Defending Tolerance

Values, liberty, and democracy.


Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice, by William Galston, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 137 pages, $19

Now that the last smart bomb has fallen and soaring Predators have returned to their nests, it's time to put Iraq back together again. It will be no triumph for freedom if this President Bush's Gulf War ultimately concludes by replacing one defunct tyrant with some other autocratic strongman. Nearly everyone is agreed that Iraq must now join the family of democracies.

Because this is the Middle East, that's easier said than done. But even if somehow the circle gets squared and ballot boxes replace Ba'ath dungeons, that will not be sufficient to ensure the creation of a humane and civil Iraq. The Shi'ite community comprises some 60 percent of the Iraqi population. If it votes as a bloc, it will be capable of imposing its concept of the good society on all the other groups. The tables would thereby be turned on the formerly dominant Sunni community, with the Kurds, as ever, on the bottom. An Iraq with elections, even scrupulously free and fair elections, could easily place itself in the hands of medieval-minded mullahs and archaic ayatollahs.

Democracy is not a new idea. It achieved its first efflorescence some 2,500 years ago in Greece. Democratic Athens was a scintillating experiment in rule by the demos, the people. But things that scintillate are prone to burn out. Under the pressure of an extended military and economic struggle with its great antagonist, Sparta, Athens' democracy imploded. Transient majorities came together in the Assembly to strike vicious blows at political opponents. Scapegoating and treachery abounded. The result was civil strife, defeat by the Spartans, and replacement of the discredited democracy by rule of the so-called Thirty Tyrants. The depressing story is spelled out with unmatched brilliance in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian Wars. For centuries this was the classic text demonstrating the unworkability of democracy.

What was needed to make rule by the people effective was the addition of mechanisms to restrain those people from overreaching and destructively turning on themselves. However, if the restraining agent was something external to the governed, then the regime would be rule of but not by the people. So the democratic conundrum devolved into the question of how a polity not controlled by another could control itself. Division of powers, as with executive, legislature, and judiciary, was a good first step. It did not, however, directly address the limits of power. Is the body politic omnipotent in its ordinances, or is its reach somehow bounded?

The answer proffered by John Locke, and by his successors in the liberal tradition, is that the individual is morally prior to the state and that people have rights to life, liberty, and property that must be respected. Majorities enjoy a prerogative to rule because collective decisions must be taken from time to time, but that prerogative is limited by individuals' rights.

Although it may run counter to contemporary demo-enthusiasms to say so, the best thing about democracy is that, of all political structures human beings have devised for themselves, it is the only one that has shown itself able over the long term to sustain societies in which most people enjoy a liberty to live their lives according to their own lights. It is liberal democracy, not the pure sovereignty of majorities, that merits plaudits, both here and in the Iraq of the future. But that is precisely why the task of political reconstruction will be so difficult. Citizens will be quick to support governance exercised by their own kind—by majorities that enforce their ideas of proper religiosity, decorum between the sexes, and respect for ancestral custom. They will, however, be loath to permit deviant minorities to wander from widely acknowledged paths of rectitude. Critics will take the institutionalization of tolerance as evidence of a shameful disinclination to distinguish between excellence and mediocrity.

It is not only Islamic fundamentalists who share such sentiments. From politically correct exponents of proper genderspeak to William Bennett's virtuecrats, the urge to police personal behavior remains formidable here in democratic America. Even Locke himself endorsed laws that provide for the "direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest," adding that it "ill deserves the name of confinement which hedges us in only from bogs and precipices." Why, then, should the state deny itself the power to drain bogs and fence off precipices so as to save the unwise and unwary from themselves?

Here is one answer: People have different concepts of the good life, and any attempt to impose one favored view will be contentious. Contention leads to war, and war is the antithesis of civil peace. So better to leave people to their own ways, wayward though they be.

Here is another response: We are fallible beings who do not always judge correctly concerning matters of right and wrong. Therefore we do well to let people go their own ways rather than take the risk of imposing on them what might be mistaken moral concepts.

