This essay appears in the Summer 2013 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
Recent liberal successes, such as the ongoing redefinition of marriage to include same-sex relationships, dramatize the failure of social conservatism in public discussion. What is most striking to conservatives about the situation is the conviction among intelligent and influential people that conservative social views are altogether baseless, so that adherence to them is an intellectual and moral vice.
To a large extent, that situation is the result of the occupational outlook of those who run things in the West today. People who try to run a mass industrial society with a mixed and fluid population find it easiest to understand their task in accordance with a general scheme that emphasizes equality, technological rationality, and maximum preference satisfaction. Those committed to such a scheme have trouble making sense of traditional understandings based on a very different view of how the world works. Hence the difficulty social conservatives have making their case: their outlook is too much at odds with that of the influential public they hope to reach.
Still, political thought is more than an expression of institutional functioning and occupational perspective. Its highest use is to change and even transform how the social world works for the sake of a better way of life. With that in mind, it seems worthwhile to develop an account of public life and its relation to social conservatism that might aid those in responsible positions to understand the latter and how it functions.
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For all the talk of diversity, today’s politics are extraordinarily uniform. The West lives under a single political regime, managerial liberalism, that combines an emphasis on individual choice and democratic values with domination of social life by experts, functionaries, and commercial interests. The liberal and managerial aspects of the system seem at odds with each other, but both are basic, and together they have led to the suppression of many things that have always been fundamental to human society—religion, cultural particularity, even the distinction between the sexes.
Unusual though the resulting form of society may be, people take it for granted, so much so that anything else seems impossible. No one can imagine a future, apart from chaos and tyranny, that is anything but more of the same; and those who want to roll back recent developments, to the ’50s, for example, are considered out of touch or psychologically disordered. If you are skeptical about democracy, diversity, and choice, or if you do not trust the experts, there is something wrong with you. And if you think there is an authority that could call the regime into question, and even at times override it, you are a fanatical extremist.
What is going on? Why the uniform insistence on such an odd political orthodoxy in an age that supposedly believes in freedom, diversity, and reason?
Part of the answer is that political choices have narrowed as one alternative after another has been discredited and an exclusively technological attitude toward social life has taken hold. The First World War meant an end to traditional and multinational monarchies; the Second, an end to any serious European Right or strong conception of national sovereignty. Those and other upheavals made the administrative machinery of the state more all-encompassing and destroyed local traditions and respect for goals other than effectiveness and uniformity.
The world wars were followed by prosperity, TV, cheap jet travel, globalized markets, electronic communications, the contemporary welfare state, and a continued tendency toward the industrial organization of life. People today eat at McDonalds, children grow up in day care, and local establishments have been replaced by chain stores and the Internet. The two wars were also followed by the Cold War. As a modern war, the Cold War further centralized social life and increased government power; as a struggle of ideas, it made thought more ideological. Western governments became accustomed to social management based on grand slogans such as human rights. With the collapse of Soviet communism, the last nonliberal form of modern political life, such tendencies could unfold without external check.
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Our current public order claims to separate politics from religion, but that understates its ambition. It aspires to free public life—and eventually, since man is social, human life in general—not only from religion but also from nature and history. The intended result is an increase in freedom as man becomes his own creator. The effect, though, is that human life becomes what those in power say it is. Western political authorities now claim the right to remake the most basic arrangements. If you want to know the nature of man and the significance of life and death, you look to the political order and its authorized interpreters. That is the meaning of the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions and the transformation of abortion into a human right. Man has, in effect, become God, and politics is the authoritative expression of his mind, spirit, and will.
People sense on some level that there is a problem with the primacy given to human will today. The evident tendency of modern politics to slide into unlimited tyranny has led to an obsession with Nazism and to ever more vehement demands for tolerance, pluralism, rationality, and so on. That response is hazardous, since overly insistent demands motivated by fear and not limited by a perspective that transcends the particular case become tyrannical themselves.
It is very difficult to maintain a balance now. The skepticism that is considered part of rationality makes it hard to imagine a perspective that transcends politics or an approach to politics other than the current one. That skepticism holds that there is no God or objective moral order that can be relied on, just atoms, the void, and human subjectivity. The result is that nothing can be held to have a natural goal or reason for being, and the only meaning something can have for us is the meaning we give it. In such a setting, wanting to do something is what makes it worth doing, and the good can only be the satisfaction of preferences simply as such. Morality becomes an abstract system that has nothing substantive to say about how to live but only tells us to cooperate so we can all attain whatever our goals happen to be.
