R&L: You have often described yourself as an arch-liberal. The word liberalism has very different meanings in the United States and Europe. Could you explain the differences of those understandings of this term?
Kuehnelt-Leddihn: The term liberal in its political connotation we owe to Spain, the nation that always valued freedom most highly if not excessively, and therefore also produced a great many anarchists in the last one hundred fifty years. Resisting the Napoleonic invasion, Spain proclaimed in the liberated south, in Cadiz, a liberal constitution whose supporters were called los liberales. (They denounced their opponents as los serviles.) In 1816 Southey used the expression liberal for the first time in England but still in its Spanish form, liberales. Sir Walter Scott adopted the French form libéraux. In 1832, in connection with the big parliamentary reform, the Whigs assumed the liberal label, the Tories the conservative one. Oddly enough, it was the liberal Chateaubriand who called his paper Le conservateur, a word he invented, but in that early period liberals and conservatives were not so far from each other.
In the United States I observe the perversion of the term liberal, which caused real liberals to call themselves libertarians. The large, hospitable house of liberalism kept all its windows and doors open, and thus the winds from outside could pervade the building. As a good liberal, one has to be open-minded, to respect the “signs of the times”–and these, unfortunately, were leftist and collectivistic. Thus, self-
confessed liberals became illiberal. The American Mercury, then editorially managed by Eugene Lyons, published a series of “Creeds”: the “Creed of a Conservative,” the “Creed of a Reactionary,” the “Creed of a Socialist,” and then, separately, the “Creed of an Old-fashioned Liberal,” and the “Creed of a New Liberal.” Needless to say, the latter leaned toward socialism and the omnipotent state. When I speak in Asia, South America, Africa, Australia, or Europe, I have no trouble identifying myself as a liberal. In the United States, where time-honored expressions are so easily confounded, I have to begin with explanations. It’s too bad!
In Europe we do not distinguish sharply any longer between conservatives and liberals. I consider myself to be a liberal in the European sense, or to be more precise, a Neo-Liberal, but I never call myself a conservative. Chronicles has accepted an article of mine titled “Conservative or Rightist?” I am for the word Rightist. Right is right and left is wrong, you see, and in all languages “right” has a positive meaning and “left” a negative one. In Italian, typically, la sinistra is “the left” and il sinistro is “the mishap” or “the calamity.” Japanese describes evil as hidar-imae, “the thing in front of the left.” And in the Bible, it says in Ecclesiastes, which the Hebrews call Koheleth, that “the heart of the wise man beats on his right side and the heart of the fool on his left.”
R&L: Being, then, both a historian and a liberal, could you describe the history of the classical liberal tradition?
Kuehnelt-Leddihn: First, we have pre-liberalism, that is, liberalism from a time when people who were liberals did not call themselves liberals, and the word liberal was not used in an economic way or in any other way. For example, Adam Smith is a pre-liberal, as is Edmund Burke, who also is invoked by conservatives, which is very important. As democracy answers the question, “Who should rule?” with, “the majority of politically equal citizens either in person or through their representatives,” liberalism answers the question, “How should government be exercised?” Liberalism answers that question by saying that government should be exercised in such a way that each individual citizen receives the greatest amount of freedom, but reasonable freedom with its technical and moral limitations. In other words, freedom is the principle of liberalism
Then we have Early Liberalism. I count Tocqueville, Montalembert, and finally, Lord Acton as very typical Early Liberals. (As you can see, these tendencies do overlap in time very widely; you cannot say where one stops and the other begins. After all, Tocqueville was born in 1805, and Acton died only in 1902.) These Early Liberals are little interested in economics, but they are Roman Catholics, bound by their religious faith, and also–which is quite typical–all aristocrats. The nobility always has been the most liberal-minded layer of society and the most sensitive opponents of autocratic government. Consider Runnymede in 1215 where the English barons tried to get more rights and to limit royal power.
The next stage is formed by the Old Liberals, but they unfortunately have a tendency toward philosophical relativism. And in their opposition against interference and limitations, they finally very often take on an anti-Christian, and specifically an anti-Catholic, tendency–which, of course, is differently developed in various persons. This is the reason why we find a condemnation of liberalism in Article Eighty of the Syllabus, but, of course that condemnation is of Old Liberalism
In 1947 there was a very important event in the history of liberalism–the establishment of the Mont Pélèrin Society, which took place in the Mont Pélèrin Hotel. The founders of that society–Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. von Hayek, and Wilhelm Röpke–proposed to call it the Tocqueville-Acton Society, whereupon Professor Frank Knight of the University of Chicago rose, banged the table, and said, “If you call this society after two Roman Catholic aristocrats, I’ll quit.” Well, they then decided to call the society not after any great men but after the hotel where they were meeting.
The Mont Pélèrin Society suffered a severe schism when the Neo-Liberals walked out in 1961, a move led by Wilhelm Röpke with Alexander Ruestow and me. We called ourselves the Neo-Liberals as opposed to the Old Liberals. Many of the outstanding Neo-Liberals were Germans and Austrians who had experienced the Third Reich and saw the importance of looking for eternal values in the Christian message. They were very conscious of the Early Liberals and, like them, believed very strongly in moral limitations and were convinced that Christianity was a very powerful factor in establishing freedom.
