Two Liberalisms

The eternal tension between rationalism and pluralism


Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, by Jacob T. Levy, Oxford University Press, 322 pages, $49.95

In the 2000 film The Patriot, Mel Gibson's character asks an advocate of American independence: "Why should I trade one tyrant 3,000 miles away for 3,000 tyrants one mile away?" The line was borrowed from a real-life historical figure, the loyalist Boston clergyman Byles Mather (nephew of Cotton Mather), who reportedly made the remark in the perhaps less than tactful context of watching the 3,000-strong funeral procession for the victims of the 1770 Boston Massacre.

Mather's skepticism would have been shared by John Stuart Mill. "Any despotism is preferable to local despotism," Mill wrote in "Centralisation," an 1862 essay. "If we are to be ridden over by authority," he continued, "if our affairs are to be managed for us at the pleasure of other people, heaven forfend that it should be at that of our nearest neighbours." The latter would involve becoming "the slave of the vulgar prejudices, the cramped, distorted, and short-sighted views, of the public of a small town." A more distant and centralized power, whatever its defects, is at least likelier than local power to be guided by "some knowledge, some general cultivation, some attention and habitual deference to the opinions of the more instructed minds." In other words, the cosmopolitan is less to be feared than the parochial.

Nearly three decades earlier, in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed precisely the opposite preference, defending the superiority of local over centralized power. "When towns and provinces form so many different nations within the common motherland, each of them has a particularist spirit opposed to the general spirit of servitude," Tocqueville explained; "provincial privileges" are accordingly among the "things which softened the blows of authority and maintained a spirit of resistance in the nation." But "now that all parts of a single empire have lost their franchises, usages, prejudices, and even their memories and names, and have grown accustomed to obey the same laws," he laments, "it is no longer…difficult to oppress them."

For Jacob Levy, a political theorist at McGill University, this disagreement between Mill and Tocqueville is emblematic of a dispute that runs through the entire history of liberalism (using the term liberalism in the broad academic sense that includes both pro-free-market classical liberals and pro-welfare-state modern liberals). In Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, he traces two strands running through the liberal tradition, strands differentiated by their attitudes toward "intermediate groups" (that is, groups intermediate between the individual and the centralized state), a category in which Levy includes "churches and religious groups, ethnic and cultural groups, voluntary associations, universities," and the family, but also "levels of government below the center—towns and cities, or the provinces and states of a federation." Levy justifies including governmental and private groups in the same category on the grounds that the dispute he's tracing tends to do so as well.

One strand within liberalism—a strand associated with, for example, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Destutt de Tracy, and Mill—sees these intermediate groups as arenas of "hierarchy and subordination," driven by "local prejudices" and "excessive attachment to custom," and all too often hostage to the "insular power of in-group elites," to be contrasted with the more "publicly accountable" character of the centralized state.

Rationalism, Pluralism & Freedom
Rationalism, Pluralism & Freedom

The other strand—associated with Montesquieu, Benjamin Constant, Lord Acton, and Tocqueville—sees intermediate groups as, in themselves, a vital expression of individuals' freedom of association, and in their consequences, a crucial site of "institutional resistance to expansions of state power" and of "alternatives to acting through the state."

In short, the first strand, which Levy calls "rationalist," prioritizes "the freedom of persons within groups," while the second, dubbed "pluralist," prioritizes "the freedom of groups from the state."

Given its epistemological associations, the term rationalist is perhaps an unfortunate choice; "cosmopolitan" might have been better. Levy stresses that his use of "rationalist" is meant to invoke not "theories of knowledge or standards of argumentation," but rather "processes of bureaucratic rationalization," and in particular of state demands for "rational accounts" to justify "the practices of non-state groups"; in brief, "Weber, not Descartes."

But Levy himself seems to bring in a broader range of connotations than this, since he associates rationalism with simple principles (Levy cites Mill's "very simple principle" as an expression of rationalism) and legal uniformity (Tracy's insistence that all states should have "the same civil and criminal laws," on the grounds that "a true proposition is true everywhere," is described as the epitome of "rationalist philosophical distrust of institutional pluralism").

Yet neither simplicity nor legal uniformity is necessarily incompatible with favoring group autonomy in preference to central direction. Think of the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, who certainly favored simple principles (the "non-aggression axiom") and legal uniformity (the "libertarian law code"), yet who nearly always sided with intermediate groups in any conflict with the centralized state, even to the point of excessive generosity to the Confederacy. Likewise one can be in favor of, for example, uniform weights and measures without seeking to have such uniformity imposed by legislative fiat, trusting instead to consumer preferences to motivate convergence. It's not because of governmental edict, after all, that no banks supply gigantic triangular ATM cards. Universalism at the level of principles is compatible with pluralism at the level of institutions.