Given such a view, the uniquely rational approach to social order is to treat it as a soulless, technically rational arrangement for maximizing equal satisfaction of equally valid preferences. That principle claims to maximize effective freedom, but it narrowly limits what is permissible lest we interfere with the equal freedom of others or the efficient operation of the system. Private hobbies and indulgences are acceptable, since they leave other people alone. So are career, consumption, and expressions of support for the liberal order. What is not acceptable is any ideal of how people should understand their lives together that is at odds with the liberal one. Such ideals affect other people, if only by affecting the environment in which they live, and that makes them oppressive. If you praise the traditional family, you are creating an environment that disfavors some people and their goals, so you are acting as an oppressor.
The result is that the contemporary liberal state cannot allow people to take seriously the things they have always taken most seriously. They can say they are Catholics, Muslims, or anything else, but what they mean by that has to be consistent for practical purposes with the liberal view. In effect, they have to accept that their religion—their understanding of the nature of man and the world—has to become a matter of private taste. Those who do not accept the transformation are excluded from public discussion as cranks who oppose freedom, equality, and reason.
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Not surprisingly, there are problems with the outlook described. The idea of equal freedom as the highest goal cannot be made consistent with itself. If individual preference is supreme, whose preferences win when differences cannot be reconciled? Further, how is freedom consistent with efficiency, equality, and the view that expert knowledge ought to guide what everyone does?
Differing answers to such questions give rise to different tendencies within liberalism. For people who like action, the obvious implication of making maximum preference satisfaction the supreme good is unlimited pursuit of career, power, and money in a sort of competitive free-for-all. Individual choice is good, we are all equally actors, and every desire has a right to satisfaction, so everyone should “do his own thing” and go for what he can get. The preference for decisive action is also extended to organizations and the community as a whole. Just as each of us “goes for it” in his own life, businesses can “go for it” in the marketplace, and our country can do the same in international relations.
The result is mainstream American conservatism: a form of liberalism that at home favors markets, entrepreneurs, and minimal regulation, and abroad favors an activist foreign policy that promotes American values. Such a view encourages economic activity and is consistent with the project of extending the liberal order globally. It is also egalitarian in its way: we are equally free to enter the competition, and the rules are supposed to be neutral and reward without favor those who compete best.
Nonetheless, the view does not please everybody, even among those who run things. In particular, it does not please experts, officials, and explainers, who are enormously influential in a complex, bureaucratic, technological, and media-ridden society like our own. Such people are less interested in action and acquisition than in the creation of a scheme of total control through exact knowledge. The ideal they strive for is a sort of EU writ large, a universal system of social management run by expert functionaries that secures and fine-tunes maximum equal preference satisfaction for everyone everywhere. Such a system requires uniformity, centralization, and strict limits on disturbing factors like enterprise and competition. The conflict with the party of action is obvious.
So within the present political order there are two main parties: right liberals, who are called conservatives and like the competitive free market and a venturesome foreign policy, and left liberals, who are called liberals or progressives and like international law and the politically correct redistributionist welfare state. Political debate mostly has to do with the struggle between those two parties. The first favors actors and doers; the second, experts and officials. With that in mind, the first party often gets its way in practice, while the second is stronger in the world of thought and discussion.
The struggle between the parties is real, because it is based on opposing interests and points of view regarding our current society, but it is also limited. The two parties are largely composed of the same kind of people, ambitious professionals who attended the same schools and identify with their peers and superiors rather than the people generally. Left liberals claim to be disinterested egalitarians, but they are as much concerned as others with making their way in the world. Right liberals talk about economic freedom, but like their leftist colleagues they are mostly managers and experts who are happiest with a controlled overall system. From the standpoint of ultimate standards, the two parties differ only in emphasis. Both accept equality and preference satisfaction as ultimate standards, but left-liberals emphasize equal outcomes and security, while right-liberals prefer equal opportunity and efficiency.
The result is that the two are not far apart on policy. Left-liberals accept the market; right-liberals accept extensive government intervention in economic and social life. Both favor globalization and the maintenance of the liberal system. Hence today’s political stagnation. We are ruled by two parties that do not differ much and are not likely to change, since they correspond to basic complementary aspects of the regime.
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So much for the people who run things. What about the rank and file, the workers, voters, consumers, and housewives who are not high-level managers, experts, entrepreneurs, officials, or explainers? As rank and file, they are not particularly rich, qualified, competitive, or well placed. That gives them limited political influence in an extensive, dynamic, technically complex, and extensively managed society. Their numbers give them immediate influence, but it is hard for a disorganized mass of people with a sporadic interest in public affairs to compete with full-time professionals.
