Depth Charge


Liberal Virtues: Virtue and Community in Liberal Constitutionalism, by Stephen Macedo, New York: Oxford University Press, 306 pages, $29.95

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There are others, though, who do not. Instead, they offer a blend of sympathy and malediction. The well-nigh endless mélange of choices and decisions open to citizens of modern liberal societies is, they contend, more affliction than blessing. Liberalism fallaciously supposes that extensions of freedom must enhance human happiness. The fallacy results from forgetting that it is not the range of choices open to us that genuinely matters but rather their depth. If everything and anything is available for selection in the consumer arcade of contemporary life, then it is equally the case that everything is rejectable. No values are felt as compelling one's allegiance.

But how can lives of significance be erected on such shifting foundations? When Martin Luther defiantly asserted to the Diet of Worms, "Here I stand. I can do no other," his confession of the inescapability of his commitment was simultaneously a proclamation of its momentousness. "Here I stand, but it's negotiable," lacks similar luster. The charge is not that freedom is utterly dispensable. Without doubt, the life of a slave or lackey is impoverished. However, possession of liberalism's summum bonum, a boundless range of options, is anything but a guarantee that one's life will be graced with goodness, satisfaction, and meaning.

Who are these critics of liberalism? Interestingly, they spring from both sides of the political spectrum. The New Right fulminates at the liberal refusal to allow communities to give effect to their moral values through legislation that privileges traditional ways of life affirmed by the majority, while "communitarians" of the left rail at the vacuity and tawdriness of a culture that spins to a capitalist ethos. To be sure, their specific political programs differ in predictable ways: One side wants to bring God back into the schools while the other wants dead white men out. They are united, though, in trumpeting the virtues of a monolithic populism against the diversity and open-ended experimentation that liberal society breeds.

Stephen Macedo is also concerned to make the case for virtues, but, as the title of his important and arresting book indicates, those he defends are specifically liberal virtues. It is a mistake of the first order, he argues, to equate the refusal of a free society to impose a majority favored credo on dissenters with programmatic skepticism about values or, worse, moral nihilism. Liberalism does take values seriously, so much so that they are put off limits to the whims of whichever faction happens to have a grip on the political levers. Instead, it is left to individuals to formulate, act on, and advocate the conceptions of the good they find compelling.'

In a liberal order differences are not classified as heresies, and the claims of a minority are not automatically defeated by demonstrating, "There are more of us than you." Those claims can be defeated—Macedo is no anarchist—but only through a politics of public justification. That is, individuals may be constrained to comply only with those policies for which there are good reasons, reasons good from the perspective not only of the constrainers but of the constrainees as well. To be sure, even the most scrupulous practice of public justification does not ensure wise results, and even less does it guarantee universal persuasion. The chances of converting members of the American Nazi Party to respectful toleration of Jews and blacks are slim. The point, though, is that even the unreasonable may not be restrained unless there is compelling reason to do so.

The institutions of a free, self-governing society, Macedo argues, merit our allegiance because they promote public justification over the blunt exercise of force majeure. Aspirants for public offices run on platforms for which they can be held accountable by the voters in subsequent electoral contests. Even when candidates court the favor of special interests, success will usually require them to phrase their pitches in the language of a common good. This may be no more than the hypocritical tribute that vice pays to virtue, but it is noteworthy that this tribute is necessary even in the hardboiled arena of practical politics. Voters may be self-interested, but, apparently, one of their interests is to be governed in a principled way.

The deepest expression of these principles is found in a polity's basic law, and thus the articles of its constitution are not merely a listing of the rules of the political road but rather an expression of moral ideals and, in the case of the U.S. Constitution, specifically liberal ideals. That is why, pace Robert Bork, wide-ranging judicial review is not the illicit blocking of the will of a majority by an unelected elite but rather a necessary underpinning of liberal self-government. We do not wish our cherished projects to be held hostage to the currents of shifting majorities, and thus we endorse scrutiny of particular pieces of legislation by those who possess expertise in determining whether these are consistent with the protections embodied in the supreme law.

Because judges have special training in legal interpretation and are shielded from the force of electoral gales, they occupy a special role with respect to constitutional interpretation. However, they are not the only ones called on to bring constitutional principles to bear on political controversies. Other officials are sworn to uphold them as well, and even ordinary citizens, insofar as they take part in political debate, are participants in a reason-giving enterprise guided by moral ideals.