Levy offers the conflict between rationalist and pluralist versions of liberalism as a lens through which to view current debates over "multiculturalism, religious freedom, freedom of associations, universities, and local governments," inviting us to see these not merely as an assortment of "discrete odd problems," but rather as the "deep and perennial problems" of the liberal tradition.

To see Levy's point, think of the difference between France's and the United States' policies on the wearing of the hijab. French law bans it, U.S. law protects it, and each policy is defended in the name of freedom for Muslim women.

Liberals belonging to one strand tend to question the liberal credentials of those in the other strand. Rationalist liberals such as Brian Barry condemn the pluralist approach as illiberal, since in their eyes liberalism historically and essentially stands for, in Levy's words, "equality before a uniform law and the abolition of group-based legal distinctions." More pluralistic liberals, such as Friedrich Hayek, equally condemn the rationalist approach as illiberal, by equating it with a "constructivist" penchant for central planning.

But Levy insists on the liberal bona fides of both strands. Each is genuinely concerned with protecting individual freedom, but the two strands are divided by "rival accounts of where threats to freedom are more likely to come from." While the pluralist's nightmare is the "man of system," the distant puppet master who attempts to impose an abstract bureaucratic order on individuals' lives with only the haziest understanding of the particularities he is dealing with, the rationalist's nightmare is the "busybody," the nosy neighbor who is all too well acquainted with the concrete details of the lives he's itching to meddle with.

Nor does the rationalist/pluralist distinction line up in any neat way with the aforementioned divide between classical liberalism and welfare-state liberalism. Constant and Tracy, for example, were laissez faire individualists whose commitments would today be called libertarian; yet despite the vast range of their political agreement, Constant leans pluralist, defending local and particularist loyalties as a bulwark against state power, while Tracy leans rationalist, arguing that if the central government represents the entire population, then any intermediate group acting to check its power must represent an illegitimate special interest.

The pluralist strand is likewise not necessarily associated with tendencies toward social or cultural conservatism. To be sure, it can be, and Levy accordingly cites Edmund Burke as a representative of pluralist liberalism. But he also identifies pluralist tendencies in the thought of Elinor Ostrom, James C. Scott, and the proponents of multiculturalism—figures unlikely to be identified as social conservatives.

The bulk of Levy's book is devoted to providing a new narrative of the history of liberalism—one that highlights the tension between its rationalist and pluralist forms and insists on both forms' equal claims to inclusion within the liberal tradition. Much of this work involves rescuing the pluralist strand from obscurity, since this is the strand that Levy thinks has received the least attention and appreciation in contemporary scholarship. Levy also traces liberalism's roots in large part to the resistance, on the part of traditional intermediate groups, to the emergence of royal absolutism—a narrative that renders problematic the modern tendency to reject pluralist concerns as alien to the liberal mindset.

Levy's aim is to "provide a mental map of the past that makes the pluralist tradition within liberalism, and its relation to rationalism, intellectually available in the present." Hence he focuses on neglected pluralist thinkers such as Robert Molesworth, and on the neglected pluralist aspects of better-known thinkers like Montesquieu. He also stresses the importance of the pluralist tradition of the "ancient constitution," with its appeal to the real or supposed traditional legal inheritances of pre-modern (and in large part pre-Roman) Europe, as a serious rival to the better known and more rationalist-friendly "social contract" tradition. Indeed, Levy argues convincingly that a failure to take the "ancient constitution" tradition seriously, and to dismiss it as a slightly embarrassing and in any case dispensable aberration, has led to serious misreadings of Montesquieu and others.

Levy does not think that all liberals can be assigned neatly to one or the other strand. Adam Smith, for example, "recognized the ways in which states and corporate groups might collude rather than compete, to the disadvantage of ordinary people" and so proved less one-sided than either of his great contemporaries, the pluralist Montesquieu and the rationalist Voltaire. Levy welcomes such exceptions, since he regards the two strands not only as both genuinely liberal, but also as both genuinely insightful.

Nevertheless, Levy thinks there is a strong tendency for liberal thinkers to gravitate, albeit in varying degrees, to one or the other of the strands, because the insights of each strand tend to make the insights of the other strand harder to recognize: "the lenses through which we look at the social world let us focus on some issues especially sharply but at the cost of blurring others."