Under left-liberalism, which is especially strong in Europe, such people are managed and looked after, but nobody who counts takes their views seriously. In America, where right-liberalism has more influence, they mostly tend to drop out of sight as a separate class. Americans think of their country as a free, democratic, and classless society in which the actions of the government are actions of the people and everyone can be whatever he wants. That view makes it difficult to see rulers and ruled as distinct and opposed. That is why people in America who complain about “elites” or “the system” are considered a little odd, and if the people in general feel estranged from government, the accepted conclusion is that there is something wrong with them.
A serious disadvantage from which the people suffer is that their way of life has been disrupted by commercialism, industrial organization, the welfare state, and political correctness—that is, by the various efforts to do away with traditional distinctions, institutions, and modes of functioning. Family, religion, particular culture, and local autonomy resist external supervision and control. They go their own way on principles that have little to do with administrative or market needs or maximum equal-preference satisfaction. For that reason, such arrangements interfere with the construction of a rational system of freedom, justice, and prosperity. They have to go, except where they can be converted into consumer goods and lifestyle accessories or—in the case of religion—into self-help systems that accessorize liberalism.
The effect is that ordinary people lose effective institutions of their own that correspond to the needs of everyday life and sink more and more into the condition of an inert proletariat. Family life disintegrates, religion turns into mush, neighborhoods become less neighborly, electronic entertainment propagates ever cruder habits and attitudes, and employment ties loosen as globalization puts jobs constantly in play and multiculturalism weakens common loyalties and understandings in the workplace.
In spite of it all, the people mostly support the two parties, although with less and less enthusiasm. Those who like action support right-liberalism; those who want people looked after and things kept tidy support left-liberalism. The alternatives, after all, are indifference, resentment, cynicism, conspiracy mongering, and apolitical self-indulgence. Some people protest at Tea Parties or on Wall Street, but they rarely get anywhere; and when they do, their victories get annulled. Most people go along with what is going on, pursue their private interests, or sit on the sofa and watch TV.
People who run things do not seriously object to that state of affairs. An inert and ineffectual people will not cause trouble, and they provide consumers for business, clients for government, and a compliant workforce. If their way of life is getting cruder, that shows there are lifestyle liberties. If family life falls apart, that means men will be less demanding and women more available to employers. It also means that children will not pick up inconvenient ideas at home because they will be brought up by electronic entertainment, the government, commercial enterprises, and each other. And if women do not have children, men drop out or become antisocial, and young people grow up self-centered and nonfunctional, that just shows that training programs and market incentives have to be fine-tuned. Yuppies do not have most of those problems to the same degree, since their career aspirations keep them disciplined, so if the people have personal problems, they should all become yuppies.
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That seems to be where we are. Liberal modernity tries to turn the world into a machine for manufacturing satisfactions, but people are not satisfied. Most of us would be happier in the world of nature and tradition than in the antiworld our betters have constructed, just as most of us would be happier in a traditional house than a dwelling unit designed by a cutting-edge architect.
But what can be done? Luckily, the system has weaknesses that go deeper than the conflict between liberals who like enterprise and liberals who like experts and administrators. Liberal modernity denies natural order and goods higher than individual preferences. Nonetheless, it depends on reason, which requires belief in a world that has order and meaning, and willing cooperation, which requires willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of higher goods. Our public life shows the consequences of the contradiction. Politics is becoming ever more irrational and manipulative, with social peace purchased by bribing the discontented. That state of affairs cannot possibly be sustained, but no leader or movement points to anything better.
On what could something better be based? Indications that there is more to the human world than will and technology are present now as always, but they are hidden in features of life that are denied, ignored, or misunderstood. An inchoate awareness that something is missing can be seen in rebellions against liberal modernity. Such rebellions are generally fruitless, however, because they have difficulty rising above the modern denial of tradition, religion, common sense, and the idea that things have their own nature and meaning apart from political decisions. Unless that denial is overcome, they can do nothing effectual.
Liberal modernity is a rebellion against God, nature, and history. Thieves fall out, rebels even more so, so every part of the modern liberal world is in rebellion against every other. That is why “change” is the great political slogan, and there is no such thing as a party of order today. Left-liberals rebel against the greed and love of dominion unleashed by the liberation of the will; right-liberals against the smothering system of petty restrictions created by the cults of equality and expertise. The people rebel against both. They are told they are free, equal, happy, and in charge, but it is obvious that none of that is true, so they know something is amiss.
