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Free Minds & Free Markets

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 & FreedomRationalism, 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.

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  • LynchPin1477||

    Any despotism is preferable to local despotism

    That may have been true when distance significantly decreased a despots power, though even then I'd prefer a competition between despots so that maybe a couple would be not-so-bad.

    But with modern communication and travel a strong central government can exert almost as much influence as a local one, with the added disadvantages that it's harder to change and escape from.

    At any rate, the federalist model is a nice hybrid.

  • ||

    "(using the term liberalism in the broad academic sense that includes both pro-free-market classical liberals and pro-welfare-state modern liberals).

    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."

    Choosing anything other than prioritizing the freedom of persons within groups is simply a case of choosing the least stinky turd. Either you own yourself or someone else owns you.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    The problem with that formulation is that the groups in the pluralist model - families, churches, universities, even, to a lesser extent, local governments - are voluntary. The individual can opt to identify with them to whatever extent they wish. The freedom within groups of the rationalist model too easily becomes a fraudulent one in which the state imposes its will on the groups to secure the "positive" freedoms of the individual to be part of that group without the the group's private values and mores. That inevitably means the only values and mores that remain are those of the state.

  • Chipper Morning Wood||

    Sometimes "voluntary" is not a clearly defined feature. "You better go to church or you are out of the family," for example, may lead a teenage girl to choose to attend the church, but it would be a stretch to call it voluntary participation.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    I think it's a lot more voluntary than any arrangement in which the state tells parents how to raise their kids would be.

  • LynchPin1477||

    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.

    I don't see what this has to do with the example cited, i.e. wearing the hijab. That would seem to be an example of nanny-statism vs individualism.

  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    Every state is a nanny in one form or another.

  • Free Society||

    The only good nanny is a dead nanny.

  • MJGreen - Docile Citizen||

    Yeah, I don't know if I can agree with Levy that both sides are defending a freedom. The French/rationalist side is defending a conception of what people ought to do with their freedom - if truly free, women would choose not to wear the hijab, so banning it is justified - rather than individual autonomy. Of course the rationalists are right that these intermediary groups can be coercive or overly controlling (though still voluntary), but that's just reason to remain skeptical of power. It doesn't follow that you should expect the central authority to get it "right," especially not in the examples given.

  • LiberteVerite||

    So she either defers to French law or she defers to Islamic tradition.

    Knowing full well the barbaric extent of Islamic tradition, I think I'd rather "suffer" the imposition of laicite. France hasn't beheaded anyone since 1789. Muslim-majority societies haven't had a beheading since, uh... 20 minutes ago?

  • Bill Dalasio||

    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."

    The problem is, to start off, Mills' Top Men rarely prove particularly cultivated or instructed. Their major skill and knowledge is that of playing the courtier within a bureaucracy.

  • thinkmore||

    I'm definitely a pluralist. As much as a rationalist as the USA is the hijab thing is definitely a pluralist way to lean, i guess the french are just extreme rationalist. I agree with the above comment that a Federal system is supposed to be a mix of the two. Federal power ensures that there is freedom of interstate travel, republican form of government etc. however most freedoms should be protected by individual states. Perhaps libertarians can use this to convince their liberal friends why they think differently, and why libertarianism and a more judicious federal system is better.

  • Free Society||

    The logical conclusion of centralism is a single world government. For the record.

  • Chipper Morning Wood||

    A single world government is also the logical conclusion of any claim to an objective moral law, such as proposed by Objectivists or even Rothbardians.

  • AndrewF.||

    I dont think France banned wearing hijabs, but burqas which was defended as a security issue because burqas allow anonymity

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