Reply To: "Progressivism" and Intellectuals


James Kalb – whose book The Tyranny of Liberalism has an additional explanation, which I was reminded of when he referenced it here:

An established religion has to be accepted by social leaders generally, and the religion of Nothing is actively promoted by the academics and media figures who define what is considered rational and respectable among us. They have good reason to favor it, since it denies the authority of principles higher than the value-free technical expertise and manipulative skill such people stand for. It says that they are truly our intellectual leaders—the clergy and preachers of our New Jerusalem—and there is no one who could outrank them even in principle.

The bureaucrats and businessmen who form the operational branch of our governing class go along with the religion of Nothing as well.

He doesn’t put his argument at it’s best in that particular article, which is one reason I recommend his book; a short and good early synopsis of his argument is here in the form of a Reply to Paul Gottfried (who has also done a fairly extensive analysis of this phenomenon).

Essentially, Jim Kalb’s argument is that modern liberalism rests on two fundamental beliefs: 1) liberty defined as the equal ability of individuals to satisfy preferences [see also: neoclassical “welfare economics,” or general equilibrium economics generally] and 2) neutrality towards “conceptions of the good” (liberal pluralism).

(but then 2b) any conception of the good that conflicts with or threatens either #2 or #1 is to be driven from the public sphere as illiberal, and anything that conflicts with #1 – such as inequality of any sort – is to be rooted out. Thus you find Jacobinism in places you might not expect).

Kalb argues that: 1) this sort of Dewyite “liberalism” inevitably leads to technocratic-bureaucratic Progressivism and 2) the fundamental commitments of early liberalism, including what it rejected, inevitably lead to modern liberalism. That is, there was a flaw (a deficiency) in even Classical Liberalism that leads inevitably to the version we have today, and that is evidenced in how liberals not just here but around the world end up coordinating towards the same positions: the logic of their first principles leads them to shared conclusions and an inability to define why those conclusions are wrong. [n.b. Progressive hypocrisy also has a source, defined by the late Lawrence Auster as the Unprincipled Exception]. [see also: “bleeding-heart libertarians” and other Rawls-influenced “libertarians,” who generally end up – like Will Wilkinson – not being very libertarian at all and just being left-Liberals. That is, supporters of Progressivism who claim to have “serious quibbles” with it but always end up backing its advance every time it matters].

Note that the flaw in Classical Liberalism that Kalb identifies is not (repeat: not) “the presence of a state.” Nor is it liberty (rather his conclusion is that in order to thrive – that is, in order to not devolve into technocratic Progressivism – classical liberalism needs to exist within a moral framework that is not itself liberal. Therefore I would suggest a more Aristotelian, and less Lockean, foundation for Natural Law, whether anarcho-libertarian or otherwise).

Special Bonus Note: The Kalbian Explaination can explain not only the rise of Progressivism, but of Neoconservatism, and how, yes, the Right was Betrayed but why, from an idea-ological perspective, it was relatively easy to do so; the fundamental commitments of American Conservatives are at root liberal. While there are those within the serious intellectuals threads within conservative movement (such it existed at one time) that opposed liberalism philosophically, most were, at root, philosophical liberals. Thus when the “Scoop Jackson Democrats” moved right (and the popular version of this was “Reagan Democrat Voters”) as a result of abhorence of the New Left, well a Wilsonian foreign policy seemed natural. Plus these people never hid the fact that they admired Teddy Roosevelt and even FDR. Their arguments won the day because, yes, they were often vicious in bureaucratic/movement infighting [but there are vicious libertarian infightings, too; witness the split between the Cato wing and the Mises wing of the movement, circa 30+ years ago; there will always be intellectual infighting]; one of the key reasons Neocons won was because their arguments were rooted in principles that dominated the American political-intellectual scene, including among conservatives (what were conservatives conserving, after all, if it was not an earlier version of liberalism?), while their opponents who advocated non or anti-liberal philosophies were disperate and did not hold principles all – including all those who rejected philosophical liberalism – could agree on.

The tendency of American conservatism is so old that R. L. Dabney made an observation about it that is as apt today as it was when he first said it; simply substitute the issues of the moment:

It may be inferred again that the present movement for women’s rights will certainly prevail from the history of its only opponent, Northern conservatism. This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always when about to enter a protest very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its “bark is worse than its bite,” and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent role of resistance: The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it “in wind,” and to prevent its becoming pursy and lazy, from having nothing to whip. No doubt after a few years, when women’s suffrage shall have become an accomplished fact, conservatism will tacitly admit it into its creed, and thenceforward plume itself upon its wise firmness in opposing with similar weapons the extreme of baby suffrage; and when that too shall have been won, it will be heard declaring that the integrity of the American Constitution requires at least the refusal of suffrage to asses. There it will assume, with great dignity, its final position.