismiss our positions as stupid or worse. What is needed, therefore, is a fundamental transformation of the outlook guiding public discussion, so that traditional ways of thinking can gain a hearing. This is a difficult task, but an absolutely necessary one.
We must, then, refuse to give ground on first principles. Equal preference satisfaction is not the supreme principle of morality and public order, and framing our public arguments solely in these terms will lose us every battle and certainly the war. It is surely true, for instance, that gay marriage is unfair to children, and that the gay-rights movement reflects a larger disregard for children’s preference satisfaction. This is an argument worth making. But continually to frame our objections this way in public debate has the perverse effect of reinforcing the logic of technocratic liberalism. We cannot win by claiming to be better technocrats than our opponents, better at bringing about equal preference satisfaction.
Instead, we must find our own way of speaking, making arguments that go beyond the principles of freedom, equality, and tolerance. This means bringing human nature and substantive goods back into the public discussion. We must propose making man and his good the guide for desire and technique, rather than the other way around. Debates about marriage, for instance, will not end when gay marriage is declared a constitutional right. There is always a next stage of liberation. We must revive the fundamental principle of male–female complementarity, not only with regard to the fertility of sexual union but in all that principle’s psychosocial fullness. Marriage is a good to be defended, not because it is a vehicle for preference satisfaction but because the enduring union of a man and a woman is itself a good that is basic to the constitution of human life.
Conservatism in its usual expression is an attachment to existing conditions. The conservative wants to conserve, to resist destructive changes. But as the technocracy expands, this version of conservatism becomes less pertinent. The technocracy has occupied so much territory that we cannot fall back on established ways of thinking. It has captured almost all of our intellectual institutions—universities, museums, cultural foundations, the mainstream media. The truisms of educated people today are technocratic truisms. In consequence, conservatives today tend to become populists, insofar as they are alienated from establishment thought. We are now the revolutionaries—valuing history, human nature, a settled orientation toward something transcending utility, and patterns and attachments such as family and particular culture. Reestablishing a connection to such things when these connections have been disrupted will require new forms of thought and action.
This is true even for Catholics, who in theory possess a rich intellectual patrimony but face difficulties because the attitude of Church leaders has made acceptance of liberal modernity the official stance. A Catholic who self-consciously rejects technocracy will lack the institutional support of the Church, will even be criticized as “antimodern.” This situation must change if Catholicism is to provide a sound intellectual and institutional basis for resisting the dominion of liberal modernity. There is a limit to what laymen can do to promote a more confident resistance within the Church. Even so, the experience of centuries provides grounds for optimism that Catholicism will once again return to type—which means resistance to the now evident anti-Catholicism of present-day public life.
We need more than principles, of course. We must present an actual way of life that is superior to the one that currently prevails. Liberalism has a certain solidity, cohesion, and staying power that comes from its dominance of public institutions. Our efforts must likewise have a visible solidity and enduring social form. We will not convince people that they are missing something unless we can show them by our lives what that something is. We cannot fake this demonstration. A politics worth having rests on commitments that are valued more than politics.
For these reasons, our best hope lies in local communities that are attractive to others and that can function, endure, and defend themselves, standing for ways of thought that address the aspirations and needs of ordinary human life. This hope is not chimerical. Even something as modish as the fascination with locally sourced products and farmers’ markets suggests a growing desire for ways of life that are rooted somehow in nature, not confected by technocratic planning. But such instincts toward common sense and human connection are easily co-opted if we lack strong beliefs and standards of conduct. Here the churches have a crucial role to play. The emphasis on common ground, which has prevailed in recent decades, has not worked; the Church has assimilated to the world, rather than the reverse. She must once again stand her ground, so that new and better social formations can grow up around her. On this point we can look to Darwin: What assimilates vanishes—but what has its own principle of life in a dissolving order may survive and prevail.
What is our ultimate political and social goal? Timidity is out of place, for the first step forward is to overcome the mentality of submission to “inevitable” liberal modernity. We need not assimilate to a doomed world if we have something better and more functional. We should therefore strive for a renewed Christendom, perhaps a society in which Christianity has a status similar to that of liberal human rights today, as the default source of moral legitimacy in public life. Christendom may seem an unrealistic goal, but technocratic liberalism will not last forever, and there is no law of history to dictate what comes next. There is no guarantee that the way of life that best fits human needs and aspirations will triumph, but truth has its advantages, even in the turbulent world of cultural politics. We have grounds for hope. Truth itself will be fighting for us.
James Kalb is a lawyer and the author of, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime Is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It.