Tolerating Freedom

Is a cancer growing in the bowels of liberalism?


The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit, by A.J. Conyers, Dallas: Spence Publishing, 266 pages, $27.95

Two Faces of Liberalism, by John Gray, New York: The New Press, 161 pages, $25

How should human societies be ordered? The question has called forth diverse answers. Some governments take their primary task to be ensuring that people do the bidding of the gods, and so they establish a coterie of priests or prophets or mullahs to ascertain and enforce divine will. Ancient Egypt and Japan went that one better by finding a man-god to give the orders. Other states seek more worldly outcomes. Rome intricately structured its republic to maintain a balance between patricians and plebeians; Tito's Yugoslavia sought to preserve one between Serbs and Croats.

The Soviet Union claimed to seek a dictatorship of the proletariat, while virtually every contemporary African country is a straightforward dictatorship of the dictator. Imperialist nations strive to put a finger into every available international pot; Switzerland has managed for centuries to remain uninvolved in external entanglements. China built a great wall to keep outsiders out, East Germany one to keep insiders in. And most every other fancy of ambitious, powerful men has found expression in some political form or another.

Only recently in human history, however—during the last four centuries at most—has any currency been given to the conception of a political order dedicated to the proposition that individuals are to be left alone, by each other and, especially, by their governors. The earliest theorists of this new idea declared that all human beings have rights that delimit a zone in which they are morally entitled to set their own course, subject only to avoiding trespass on the protected zones of others. John Locke characterized the perimeter of this zone as rights to life, liberty, and property; Thomas Jefferson revised the canonical list to include pursuit of happiness. They are among the founding spirits of the revolutionary politics that eventually came to be known as liberalism.

More important than the subtle details distinguishing these various liberal philosophies is the broad area within which they achieve consensus. Against the entire tide of prior human experience, they audaciously insist that the state is properly the servant of the people, not vice versa. Government's role is not to pursue some grand national ideal but rather to protect citizens from aggressors internal and external so that people will be free to devote themselves to ends of their own.

It is easy to underestimate just how significant a break from all previous political practice early liberalism represented. Virtually every established interest found it threatening. Kings could not abide the suggestion that they were to be public servants rather than divinely appointed masters; aristocrats despised liberalism's leveling tendencies; clerics saw it as an invitation to heresy or irreligion; moralists perceived that individuals set free to develop their own conceptions of the good might give themselves over to every species of license. The first generation of liberalism's opponents, then, condemned generalized liberty as an invitation to wickedness. Today that sort of criticism is rarely voiced by parties this side of the Taliban (although one may suspect that it is written in the hearts of any number of conservatives, eco-feminists, and doyens of political correctness). Contemporary opponents of liberalism prefer indirect lines of attack. The most prominent approach is to find within liberal philosophies not sinfulness but contradiction. The progenitor of this strategy was Karl Marx.

Early socialists excoriated liberalism's market economy as greedy, unjust, altogether lacking in compassion. Marx pointedly rejected these excursions into "bourgeois morality" and in his best sneering style labeled its purveyors "utopian." To flail away at well-entrenched institutions with weapons fashioned from homilies and sentimental broadsides is, Marx maintained, quixotic. Rather, if liberal society and, especially, its economic foundation (which he dubbed "capitalism") were to be supplanted, it would be by identifying structural flaws that render it unsustainable.

In some of the most turgid but nonetheless influential prose of the 19th century, Marx professed to exhibit the contradictions of an economic system that is sustained by extracting ever-increasing quantities of surplus value from workers but can do so only by progressively impoverishing them such that they are unable to afford the dazzling wares spewed out by the capitalist engine. In the fullness of time these workers would rise up and expropriate the expropriators. For Marx, liberal society wasn't simply immoral; it was irrational.

Marx's analysis had the great virtues of rigor, elegance, and explanatory richness. The only problem was that it was falsified by experience. As late as the 1950s many took Nikita Khrushchev seriously when he banged his shoe on the table and declared, "We will bury you!" Today it is Khrushchev who is buried, under earth that was formerly but is no longer the Soviet Union. In the meantime, liberal capitalist societies have obdurately refused to implode but instead churn out for their increasingly wealthy citizens an abundance of goods and opportunities. Today the Marxist critique is essentially dead everywhere except Cuba, North Korea, and the humanities departments of American universities.

The authors of these two books are not Marxists, but like Marx each claims to have discerned a cancer growing in the bowels of liberalism. Although A.J. Conyers and John Gray spring from very different locations on the political spectrum, each is convinced that liberalism's ideal of toleration is fatally compromised. This is no trivial complaint. Central to the program of liberalism is the requirement that people are to be let alone to act as they see fit provided only that they not infringe the rights of others.