These are creditable liberal motifs, sound as far as they go. However, they do not go far enough. On both of these lines, toleration is merely second best. If we knew what the good life is, and if we possessed a sufficient preponderance of force to impose it on others, we could legislate away the base and the shabby. Perhaps current democratic technologies are not sufficiently well-tuned to deliver such a happy consummation, but that is more an obstacle to overcome than a constraint carrying independent moral force. We are still looking for a positive case to be made on behalf of liberal toleration.

That case is offered by William Galston in Liberal Pluralism. Building on theories enunciated by Isaiah Berlin (and, a century earlier, by John Stuart Mill), Galston argues that there is no such thing as the good life. Rather, there are many good modes of human life, and no one of them outranks all the others.

That is not because they are equally good or because goodness is simply in the eye of the beholder. Rather, it is because some, though not all, values are incommensurable. A is incommensurable with B if it is not the case that A is better than B, B is better than A, or that A and B are equally good. Such incommensurability should not be understood as a reflection of our inability to make fine discriminations between divergent ways of life. Rather, there are no comparisons to be made because there is no common metric in terms of which all values can be graded. It is, as your third grade teacher explained, like trying to add apples and oranges. The sum does not compute.

Not only are different modes of activity incommensurable in their goodness, they also cannot be combined in one human life. It may be wonderful to be a bold corporate raider or to lead the detached life of a contemplative monk, but it would be ludicrous to switch between these on alternate Tuesdays. It's not only that one might get confused concerning whether it's time to pray or to prey. The commitments that underlie one way of life undercut the other. Even if one had unlimited time and all necessary skills, one would have to renounce some genuine goods.

But what I cannot incorporate in my own life can be vicariously appreciated in the activities of others. Because values are multiple and incommensurable, a liberal regime committed to supporting pluralism is superior to one wedded only to some particular conception of the good life. Its ends are not superior—incommensurability precludes such a judgment—but it does better by according respect to all the goods that merit it, not only the popular ones.

Galston argues intelligently for the theory of incommensurability and its political corollaries. Unlike many contemporary liberals who maintain that individuals should be allowed to pursue whatever ends they wish just so long as they make their choices autonomously, Galston responds, "the promotion of personal autonomy, understood as choice based on critical rationalism, is not among the shared liberal purposes." Traditionalists merely accept rather than critically evaluate what has been handed down to them, but there are values inherent in traditional modes of life that cannot be achieved through critical reflection. Not better goods—different goods.

Even among those who locate themselves squarely in the liberal camp, many draw the line with choices that impinge on the upbringing of children: You may devote yourself to whatever gods command your own allegiance, but you may not impose them on uncomprehending, defenseless minors. No one is better positioned, for better or worse, to affect the future well-being of children than their parents. Therefore, it is argued, even the liberal state has a considerable stake in superintending the conditions under which children are raised.

Whether or not parents approve, children must be afforded the capacity to appreciate a wide range of potential ways of life and to freely choose among them. This means, for example, that enclaves from modernity such as Amish communities are suspect insofar as they propagate themselves from one generation to the next. It also indirectly buttresses a case for the public schools as an agency liberating children from the dead hand of their parents' past.

Galston, by contrast, defends parents' entitlement, within very broad limits, to bring up their children as they see fit; he is no proponent of sending the National Guard to liberate little Amish boys and girls. His defense of parents' rights is cogent bordering on eloquent. The discussion is notable in its own right, but all the more so because in between his encampments in ivory towers, Galston served as President Clinton's Deputy Assistant for Domestic Policy. Many of his colleagues in that administration were avid to extend the helping hand of government into family relationships. That Galston bids them halt is significant both theoretically and politically.

Nonetheless, the book retains traces of the dark side of Clintonism. At just the point at which Galston might be expected to observe that parental authority worthy of the name must extend to educational alternatives, he instead opines, "There is no compelling reason to believe that the emphasis I have placed on expressive liberty and the role of parents, if taken as the basis for actual policy, would significantly erode the dominant position the public schools now enjoy." The National Education Association's cheerleaders will applaud, but the rest of us should cringe. Nor am I reassured by Galston's rather cavalier dismissal of economic liberty's importance for individual self-determination.

Nonetheless, the planners of a postwar Iraq—not to mention postwar America—could do a lot worse than to consult this accessible and engaging essay.