Liberalism vs the Good: An Interview with James Kalb

James Kalb

James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Here I talk to him about the critique of liberalism that he elaborates in his two works, the most recent of which is Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to do about it. I began by asking…

Dover Beach: Your latest book, Against Inclusiveness, follows in the footsteps of your first, The Tyranny of Liberalism. Both books share similar themes, liberalism as a technocratic ideology, hostile to common sense, suspicious of the common good, and so on. Which of the themes you have addressed over the last decade has become the most pressing to you, and why?

James Kalb: What to do now, in view of the voracity, intolerance, and overwhelming power of liberalism and the technocratic outlook generally.

Now that the ruling powers have accepted the outlook as uniquely just and rational, they feel called upon to root out practices and attitudes they view as oppressive and irrational. That’s likely to go very far. Insistence that bakers collaborate in celebrating same-sex marriages and boys who call themselves girls be allowed to use the girls’ locker room is only the beginning.

How do we move forward or even maintain our ground, when the governing outlook is that objections to such initiatives only show that more must be done to get rid of the evil ways of thinking that lie behind them?

DB: Right-liberals (conservatives) and libertarians want to distance themselves from certain contemporary ideological currents within liberalism by arguing that these currents are, in themselves, perversions, rather than, the emanations of liberalism. Do you think this attempt to distinguish between classical liberalism and contemporary liberalism philosophically untenable?

JK: The distinctions eventually break down because freedom eats up all limitations when it’s made the highest standard. Right liberals and libertarians want to liberate people by limiting government and emphasizing private property and contract. That gets rid of official privileges and disabilities, but why stop there? Once we have capitalism and the night watchman state some people will still have a great deal less freedom than others because they have less money to do things. So why wouldn’t it expand freedom to take $1000 from Bill Gates, who won’t miss it, and give it to the homeless guy on the corner, who can do a lot with it? And once you start in that direction you’ll notice other limitations on freedom, traditional social distinctions, for example, and wonder why the defense of freedom wouldn’t include doing something about them.

The process has no limit until the government controls everything for the sake of helping people get what they want, to the extent what they want fits into the system, and keeping them from oppressing each other.

DB: This suggests that any “Live and Let live” attitude fails to appreciate the problem and what is at stake in the current dispute; namely that this is not a dispute within liberalism but a dispute between liberalism and everything else. If this is the case, what is the ‘everything else’ in the above?

JK: That is indeed the case. Liberalism is progressive. It starts with “live and let live”, but recognizes no higher principle so it eventually wants to apply it to all human relationships. The result is that it becomes imperialistic and, in effect, replaces “live and let live” with “everyone must toe the liberal line in all significant aspects of life.” You can see the tendency in the concern with microaggressions and the expanding definitions of harassment and hate speech. You have to walk a very narrow line to avoid violating “live and let live” as currently understood. But that means it’s not really “live and let live” any more.

So the current dispute is whether we shall be a liberal society, which increasingly means a society that attempts to eradicate all attempts to realize substantive goods through institutions or culture, or one that allows such attempts, most likely because the society as a whole is oriented toward a substantive view of man’s nature and good, and thus is not liberal. The latter sort of society is the ‘everything else’ you mention.

Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It

DB: Your writing indicates that you understand the characterization of freedom, or ordered liberty, as a set of rights to pursue individual subjective preferences as a problem (the problem?) rather than freedom understood as a condition in which human beings are guaranteed the right to pursue objective human goods. How did the former view prevail over the latter?

JK: The latter isn’t stable unless “ordered liberty” means “liberty ordered toward the realization of a substantive conception of the good.” But then it’s no longer the defining principle of the society. It’s the substantive conception of the good that’s the defining principle, with ordered liberty as a subordinate principle, no doubt one among many.

Otherwise, if ordered liberty itself is the defining principle, then it trumps all particular goods. That means that whenever a subjective preference conflicts with a particular objective good, the subjective preference wins in the name of liberty unless it’s something that by its nature disrupts the liberal order, like wanting to be a brigand. So after a while it becomes quite clear that it’s subjective preferences rather than objective goods that matter socially.

DB: Well, this raises a theme or possibility that interests me; namely, that as liberalism did not emerge ex nihilo, but out of an existing moral and political culture, principally, Christianity, the problem is not so much with liberalism per se, but with liberalism removed from the context of which it was a part. I think that secularism, more or less, can be viewed under the same aspect. What are your thoughts here?

JK: It’s a question of final standards. If the final standard is the good, which is God, then saying that the individual and the secular have a certain relative autonomy is OK. It’s a recognition that God created man and the world, and called them good, so they’re not illusions or puppets but realities that operate in accordance with their own principles, but they’re still part of a larger scheme of things dependent ultimately on the highest good.

If you take God and the good out of the picture, so you’re left with the individual and the secular as absolutely autonomous, you’ve got problems. And that’s what liberalism does, since it turns religion into private opinion and so has to get by as a governing philosophy without God and ultimately without an authoritative objective good.

DB: Do you think then that this prioritizing of subjective preferences over objective goods and of freedom over the good arises because of an overemphasis of the human will and/or because of the rise of nominalism pace Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences?

JK: I incline to the latter explanation, but don’t know enough about late medieval philosophy to understand the nominalists in any detail. So when I tell the story I start with people like Descartes and Bacon, with the early modern turn away from formal and final cause toward mechanism, the rejection of qualities in favor of quantities, and the acceptance of use rather than contemplation as the goal of knowledge. All those things suggest getting rid of essences and so accepting nominalism.

DB: What exactly is meant by “the good” here? And is it is something that can still appeal, not only rhetorically, but dialectically, to an increasingly agnostic, if not atheistic audience?