After all, eleutheria, which means “freedom,” is mentioned again and again in the New Testament, but isotes, “equality,” is not.
R&L: In what way is Christianity a factor in establishing freedom? Or perhaps in other words, what is the relationship between religion and liberty?
Kuehnelt-Leddihn: The Bible teaches us that man is created in the image of God, in spite of original sin, as in Genesis 8:21, “Man’s mind from his childhood tends toward evil.” Of course, God is very different from man, but not totally. See, if we are like God, then God is like us in some ways. God is the Creator; we are also creators. If you paint a picture, or write a book, or plant a garden, or even make a pair of really first-rate shoes, then you are a creator. Animals create, yes, but automatically. Think of an ant-heap, if you like; this kind of activity is automatic, but man’s is different. He is a creator.
Christianity has a personalistic theology, which is very important. The word person comes not, as Jacques Maritain thought, from per se, meaning “by itself,” but from the Etruscan word phersú, which was the mask of the actor. The mask gave a specific role to the actor on the stage. So, life is a grand game, a great play of God (I am citing here Hugo Rahner, who is the more gifted brother of Karl Rahner and who has written about the playful God in his book Man at Play) in which we are actors. We play with God. We have a responsibility to play our roles, which God might have chosen, but which we are acting with our own lights, on our own behalf, prayerfully trying to comply to His great game and fulfill our destiny and our task here on earth.
Now, if man is a creator and a persona, he needs the possibilities to exercise his creativeness, and for that he needs freedom. Here, then, is the demand for freedom. This is a discovery that Hayek–whom I knew very well, indeed–made very much at the end of his life. In his last book he suddenly sees that religion has something to do with freedom, a discovery that Mises did not make. The realization that religion can make a demand for freedom is very important.
R&L: Would it be fair to say, then, that the principle of the Imago Dei is the foundation upon which freedom rests?
Kuehnelt-Leddihn: That’s right; we have been created in the image of God.
R&L: What then is Christianity’s role in the preservation of freedom? If Christianity provides principles that establish freedom, how does Christianity conserve freedom in a society?
Kuehnelt-Leddihn: Christians should speak out when they see measures that unnecessarily restrict freedoms; they should protest publicly in the name of freedom and in the name of the Christian faith. I must here emphasize that the formula is as much freedom as is reasonably possible, but only as much intervention as is absolutely necessary, you see, with the maximum of the former and the minimum of the latter.
The difficulty is doing that in a democratic framework where the vast majority of people live very materialistically and therefore choose interventions from above–from the state–which bring them advantages. In such a system, the people say to the parties, “We will vote for you if you give us material advantages (which might be handouts) and if you give us freedoms (which might be totally immoral, like abortion and so on).” In other words, the people blackmail the parties, and the parties are eager, eager, eager to get the majority’s votes, votes, votes. And it goes the other way around, with the parties bribing the people and declaring: “If you vote for us, you’ll get that and we’re committed to this.” It’s what I call the BB gun–bribing and blackmailing, blackmailing and bribing. This leads us nowhere.
We must always keep in mind Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the aion“ and aion means the “world and the spirit of the period.” As Christians we have to resist the spirit of the time. Chesterton made a wonderful remark: “The Catholic Church is the only thing which protects us from the degrading servitude of being a child of your time.” In other words, we do not give in. We stay our own course, which is not the course of the flow of the time in which we live. The church, therefore, always has been a stranger in this world, but at this present time, the church is more of a stranger than ever in the past. We can make no compromise at all with the spirit of this time.
R&L: What is the spirit of this time? What is it that the church must resist?
Kuehnelt-Leddihn: Anthropolatry, the worship of man. Saint Augustine wrote The City of God and a group of American agnostics wrote The City of Man, published in 1940. We are in the period of the worship of man and the corresponding idea that God created the world as “Supreme Architect” but then retired, and it is now up to man to build the city of man. That is blasphemous. We have to keep in mind the City of God, of course, not the city of man.
R&L: What form of government, then, provides the soundest moral basis for freedom?
Kuehnelt-Leddihn: That is a very large question. According to Plato, there can be no good government unless the philosophers are kings and the kings philosophers, by which he does not mean Ph.D.s and crowned heads. What he does mean is the rule of those well-informed and knowledgeable. But do not forget there are two aspects to this: There is knowledge, and there is experience, and they have to go together. Knowledge alone is insufficient; practice alone is insufficient. To be a good ruler, one needs the combination of knowledge and practice to which has been added moral principles. Now, you had such a form of government in China with the Mandarins. The man who became a Mandarin was one who passed the examinations, and they were frightfully difficult, taken over the course of days. I had the privilege to talk to Dr. Sung-Fo–the son of Sun Yat Sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic–who was the director in Taiwan of the examination board for the civil service. He told me, “We don’t look to see if you’re from Princeton or Harvard. That means nothing; here you must pass the examination.” And if you passed, then you were accepted as an administrator, as a civil servant, and these people were highly respected by the population because they knew they were great scholars.