The Left is traditionally the party of rebellion. It is hard for it to keep that up today, because principles that fundamentally oppose those of the Left have mostly been purged from public life, but some still make the attempt. Now as always there is a faction of the Left that wants a more absolute form of liberation than government can provide, so it takes up anarchism. Anarchism does not have a coherent theory, structure, or goal, so the attempt cannot go anywhere. Indeed, it works against its own goals by weakening informal authorities based on habit and consent, leaving the field to explicit compulsion. It therefore makes government more inhuman and tyrannical.
Somewhat more coherent forms of rebellion are found on the Right, the side of the political spectrum defined by resistance to the progress of liberal modernity. In spite of general political inertia, ordinary people sometimes get fed up and rebel. The usual standard they adopt is what they remember from years gone by. For that reason populism—the pure form of popular rebellion—is normally conservative. Its basic thought is that everything will be fine if we just get rid of the weird stuff and back to normalcy.
Populism is a popular vote of no confidence in those who run things. People who run things do not like that, so their response is that the complainers are ignorant, irrational, and bigoted. They cannot really be the people, because if they were they would want what the experts say they should want. The Tea Party is a case in point. People did not like the huge expansion of government activity and spending, so they complained. The reaction was official shock and incomprehension, and obscene mockery by respected news organizations.
Populism has severe limitations, so a negative response would have been plausible if it had not been so extreme and abusive. The people are not reflective, so their views are often poorly articulated and their goals shifting and inconsistent. They lack organization, leadership, and vision and cannot develop them without ceasing to be populist. So populism loses focus and gets distracted, and any victories it wins get reversed. Referenda on social issues—affirmative action, gay rights, and so on—provide examples. Conservative populists win the votes, but liberal judges and administrators determine what happens thereafter.
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Something more coherent is needed, but what? The usual answer, in America at any rate, is libertarianism. Libertarians try to satisfy the need for a definite focus and program with something clear and simple: leave us alone. If everyone looks after himself and his own, what happens will at least make sense to those involved. That sounds good to an ordinary person who does not like the way he is governed and wants a simple way to get rid of a mass of problems. It sounds especially good in America, where there has always been an emphasis on limited government and individual and local initiatives. Even for doubters, it makes sense that how we are governed and the theory behind it would matter less if we were governed less.
At bottom, libertarianism is a purified form of right-liberalism. The latter is the outlook of a faction of the governing classes, so its opposition to big government is unreliable. Libertarianism solves that problem but has others. It assumes that everyone can look after himself, but none of us is able to do so at every stage of life. More basically, though, it means an impoverished setting for human life. It treats law as the basis of social order but allows it no role other than protecting property. If something threatens property, public authority is available to deal with it; but if it threatens other interests, it is not. That implies a setting in which only economic issues are taken seriously, which is not a setting that will engage popular loyalties or enable human life to thrive.
A problem with the groups discussed so far—right- and left-liberals, anarchists, populists, and libertarians—is that they try to get rid of the defects of the liberal order by adjusting the power of its components rather than changing basic institutions. Left-liberals want to enhance the power of experts, professionals, and administrators. Right-liberals want to give more scope to people who run enterprises, from start-up businesses to nation-states. Anarchists want to get rid of power altogether, populists want to put the populace in the driver’s seat, and libertarians want to leave everything up to the independent individual. In each case those favored are expected to follow their own interests and inclinations, and that, given the correct distribution of power, is supposed to lead to better things.
Social conservatives have something in common with each of those groups. Like left-liberals, they think people sometimes need to be watched over and taken care of. Like right-liberals, they believe in institutional independence. Like populists, they want to give popular ways and understandings more play. And like anarchists and libertarians, they reject the all-pervasive managerial state. They differ, though, in favoring principles and institutions that are not native to liberal modernity. Official liberalism wants to channel all social life through institutions—expert bureaucracies, large businesses, global markets, and the like—that our governing classes understand and control. Populists, libertarians, and anarchists want to cut back on the dominance of those institutions but have no others to propose. The result is that they mostly just want to be left alone so they can do what they feel like doing. Social conservatives in contrast emphasize local, informal, and traditional institutions—family, church, local community, particular culture—that are not based on the principles of liberal modernity, and they want them to be guided by traditional standards and understandings that mostly have to do with informal attachments and people’s sense of what is natural. So they want something quite different as part of the mix.