To be sure, this policy is often belied in practice. Even in mostly liberal societies such as that of the United States, a sticky web of paternalistic laws coerces individuals for what is alleged to be their own good, and ill-defined conceptions of "social justice" are invoked to justify a panoply of redistributive programs, sometimes from rich to poor, sometimes from poor to rich, always at the expense of personal liberty. For committed liberals, toleration remains as much aspiration as accomplishment, but it is an aspiration that cannot be abandoned without committing philosophical suicide.

In The Long Truce, Conyers, professor at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, argues that the creed of toleration is at war with itself. The modern nation-state has succeeded in rendering individuals spectacularly free to act as they see fit, especially with regard to making and spending money. If one looks only at the bottom line, all appears well. The picture is more complicated, however. While individuals have been empowered by the modern state, intermediate associations such as churches, families, and guilds that previously stood between them and the omnipotent state have been divested of authority. Because the state reserves to itself exclusive entitlement to command obedience, it shows itself intolerant toward all institutions other than itself. The superficial wealth of liberal society thus disguises an underlying spiritual poverty.

Conyers' indictment strains credulity, especially when lodged against the United States. Look around, and as far as the eye can see are intermediate associations jostling up against each other. We are a land of churches—and synagogues, mosques, Hindu temples, New Age retreats. We are members of labor unions, professional associations, hobbyist clubs, social fraternities, ethnic associations. Charitable organizations raise money to heal the sick, save the whales, convert the heathen. Many of these groups are evanescent, while others persist over decades and centuries. Some wax while others wane. How can it be denied that liberal toleration extends to associations as well as solitary individuals?

Conyers does deny it, but only by putting a peculiar twist on the concept of toleration. To be sure, he admits, individuals may sign up as they wish, but they also enjoy carte blanche to withdraw. That's the rub. Should you choose to leave the church, it has no recourse. It cannot compel you to remain in the congregation, forbid you from joining a competing sect, or punish you for your waywardness. The state jealously denies it a power to discipline. Conyers is not in every respect a reactionary, but he writes affectionately of a medieval world in which associations wielded both carrots and sticks. That, he maintains, was true toleration.

Should liberalism plead guilty to this charge? I believe it must. But rather than amounting to a confession of inconsistency, it is a badge of pride. No imaginable social order can square the circle. If I wish to be associated with someone who does not desire my company, then necessarily one of us will be disappointed. The way in which liberalism resolves such impasses is via the principle of mutual consent. One's freedom does not include a power to conscript others in one's design.

This holds true both for individual actors and for groups. It is a corollary of the requirement that exercises of liberty are permissible only up to the point at which they infringe the rights of others. Conyers is therefore mistaken in suggesting that liberalism is somehow friendly to individuals and to the state but hostile to intermediate associations.

Nor is it clear that Conyers is the sort of ally that associations want or need. In many states labor unions can compel membership but churches cannot. Does that imperil the latter's legitimacy? Just the opposite. Authority is, among other things, moral authority, and it is forfeited when affiliation is enforced at the business end of a cudgel. Nor is the prospect of numerous intermediate associations wielding coercive power attractive. The cover illustration of The Long Truce is Robert-Fleury's painting St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. It depicts members of the French Catholic sub-community lustily impaling on their swords members of the Protestant subcommunity. Does Conyers really take the persecution of the Huguenots to be an endearing slice of life from the Good Old Days? One fears that he might.

John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, is among the most articulate of contemporary political theorists. He is also one of the most perplexing. Gray has gone through more transmutations than the cast of Saturday Night Live. His earliest and best work was done as a liberal in the classical tradition. Even then, however, his propensity to oscillate among poles of influence was pronounced. John Stuart Mill was Gray's first liberal mentor but was then rejected in favor of F.A. Hayek, who was in turn displaced by Isaiah Berlin and then by Michael Oakeshott.

None could retain Gray's favor for long; each was held to be deficient for failing to supply unimpeachable liberal foundations. Eventually these turnings thrust Gray entirely beyond the orbit of liberalism. He announced himself to be a "postliberal," a pluralist, a devotee of Gaia, environmentalism's Earth personification. This leading British Tory Party public intellectual moved house to Tony Blair's New Labour just in time to bask in its coming to power. In a prolific string of books and op-ed pieces, he now regularly bashes globalization, especially America's malign influence thereon. In Two Faces of Liberalism, he returns to his favorite theme, liberal incoherence.

