Free Minds & Free Markets

Locke Mess

Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy, by Stephen Holmes, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 350 pages, $29.95

Whether despite or because of its demonstrated ability to establish beachheads of peace and prosperity in a world where poverty and hostility are the norm, in each generation liberal democracy is assailed by clutches of indignant despisers. During the 1930s fascists and communists agreed on little other than disdain for the democracies that both declared insipid, decadent, and doomed. The flower children and New Left of the 1960s dismissed liberalism as a subservient tool of capitalism. Their tastes ran more to the "people's democracies" of Eastern Europe and Asia than to what they characterized as the compromise-ridden, indecisive regimes of the West.

Today the language of the critique has shifted, but the underlying animus against liberal democracy persists. Distinguished political theorists join with self-appointed spokespersons for those victimized on the basis of class, race, gender, or sexual orientation to preach a gospel of particularism that celebrates "cultural diversity" and "community." This most recent cohort of critics dismisses liberal toleration as either the tattered myth within which elites package repressive policies or, alternatively, decent enough but too tepid a broth to sustain the spirits of atomized individuals cast adrift in the seas of postmodernity.

A noteworthy sidelight to the protracted campaign against liberal democracy is the conciliatory meekness offered up in response by wide swaths of an intelligentsia that might instead have been expected to rise to forthright defense. There have, of course, been honorable exceptions such as John Dewey and F.A. Hayek, both of whom endured years of marginalization and exile from the mainstream of so-called progressive political discourse. They are now acclaimed, justly, as clear voices from the wilderness.

Among contemporary launchers of counterattacks against the foes of liberalism, few have been as sharp and incisive as Stephen Holmes. In a series of articles and reviews, later collected in The Anatomy of Antiliberalism, Holmes takes on the historical and, especially, contemporary icons of illiberalism. These essays wed scholarly mastery over primary texts to a hard-hitting prose that uncompromisingly explodes the fatuities, solecisms, and fuzzyminded theories of the gurus of avant-garde politics. Both within and outside the academy they attracted an influential circle of admirers. Unlike other major exponents of liberal political philosophy such as John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Ronald Dworkin, though, Holmes has been known almost entirely as a leader of counterattacks; his positive views have been much less visible.

Passions and Constraint aims to fill that gap. Sandwiched between a brief introduction and conclusion are eight previously published essays laced together for the occasion by a few connecting threads. Together they advance the following three theses: First, the canonical texts of liberalism do not embrace a view of human nature as essentially egoistic and calculating but rather depict man as a field of contending passions only sporadically governed by self-interested reason. Second, constitutional constraints of the sort that typically govern liberal regimes do not undermine the capacity of majorities to give effect to their will through democratic means; limited government can be and typically is stronger in virtue of its limitations. Third, the legitimate inheritor of the tradition of classical liberalism is not libertarianism but the welfare state.

Although Holmes is too well-informed and engaged a student of political texts not to stimulate and inform, Passions and Constraint is only intermittently successful. Its most solidly grounded discussions tend either to lack novelty or to veer away from what is philosophically central, while its boldest and most original arguments display patches of surprising clumsiness.

For example, a few evangelizing economists aside, it is hard to find any notable liberal theorist who has maintained that human beings always act as relentlessly wealth-maximizing homo economicus. Individuals coolly and deliberately plot strategies to advance their own material well-being--sometimes. But they also act from love, loyalty, rage, rancor, jealousy, whimsy, spite, superstition--often to their subsequent regret and not infrequently with concurrent awareness that they are inflicting grievous harms on themselves.

The frailty of reason when caught up in gales of passion was much commented on by the philosophers of antiquity; Holmes amply demonstrates in "The Secret History of Self-Interest" that modern moral philosophy was equally conversant with the waywardness of self-interest. Even Thomas Hobbes, that doughty champion of prudent preservation of life and limb, is shown in a companion essay to have described the English Civil War as permeated at every stage by irrational, self-destructive excesses on the part of people who should have known better.

That the great modern moralists acknowledged chasms of unreason in human life is undeniable, and Holmes's presentation of the evidence is as incisive as any I have seen. But its very comprehensiveness underscores what is missing: an account of how in the presence of such a cornucopia of indications to the contrary these liberal thinkers could ever have been read as offering a theory of human beings as self-interested rational maximizers.

