TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Liberalism: Hero By Day, Despot By Night

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Maja Sidzinska looks at James Kalb’s “Liberalism: Ideal and Reality,” from Telos 122 (Winter 2002).

James Kalb bluntly asks us: “Why does liberalism—the tradition that makes equal freedom the political touchstone—combine such strength with such incoherence? . . . Liberalism is triumphant almost everywhere, but its victory reverses the meaning of its principles. It calls for live-and-let-live, and enforces it by supervising everything” (111). Kalb explores the inherent tension between what he regards as the two core principles of liberalism—freedom and equality. Here, freedom is interpreted as the potential or ability to carry out one’s will, while equality is understood as the principle that ensures the right of each individual to do so. But what happens when two individuals’ wills are in conflict? Logically, liberalism has few intrinsic means to resolve such a scenario, argues Kalb. It simply “resolves disputes by letting each do as he likes consistent with the equal freedom of others, and in case of conflict the more tolerant wins” (117). In this case, “more tolerant” appears to refer to that stance which is less intrusive on the will, person, or property of another.

Kalb writes:

The dream of a truly free and rational political order survives all criticism, comes back from all defeats, and only grows stronger with the passing of time. Liberals may claim to be realistic, skeptical, multicultural, postmodern or whatever, but all the rethinking and reformulation of their views leaves untouched the fundamental standards everyone is expected to accept without challenge. The only real questions are what justification shall be given to principles already given in advance, and how those principles shall be realized. To reject the liberal principle of equal freedom as the ultimate political standard is unthinkable. It would be to accept the power of some to force their preferences on others, and thus in principle to accept oppression. (111)

Arguably it seems that no individual would willingly accept oppression because all who live under more or less liberal regimes are socialized from a young age to accept its particular operative principles. Kalb urges that consensus does nothing to resolve the logical contradiction inherent in liberalism, and suggests that socialization does not amount to consent. Perhaps, then, liberalism’s strength lies in its appeal to the individual. It acknowledges the individual will as primary, and yet it stops just short of a full Nietzschean endorsement. But given Kalb’s view that our socio-political circumstances are such that each individual who lives under liberal democracy carries equal freedom in her heart as an essential law, is it possible that some or many individuals may desire to forsake, as an ethical aim, anything that infringes upon another? Kalb does not consider this possibility inasmuch as he defines freedom in positive terms, and its exercise necessarily will trespass upon other persons.

He argues that the principle of equal freedom is unsustainable as the basis of political life (114), and notes:

When it takes priority over substantive common goods, so that politics becomes a matter of keeping one preference from oppressing other preferences, the impossibility of achieving any preference without suppressing others means that for the sake of equality suppression must become universal. Anything anyone does that affects others can be an unwanted imposition and thus an act of aggression. Prevention of oppression therefore comes to require government to control everything. Taken seriously, “equal freedom” turns out to be the same as comprehensive despotism (114–15).

This idea, however, rests upon the assumption that equality is not a substantive common good (how may life insurance policies be priced if it weren’t?), that equality and freedom are mutually exclusive (despite the proliferation of non-governmental organizations whose missions promote equality), and that the consequences of individuals’ acts are primarily intrusive rather than uncertain or potentially substantively beneficial to others (my husband is using the sink thereby preventing me from using it, yet he is washing my dirty dishes). Kalb’s account of liberalism, however, is a primarily logical and theoretical one, so the practical ambiguities involved in implementing liberalism, like those just mentioned, do not enter the equation. He grants that there are no alternatives to liberalism on the political horizon, while indicating there are no better or less paradoxical principles that could be found without a “radical transformation of intellectual life” (117). His exposition seeks to elicit them.

Kalb does, however, highlight a strategy of liberalism that betrays its often-presumed coherence, namely, its tendency to settle issues arising from its contradictions pre-politically (112). And, it is true that many of our national and international narratives attempt to preclude the possibility of prerogative of exercising certain values as cultural rather than universal, particularly with regard to the United States’ pursuit of its foreign policy. It is here that his argument seems strongest, as there are concrete consequences that arise from American attempts to export liberal democracy. These consequences are, in turn, dealt with quite politically. But from the vantage point of the United States, nominally if not in fact the greatest champion of equal freedom, the political consequences arise on account of other states’ failures to accept liberalism’s principles pre-politically. In this context, the incoherence of liberalism is undeniable and it is nowhere near resolved. The equality factors of the ideology’s equation, which in this case pertain to states relating to one another, are simply set aside in the service of ostensible freedom.

The logical contradiction is real (115). In the context of a single state, however, individuals only have political power as elements of collectives under democracy, save a very few well-endowed individuals. Still it is this dynamic between individuals and groups that lends equal freedom some measure of coherence. As similarly conditioned individuals have similarly conceived goals, their sacrifices to equality pale in comparison to their gains in freedom, as no one lives as an island unto herself. The price of equality may not be set in linear relation to the benefits of freedom. Thus, equal freedom appears to function differently on the scale of the individual than it does on the scale of the collective. While the logical contradiction of liberalism is striking and unaffected by scale of analysis, the practical problems with implementing it may be less so.

Kalb offers a powerful critique of liberalism that is, ironically, enabled by a system of logic that itself rests on the back of a certain turtle, rather than turtles all the way down. He insists that one principle may not simultaneously contain equality and freedom, as that represents a contradiction. Under liberalism, “[e]qual freedom, like the principle of non-contradiction, is to apply everywhere, without interfering with anything one might legitimately think or do” (111). Yet Kalb shows that it is far from an unobtrusive ideal. For him, Münchhausen’s maneuver will not work for liberalism. And while Aristotle asserted that the law of non-contradiction requires no proof, as “the process would go on to infinity, so that even so there would be no proof,”[1] Kalb does not accept this “out” for liberalism. He could simply state, for instance, that it is the tension between equality and freedom that provides liberalism’s foundation. It appears uncertain, however, whether liberalism’s contradiction is irresolvable or just unresolved. Are equality and freedom disparate parts or is each also a requisite parcel of liberalism? Kalb foresees that the contradiction will be liberalism’s eventual downfall. So, given the unpalatability of despotism, he challenges us to discover a new principle to serve as the basis of our politics. His provocative argument simultaneously criticizes and defends liberalism along with its attendant trappings, such as political correctness. His understandings of liberalism stand in opposition to the agendas of both the Left and the Right, and he pulls us in a truly alternative direction.


1. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1006a.

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