JK: The good is what makes a goal worth pursuing in accordance with reason and the nature of the agent. Man, for example, is (among other things) an animal, and health is the condition in which an animal’s body functions properly, so health is a good for man and worth pursuing. Man is also rational and social, so knowledge and good relations with his fellows in a well-functioning community oriented toward worthwhile things are also goods for him.

The liberal tendency, of course, is to say that all these issues are a matter of personal preference, or at least should be treated that way in politics. Even so, I think we can appeal to the good dialectically even with a liberal and secularized audience. People can’t help but think implicitly in reference to it even if explicitly they don’t want to distinguish it from preference.

A father considering what’s best for his son, for example, doesn’t simply ask “what do I happen to prefer,” “what does the kid prefer and why should I care unless it’s going to cause me trouble,” or “what do others prefer and so what.” He’s concerned about what really is best–what will make little Tommy the best possible big Tommy, what will help him live the best life for the kind of person he is, and so on. He may not express himself that way but the concerns are there. And you can’t possibly keep that kind of concern out of politics.

So on a grander scale, I think we can ask liberals “what kind of people and what kind of social world does liberalism create? Are those really the best we can imagine for ourselves, our fellows, and our descendants? And if we can imagine something better, might it not be possible actually to do better, instead of pursuing doctrinaire liberalism, no matter what?” To push such points of course we’ll have to go into a variety of issues and specifics, but I think the general approach makes sense.

The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command

DB: Yes, liberalism has, predominately, been more concerned with “the right”, that is with rights and duties, and less concerned with “the good”, and has prioritized the former with respect to the latter, even though, to use your example, a right to an education, understood as either a negative or positive right, only arises because we consider knowledge and truth, good, objectively speaking, and not mere preferences. Beyond the concern for preferences, which in part might be simple hedonism, is part of the challenge, then, establishing the priority of the good over the right, conceptually, in the face of the overinflated status of rights-discourse, if not, what do you think is the predominant conceptual problem?

JK: I think that what’s most necessary today is to re-establish the good life as the fundamental question in politics. Without that we’re not dealing with the real issues. After all, when people carry on political life, they’re not so much concerned with abstract principles like neutrality or autonomy than how they think the world will be if this or that candidate, measure, or scheme is approved. Will life be better or worse? Something like autonomy might be part of that, but it’s certainly not the whole.

In any event, liberalism is obviously not neutral among goods and ways of life, and it obviously doesn’t let people do what they want. It has an enormous effect on the things people really care about, which are substantive goods, so why not talk about them and evaluate liberalism from that perspective?

DB: Beginning the story with Descartes and Bacon certainly makes sense. Could you tell us a little more about the technocratic view that Bacon inaugurated and how this expresses itself now in contemporary political and social life?

JK: He thought the point of knowledge was to make life easier and more pleasant from a practical standpoint, and to that end we should do experiments (“put nature to the question”), figure out mechanisms, and apply the results in an organized way. He wanted that to be a function of the state, and wrote a utopia, The New Atlantis, in which a scientific research institute runs society, to some extent from behind the scenes, and uses fake miracles and so on to maintain control and advance its agenda.

So his ideal was a society run ultimately by disinterested scientific experts answerable to nobody but themselves. That’s the technocratic ideal. One difference is that he didn’t work out the moral implications of egalitarian hedonism as radically as our guys. He punts on the issue, and has the scientists in his utopia use an evidently fake miracle to convince people of the authority of Christianity, which in turn mostly seems to function as a motive for people to lead chaste, honest, orderly, productive, and socially-minded lives.

DB:. This Baconian order, you argue, in Against Inclusiveness, is connected to the current diversity regime. How so?  

JK: Once politics becomes a matter of satisfying preferences equality becomes a major concern, since everybody’s preferences are equally preferences. As technocracy develops and the scope of government intervention in society grows, it’s natural to try to promote equality on more and more dimensions. Promotion of economic equality turns out to cause inefficiencies, not to mention resistance from influential interests, so once promoting equality among identity groups is on the menu the focus shifts there.

That’s much more acceptable among people who run things. Problems like family disruption and loss of social cohesion aren’t as obvious or objectionable to them as economic inefficiencies, because they mostly affect other people. Also, the people who run things want workers, functionaries, consumers, and clients, and use people in accordance with their wealth, organizational position, certified competencies, and the like. Traditional identities have no definite relevance to any of that, and seem irrational and disruptive, so our rulers are perfectly happy to suppress their significance.

DB: I’m interested in this problem that Bacon punted. Firstly, who are the ‘our guys’ you mention and what was their answer to the problem?

JK: By ‘our guys’ I meant the people who run things and who tell us what we ought to think. I have in mind the outlook implicit in what they say and do rather than explicit theorizing, which is often idiosyncratic and fine-tuned to avoid obvious objections. In effect, such people have decided that knowledge is Baconian and technological, so knowledge of how we should live doesn’t exist. The natural conclusion is that all preferences equally deserve realization as long as they don’t gum up the system. Hence lifestyle liberalism, which you don’t find in the New Atlantis.

DB: Finally, which three books do you think have been most influential in your philosophical formation?

JK: A difficult question! I’d say Plato’s Symposium, which made me recognize that transcendentals are needed to make sense of ordinary human experience.


Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which made me pay attention to the knowledge implicit in evolved social practices.

Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford World's Classics)

And, Blaise Pascal’s Pensees, which showed me that even in a skeptical age beliefs on fundamental issues are unavoidable, so the only question is how best to form them.

Pensées and Other Writings (Oxford World's Classics)



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