The answer, as one might expect, is that important themes in the texts support a version of that interpretation. Rational self-interest may be far from ubiquitous, may suffer frequent and drastic eclipses, but it is nonetheless privileged among the springs of human action. It is the norm from which deviations are judged to be deficiencies. In this regard reason is like health. Even if almost all of us almost all the time fall short of exemplifying perfect health, that does not in any way impugn models of adequate human physiology.

What health is to the functioning of the body, prudent regard for interest is to effective agency; on this nearly all the modern liberal theorists are agreed. And not them alone. Aristotle freely acknowledges the persistence of unreason in human affairs but nonetheless takes it to be a definitional truth that man is rational animal. What modernity adds to the anthropological reflections of antiquity is the Enlightenment faith that science is destined in the long run to supplant superstition in the minds of men, and that an enlightened understanding of society will enable the design of institutions under which liberty will be enhanced, passions restrained, and prosperity generalized.

All of us, claim the architects of liberalism, have a primary stake in instituting and maintaining a regime in which voluntary transactions for mutual advantage predominate. If only individuals can be induced to retain a keen sense of where their interest lies and then to adopt instrumentally rational means to advance it, the desired end is within our grasp. Counting testimonials in the writings of classical liberals to failings of reason is accurate enough scholarship but obscures the philosophical core of the liberal project.

There is more substance to Holmes's explorations of his second theme: the possibility of enhancing government's efficacy through limitation of its scope. Via a fresh and insightful deployment of classical texts, Holmes discovers an early version of this argument in the 16th-century French theorist Jean Bodin, best known as a political absolutist. Then, in "Gag Rules or the Politics of Omission," he serves up a splendid array of instances in which governments' limitations of what will be allowed a spot on the political agenda expand their capacity to govern. Nicely complementing this informative excursion into practical politics is "Precommitment and the Paradox of Democracy," a theoretical joust between teams captained by Tom Paine as advocate for unlimited democracy and James Madison as proponent of strengthening democracy by limiting it.

Some of this is wonderfully good. Some, though, is sloppy. Holmes cites Madison's remark that "the important distinction so well understood in America between a Constitution established by the people and unalterable by the government, and a law established by the government and alterable by the government, seems to have been little understood and less observed in any other country." Holmes takes this to imply a belief by the federalists that constitutional restraints are "an instrument of self-government, a technique whereby the citizenry rules itself." And he draws the further corollary that "once it is recognized that learning capacity can be enhanced by strategic self-binding, then self-binding becomes not only permissible but obligatory."

Who, though, is this self-binder and self-ruler? It is, says Holmes, the citizenry. But that is not what Madison is saying here; indeed, it is diametrically opposed to Madison's point. In the cited passage he is intent to distinguish sharply between the people who establish through their consent the constitutional constraints under which they will be ruled and the government that subsequently exercises that rule. The matter at issue is, then, not self-restraint by a people that is to govern itself but restraint by that people over the motley collection of senators, representatives, and executive functionaries who will be their governors. It is they who are to be bound, not oneself.

To elide this distinction is to distort the most critical component of the federalist concern to establish a constitutionally limited government, a republic in which strong wire protects the hens from the foxes. For Madison as for Plato before him, the question "Who will guard the guardians?" is central to the craft of political construction. It is not resolved by the happy thought, "Well, they can guard themselves." Representative democracy is, one may agree, a form of government than which no better has been invented, but that does not sanction playing fast and loose with ambiguities latent in the term "self-government."

If Holmes's development of the second theme is a bit slipshod in places, the third is thoroughly ramshackle. There is a specter haunting Passions and Constraint; it is the specter of liber tarianism. Although I don't usually speculate about the biographical minutiae that may have played a role in shaping an author's manuscript, these essays convince me that Holmes is chafing under the burden of being taken by detractors and sympathizers alike to be a singer in the libertarian choir.

Contributing Editor Loren E. Lomasky is the Cory Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Virginia and author, with Geoffrey Brennan, of Democracy and Decision: The Pure Theory of Electoral Preference (Cambridge University Press).

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