Liberalism, claims Gray, wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, it professes a doctrine of toleration, a willingness to allow a thousand flowers to bloom. On the other hand, it presents itself as the uniquely justifiable regime. All alternative forms of political order pale by comparison. Liberalism is, therefore, utopian; it tolerates no regime but itself.

The primary witness Gray subpoenas to validate the indictment is John Stuart Mill, who in his classic essay Utilitarianism introduces a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Mill's predecessor, Jeremy Bentham, had famously declared one mode of life to be as good as any other that affords a similar quantity of pleasure. The childish game of pushpin, said Bentham, is as good as poetry. But Mill rejected this valuational leveling, insisting that pleasures differ in quality as well as quantity: Activities that engage individuals' higher faculties are infinitely preferable to mere bodily enjoyments.

According to Gray, this is not simply a harmless instance of Victorian snobbery; it is emblematic of liberalism's lack of hospitality to conceptions of the good that fall short of its own august standards. The case he musters in support of this accusation is underwhelming. It is true that liberal theorists hold a free society to be the best form of political organization, but this kind of judgment is hardly unique to liberalism. To advocate a theory is to hold it preferable to its competitors. The contrary isn't toleration; it is hypocrisy.

In any case, liberals historically have been remarkably open to diverse forms of institutional design. Shall the polity be parliamentary or presidential, bicameral or unicameral, federal or unitary, a republic or a constitutional monarchy? Each of these and innumerable similar questions might have a best answer in any particular society, but no prominent liberal theorist has ever declared that one size must fit all.

Moreover, liberals readily concede that liberal institutions cannot be successfully imposed on just any preexisting social stratum. The tree of liberty bears beautiful flowers, but its roots are delicate; they will grow only in suitable ground. Of all the great classical liberal spokesmen, none was more explicit on this theme than Mill himself. So liberals not only are hospitable to a multitude of liberal democratic forms but also willingly accord legitimacy to second-best regime types. If this is a species of "utopianism," it is unlike any other.

That Gray should choose to embark on an excursion into Mill's doctrine of higher/lower pleasures is bizarre. He knows full well that it was not intended as a pretext for sending pleasure police into people's houses to confiscate pushpin sets and replace them with bound volumes of Keats and Shelley. Mill was in part trying to address a problem in the philosophical theory of hedonism, its alleged inability to assign appropriate value to low-intensity but high-quality experiences.

Simultaneously he was endeavoring to combat aristocratic views that ordinary people need not receive an education in the fine arts and humane disciplines because they are capable of only the most basic enjoyments. Rather than exemplifying intolerance, Mill's higher/lower distinction bespeaks a desire to expand opportunities and secure greater social openness.

Utilitarianism is primarily a discussion of individual ethics, while On Liberty is Mill's most comprehensive and eloquent political manifesto. Gray pointedly declines to delve into this essay, for to do so would rip his thesis to threads. On Liberty explicitly insists that the state keep its hands off even low and self-destructive ways of life, provided only that the practitioners are not imposing them on unwilling others. Mill gives the example of polygamy in Utah, affirming both that it is a debased form of association and that it is nonetheless within the protected zone of self-regarding conduct. He could not be any clearer in expressing a commitment to tolerate all nonaggressive pleasures, both the higher and the lower.

Even when Gray has driven down dead ends in the past, he has typically made the trip provocative and rewarding. That is not true of the current excursion. Two Faces of Liberalism gives the appearance of being hastily tossed together and indifferently edited. Substantial passages are repeated almost verbatim one page apart; necessary distinctions are omitted or deliberately elided, characterizations of the views of other thinkers are sloppy and tendentious.

Nor is it clear who might be the intended audience for this volume. Gray drags into his discussion too many unexplained allusions to arcane theorists for a general readership to follow; if you happen not to know why Joseph de Maistre is important to the history of political discourse, you will be offered no hint here.

Yet because Gray for the most part supports his oracular characterizations of other thinkers by citing only his own previous writings, scholarly peers will see the book as failing to meet minimal professional standards. Two Faces of Liberalism is not a work of scholarship but a polemical tract. That is not its problem. Rather, the problem is that the polemics are embarrassingly clumsy.

Conyer's The Long Truce is, perhaps, worth reading for the various historical tidbits it presents lucidly and gracefully, and some will wish to peruse Two Faces of Liberalism to view the latest transmogrification of a once-gifted once-liberal thinker. Neither book even comes close to exhibiting a deep flaw in the doctrine of liberal toleration. They do demonstrate, however that the idea of a society structured on a principle of live and let live remains audacious enough to continue eliciting pained cries from those who are uncomfortable with individual liberty.