I went off on another trail, as is my tendency, and haven't finished this book yet. But at this point, about halfway through, I think it may be the best book I've ever read on the contemporary social-political situation. Maybe that's not saying a lot, since I haven't read many such books. Suffice to say that it's one of the rare books that effect such a clarification of a heretofore muddy picture that it almost seems to have changed the way one thinks.
I find something on almost every page that I want to post here, but I won't do that; it would be far too much, and even too much would still not really do the book justice. So I really recommend that you read it. I'm now reading a section which discusses the situation of conservatism as a response to liberal encroachments, but before I say anything about that I thought I should back up and explain how Kalb is using the word "liberalism."
The title of the book is no doubt off-putting to some, who will take it as being just another shot in the right-left war of words--mostly shallow words. But not so. He means liberalism in the fullest sense, encompassing the entire post-Enlightenment program of metaphysical skepticism and pragmatic reason. It has often been said, especially by certain Catholics, that the contemporary political argument is largely between left-liberals and right-liberals. Kalb more or less starts from that position (as do I). Although he is plainly on the right, he has divested himself entirely of the idea that still confuses much of popular conservatism: that the world of large-scale business is generally anything but a cooperator with the broad liberal program.
In an ideally technocratic world, material goods might be provided by a rational unitary system, but the collapse of socialism has convinced even leftists of the continuing necessity of independent enterprises and markets, including capital and labor markets. Advanced liberalism thus allows a great deal of local and particular discretion with regard to moneymaking activities. The necessity of allowing considerable autonomy to private economic decisions limits somewhat the ability of the state to enforce the rationalization of social life in the interest of equal freedom, and it has led to an emphasis on the role of liberalism as a quest for social rationalization within the limits of a market economy.
But experience has shown that markets can easily coexist with state control of other aspects of social life, and shrewd liberals welcome the arrangement. It is no mistake that liberalism has always been associated with markets. Classic socialism aims at a uniformity that interferes with the growth and expression of diverse preferences, and therefore only makes sense for populations too poor to have formed them. It embraces a solidaristic ethos that can valorize reactionary working-class attitudes about gender relations, race, culture, and even religion. Socialism's focus on economics also denigrates the value of liberal assaults on traditional culture. For such reasons, among others, the Soviet Union had lost its position of ideological and cultural leadership on the Left long before it fell.
Market economies, in contrast, provide a way to fund and extend the welfare state while multiplying preferences and satisfactions. They tend to dissolve customary connections and make all goods interchangeable through the medium of money, thus promoting rationalization on hedonistic and technological lines and simplifying the setting of state action. Large business enterprises, with their rational bureaucratic methods of hiring, training, management, supervision, and promotion, provide the state with a ready-made instrument for reeducation and other forms of social control. The only freedoms they require are the freedoms to cut production costs and to attempt to satisfy whatever desires people happen to have. Otherwise, they leave the state a free hand. Indeed, they often find that complex state regulation gives them a competitive advantage over smaller enterprises, whose more informal practices make compliance difficult.
World markets in particular are an immensely powerful engine of rationalization. They lay the groundwork for the comprehensive regulation of economic life, and eventually social life in general, by nation and increasingly transnational bureaucracies....
World markets help promote what is in effect a worldwide union of the ruling classes. By liberating national ruling elites from the influence of their people they allow their activities and outlook to be integrated with those of elites worldwide.
A few weeks ago I read a complaint by a labor leader that the Obama administration was giving exemptions from various burdensome requirements to large corporations, but was ignoring similar requests from his group. Poor fellow: he hasn't gotten the message that liberalism at its current stage of development has little interest in the working class. It is interested in those things that concern its own elites, who are making money off that class (and the middle class) at the same time that they regard it with the deepest suspicion of what they see as its essentially barbarous nature. They have a certain amount of somewhat distant concern, especially when a show of concern is politically useful against conservatives.
But in practice their immediate interest in the difficulties of the working and middle classes seems to be to use them as a justification for the further centralization of power. This would explain, for instance, the government's curious intransigence over the contraception mandate in the health care law, which is financially negligible and has greatly added to the general suspicion and opposition created by the law. The principle at stake is just as important to liberalism as it is to the Church.