From a general human standpoint, social conservatives are normal people who accept what have always been normal aspects of social life, including a vernacular form of natural law. From the liberal standpoint now established, they are crazed radicals obsessed by a compulsion to impose arbitrary structures of oppression. As that description suggests, social conservatives get a bad press, everyone in power hates them, and they always lose. Worse, they have a hard time explaining their position even to their own satisfaction, because public discussion is liberal and modernist and offers no good way to articulate it. The result is that the causes they care about—support for arrangements like family, local community, and religion, and the standards and distinctions that facilitate their functioning—are viewed as irrational and hateful. It is becoming generally accepted among educated and articulate people, for example, that someone who views the natural family as a basic institution that is worthy of specific recognition and support is a bad person. Traditional arrangements and distinctions survive in fact because they are natural and people need them, but only in a weakened condition and mostly among people who have their lives otherwise in order and are not those who need them most.
Neoconservatism tries to deal with that situation, but within the limits of liberal modernity. The term covers a variety of tendencies intended to strengthen and preserve liberalism by retaining some ties to the past and somewhat nonliberal values. Minimal neoconservatives are simply right-liberals who promote vigorous patriotism and like the free market because it promotes prosperity and makes people energetic and disciplined. Others have broader interests and favor a more general social conservatism that often involves some form of religious tradition or natural law. Either way, the strategy is to argue for social conservatism, or at least greater social discipline, on the grounds that nonliberal elements—family, religion, pre-rational loyalties, and so on—are necessary for liberal institutions to survive.
The strategy is never effective. The problem is that liberal principles are progressive and in the long run rule out every nonliberal value and institution, regardless of the consequences. So neoconservatives must continually give ground to remain part of the discussion, and eventually concede every point at issue. Their goal is to maintain the presence of nonliberal concerns in social life and public discussion, but the price they pay is subordinating them to liberal principles. The practical effect is to make those concerns ineffectual and eventually cause them to drop out of sight.
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What now? We have seen that liberal modernity, which claims to create a modest, tolerant, and rational setting that lets everyone follow his own best understanding of how to live, turns out to impose a system that gives immense power to an irresponsible ruling class and tries to force the whole of life into patterns radically at odds with natural human tendencies. To add to the problem, the modern outlook makes that system difficult to fight because it narrowly restricts what considerations can be brought into public discussion.
The natural response to the dominance of liberal modernity is to try to deal with the problems it creates without contesting basic principles. That is what right-liberals, left-liberals, anarchists, populists, libertarians, and neoconservatives all try to do. They may think they have no choice, since discussion must be based on shared principles, and public discussion today is based on a skepticism that has liberal modernity as its natural outcome. Nonetheless, the approach cannot work, since freedom and equality destroy all limitations when treated as ultimate standards. The result, unfortunately, is that liberal modernity may well be an extremely stable system—what I have been calling an antiworld—until it becomes altogether unworkable.
For that reason, the struggle for a social order consistent with some version of common sense and natural law is likely to be difficult. That struggle cannot progress at all, though, without fundamental changes in the way politics and social life are understood and discussed. An argument in favor of social conservatism must be part of an argument for an understanding of man and the world that is very different from liberal modernity and that has room for traditional, classical, and Christian insights. Such an argument will be misunderstood and resisted vehemently, but it is necessary, since without it there is no way to present solid arguments against the leftward slide of our political culture.
The way to escape an antiworld is by making the real world the standard. Making truth the standard alarms people today because we are affected by liberalism and view truth as intolerant. To the contrary, if truth comes first, principles such as freedom, equality, and human nature can be seen from an inclusive perspective that can give each due credit without one tyrannizing over the others. If something else comes first, we are treating something as a highest principle that cannot function as such, and that means irrationality and oppression.
Error cannot sustain itself. What allows the managerial liberal regime to function are habits of loyalty and sacrifice, and understandings of natural goods and purposes, which it continually undermines and cannot justify or explain. In order for politics to understand itself, and thus be rational, it must recognize its dependence on truths that transcend it and tell us something about the good life. The long-term outlook for conservatism, and specifically for a social conservatism based on a view of reason and reality that is broader than the liberal one, is therefore excellent. Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret: you may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will keep coming back. The task of conservatives today is to promote that process, and the most effective way for them to do so is not to try to get along by conceding basic points but to insist on principle in every possible setting. ♦
James Kalb is a lawyer, an independent scholar, and a Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008).