This is a story that has been told before—by, among others, Macedo, in his earlier The New Right v. The Constitution. Here he supplements an account of the institutional foundations of liberal politics with a penetrating discussion of the contours of liberal personality. Like Plato in The Republic, Macedo argues that there is an isomorphism between the makeup of a regime and the predominant character of its citizens. Liberal political institutions are formed by individuals and in turn form them. Under their tutelage we develop "a reflective, self-critical attitude, tolerance, openness to change, self-control, a willingness to engage in dialogue with others, and a willingness to revise and shape projects in order to respect the rights of others or in response to fresh insight into one's own character and ideals."

The critics have it wrong; liberalism is not a valueless framework within which all values may play themselves out. It is decidedly non-neutral between tolerance and bigotry, rational suasion and inarticulate rage, autonomy and rote conformity. The disinclination of liberals to bludgeon deference is misidentified as an indicator of moral bankruptcy. Rather, liberal politics is founded on a morality of respect for persons as rational, self-determining beings. Liberalism does not cripple the search for meaningful activity, because liberal ideals are themselves fully capable of inspiring an ennobling allegiance.

Liberals, Macedo observes, have an unfortunate tendency to "minimize what they stand for and to evade their ultimate commitments." Liberal Virtues is an important book because it addresses these commitments head-on. Macedo does not situate them in some theorist's utopia; he argues at length that they inform contemporary American political life. Would that it were so; his depiction of our political processes has a marked utopian gloss. If commitment to open, rational justification is the cornerstone of a free polity, how are we to characterize a government in which distinguished senators scurry through the marshes of the bureaucracy to run cover for a banker who has laced their pockets with six-figure campaign contributions and, when called to account, contend that everyone does it; in which not even a team of Evelyn Wood graduates could keep up with all the statutes and regulations that spew out of Washington; in which legislators congratulate themselves for taking tough deficit-cutting measures in a budget that happens to provide a half million dollars to fund a national Lawrence Welk museum; in which a man who successfully campaigns for the presidency on lips irrevocably proclaiming "No new taxes!" breaks the pledge a few months later, and is then congratulated for his "statesmanship" rather than brought up on impeachment charges? If this represents ultimate commitment, God spare us from laxity!

Macedo is aware of such falls from grace, but he nonetheless opposes the "cynical model" of politics. Because legislative and executive lapses are not exactly unexpected, he finds all the more reason to endorse strong judicial review. But the functioning of the judiciary is not necessarily balm to liberal ideals. A Supreme Court countenanced the internment of Japanese-American citizens in concentration camps and needed more than half a century to rescind the opinion that "separate but equal" is consistent with constitutional principles. Since the 1930s it has viewed with equanimity governmental assaults on private property. And the most recent appointee to the Court gained that office primarily on the credential of never, in an extended public career, having uttered or written anything that conveyed a hint of where he stood on any public issue. These ruminations do not demonstrate the unworkability of a politics of public justification, but they do indicate that it is less adequately embodied in American practices than Macedo implies.

Liberal Virtues is meant to rouse liberals to confront the attacks of opponents. Perhaps to rally as many as possible to the defense, Macedo is vague, even coy, concerning which version of liberalism most adequately nurtures the virtues of free people. Hence he argues for the importance of economic liberties but qualifies this brief with the assertion that "legislators may often be justified in overriding the economic liberties of particular business groups in order to pursue a conscientious vision of the common good." This is not merely to open a Pandora's Box but to manufacture it. What Macedo signally fails to see is that liberties are important not only as protections against the thoroughly unscrupulous but even more so against those who burn with zealous visions of what is good for others.

Similarly, Macedo maintains that respect for rights is important but cautions, "Liberals need not be rights absolutists.…Social insurance, drug laws, and automobile safety requirements are among the ways that modern states require people to do or buy things for their own good.…Liberals are certainly people who try to minimize interferences with personal freedom, including risk-taking, but liberals need not be people who categorically reject every vestige of paternalism and perfectionism."

Attempting to be "moderate," Macedo creates a muddle. There may be something to be said on behalf of Social Security, George Bush's war on drugs, and seat-belt laws, but they certainly do not "minimize interferences with personal freedom." They do interfere; that is precisely their point. How can a commentator as astute as Macedo miss what should be obvious?

I suspect this fuzziness is a consequence of his trying to broaden the base of potential supporters beyond those who espouse a classical liberalism. The strategy is ill-chosen; one does not inspire allegiance to the principles of a free society by dipping them in pablum. Liberal Virtues is, then, not without flaws. On balance, though, it represents a notable contribution to the project of public justification it endorses.

Contributing Editor Loren E. Lomasky is a professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and author of Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community