As an example of the ways in which each strand's "insights and blind spots" are "hard to pull apart," Levy points to some of the major policy disagreements between the rationalist Mill on the one side and the pluralists Tocqueville and Acton on the other. Where Tocqueville thinks it a good thing that "inexorable public opinion carefully keeps woman within the little sphere of domestic interests and duties and will not let her go beyond them," Mill famously condemns the patriarchal family as a "school of despotism"; his hostility to local tyranny makes him sensitive to the reality of abusive power within the family in a way that escapes Tocqueville. But while Mill's rationalism renders him a better friend of liberty on feminist issues than Tocqueville is, the same rationalism leads Mill, less creditably, to favor nationally homogeneous states to eliminate the potential for national identities to check state power. Mill's preference for distant over local despotism also helps to explain his defense of British rule in India.

Acton's decentralist pluralism, by contrast, "allowed him to see what Mill could not," namely the danger of nationalism; but the same impulse led Acton to downplay the evil of slavery in order to defend secession—an error that Mill avoided. In a famously embarrassing letter to Robert E. Lee, Acton declared: "I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and…I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo." That the cause whose defeat Acton mourns was in defense of the absolutism of the sovereign slaveowner's will over his slaves seems not to register.

As Levy sees it, Mill's laudable attitudes toward slavery and the family derive from the same source as his errors about nationalism and imperialism, whereas Tocqueville's and Acton's generally valuable emphasis on the role of intermediate groups as "the only viable check against despotism…obscured from [their] view the unfreedom within those groups themselves."

While Mill is mostly a partisan on the rationalist side (his defense of Mormon polygamists being a notable exception), his own words make the case for rationalist liberals to give their pluralist rivals a fair hearing. For as he argues in On Liberty, in most disputes "the conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them," and thus "so long as popular truth is one-sided, it is more desirable than otherwise that unpopular truth should have one-sided asserters too," since these at least serve to "compel reluctant attention to the fragment of wisdom which they proclaim as if it were the whole."

In like vein, Levy argues that the rationalists are right to "expect groups to exercise more power over their members than can be justified by their free associational choices"; but that the pluralists are likewise right to "expect states to exercise more power over groups than can be justified by the freedom of groups' members." Hence, while Levy himself leans a bit more to the pluralist side of the divide, the purpose of his book is to urge us to keep both rationalist and pluralist concerns in view rather than to champion one over the other.

Levy does not offer any easy attempt at reconciliation or synthesis, however. On the contrary, one of his principal conclusions is that the tension between the "institutional realization of freedom to associate" and "freedom within (or from) group life" is not fully resolvable. Whether we side with the rationalist or the pluralist in any given case, the conception of freedom we choose not to side with is frequently a genuine freedom, and its loss a genuine loss. Levy surveys attempts at reconciliation from Hegel to Rawls and argues that all of them fail. On this point his stand echoes that of the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whose early writings sought a dialectical synthesis that would overcome the contradiction between the centralizing tendencies of social power and the individualizing tendencies of private property, but who in later work came to the view that "the antinomy does not resolve itself," so that its opposing terms can only be balanced, never synthesized.

Levy's concern is with liberalism in general, not with the specifically libertarian form of it, but it's worth asking what libertarians in particular should make of his analysis. In its drive to reduce state power drastically or even eliminate it altogether, libertarianism might seem to take pluralism to its ultimate extreme, leaving the intermediate (formerly intermediate?) groups in uncontested possession of the field. But a concern to combat local tyranny need be no weaker merely because the means one favors for combating it do not include the centralized state; and even in a free-market anarchy of competing voluntary associations, the rationalist/pluralist divide would arguably re-emerge, albeit in transfigured form.

In place of the centralized state serving as a check on the intermediate groups and/or vice versa, in the envisioned libertarian scenario the intermediate groups serve as checks on one another. But how far should one group go in checking another? For example, at what point do an insular religious community's childrearing practices cross the line from religious freedom to abuse? An anarchist society would face this problem just as much as ours does; making checks and balances primarily horizontal rather than vertical doesn't eliminate the difficulty. And as Levy points out, there is no general policy that won't sometimes generate regrettable interventions, or regrettable failures to intervene, or both.

On the other hand, decoupling jurisdiction from territory reduces the cost of exit, making escape from local tyranny easier—and the availability of exit also gives members who do not exit more independence and voice within their groups. Levy does mention the possibility of "non-territorial federalism"—that is, basing state representation on ethnic or religious membership rather than geographical region—but he argues that in light of "the advantages territoriality offers to group activities" we should "routinely expect territorial concentrations to emerge and persist." But while it's true that people are likely to bind together based on physical proximity, individual members of such groups have a strong countervailing incentive to seek allegiances based on other criteria as well, such as economic interests and ideological affinity; and this desire is one that modern communications technology is making ever easier to supply. Hence libertarianism may offer the resources for, if not a full reconciliation of rationalist and pluralist concerns, at least a more successful balancing.