Liberty Matters

Pluralism May or May Not Advance Liberty


Jacob Levy has provided us with an important new way to analyze the classical-liberal tradition by, firstly, arguing, in a way reminiscent of Larry Siedentop’s effort 25 years ago,[14] that there have been two traditions (or what I would call theoretical binaries) within classical liberalism, namely, the “rationalist” and the “pluralist,” which have produced tensions that need to be addressed and if possible resolved; and secondly, reminding us in a neo-Pocockian fashion of the historical importance of the so-called “ancient constitution” and its intermediate institutions (also known as “civil society”) as a bulwark against tyranny.[15] Let me begin my comments with some reflections on the former.
I would like to suggest that there have been several other important theoretical binaries that have deeply divided the classical-liberal tradition which should not be forgotten. To mention only a handful, these are differences over the very foundation of the principles of liberty and property in either natural law or some utilitarian social calculation; the proper role of violence in bringing about radical change in a pro-liberty direction, either by revolutionary violence (the English Revolution in the 1640s, the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century, and the European revolutions of 1848-49) or by slow incremental, parliamentary reforms such as those introduced in England throughout the 19th century; the role of religion and the Church, with some classical liberals arguing that religion provides the moral bedrock upon which any free and civilized society must be based (Constant and Tocqueville), and others arguing that religion itself is a threat to reason and that organized religion in particular is a threat to liberty, since “religionists” (whether “Christianists” or “Islamists”) cannot help but get involved in politics and impose their beliefs and practices on others, as history has repeatedly shown; and the fundamental divide which exists between the advocates of a “limited state,” who believe that some form of a state is necessary for liberty to flourish and that a “liberal state” can be limited and kept limited (Bastiat), and those other classical liberals (Herbert Spencer and Gustave de Molinari) who believe that it is naive and utopian to think that a state, even a liberal state, can be kept limited for very long before the forces described by the Public Choice school of economics inevitably reassert themselves (self-interest, rent-seeking). There are other binaries which I will not mention for reasons of space, but I have listed what I think are the most important ones. The question I ask of Jacob is why he thinks the “rationalist” vs. “pluralist” binary is the most important one for understanding both the history and theory of classical liberalism?
In attempting to understand what Jacob means by his “rationalist” vs. “pluralist” binary I thought I could hear the breath of Hayek on his shoulders. (He does mention Hayek five times in the book.) By this I mean that he seems to regard “rationalism” as a “top down” process, much like some kind of a societal “central planner” or lawmaker who knows what is in society’s best interest; and “pluralism” as a “bottom up” process, much like Hayek’s notion of “spontaneous order,” where a multiplicity of private associations with dispersed local knowledge emerge “spontaneously” to solve social problems. The historical example that comes to my mind when thinking along these lines is the “top down” rationalist abolition of the guilds and corporations (also known as “feudalism”) which took place in France on 4 August, 1789.[16] This was accomplished by a revolutionary seizure of power by various groups (including a strong classical-liberal faction such as the Girondins) and the immediate and “top down” abolition of centuries of legal and economic practice by many private associations which made up the French “ancient constitution.” Some of these ancient bodies were guilds and corporations which might at one time have served the needs of their members and society at large but which, over time, had become ossified by rent-seeking and monopoly privileges granted by the state and had thus had become hated institutions by 1789 which deserved to be abolished.
I can hear Jacob replying in the voice of Montesquieu that a key source of opposition to the encroaching power of King Louis XVI were some of the intermediate associations, such as the regional Parlements, and this is true. But what makes the French Revolution so complex, both from an historical as well as a classical-liberal perspective, is that these regional competing associations and sources of authority had also become ossified and monopolistic, and those individuals who were excluded from membership and participation eventually turned against these intermediate institutions in turn. Thus, the revolution quickly turned into this cascading escalation of revolt which got out of control (at least from a classical-liberal point of view, if not from Robespierre’s or eventually Napoléon’s point of view, both of whom benefited from the ensuing chaos). The question, then, for the French liberals of the revolutionary period, as well as for us today, is to find the correct balance between “top down” rationalist reform and the preservation of strong liberty-protecting “pluralist” intermediate associations.
A second historical example I would like to bring up is the abolition of slavery, especially in the problematic case of the United States (the only slave society which fought a civil war to abolish slavery, if one ignores the failed revolution of Spartacus in the ancient Roman world). Given the power of the local institutions in the British Caribbean and their representatives in the House of Commons in England, it is hard to imagine how slavery might have been abolished there without external, “top down”, “rationalist” intervention against the entrenched power of the “intermediate powers” in the colonies. (Interestingly, a similar argument was made by Gustave de Beaumont about land reform in Ireland in 1840, which he thought required English intervention to destroy the power of local Irish elites.)[17] As a result of the spread of enlightened political values over a period of several decades, there emerged a lobby group in British society which had representatives in the House of Commons (headed by William Wilberforce) that pushed for the abolition first of the slave trade (achieved in 1808), then of slavery itself in the British colonies (achieved in 1833). Had the North American colonies remained part of the British Empire, the southern slave-owning states might have been forced to abolish slavery, just like their Caribbean colleagues were forced to do in 1833 -- some three decades before the Civil War -- but this is an exercise in counterfactual history, which is beyond the scope of this essay.
However, it does raise the important question of what to do with local autonomous associations which continue to practice very illiberal policies such as slavery. The advocate of “pluralism” might argue that competition with outside bodies (rivalrous associations) might lead to the mitigation of slavery without outside interference over time. Classical political economists of the period, such as Jean-Baptiste Say and his followers, argued that this would happen only once the metropole stopped supporting the slave colonies with guaranteed home markets for their products, such as sugar, and state (i.e., taxpayer-subsidised) protection from internal slave revolts by the local police, the French Army, and the Navy. However, it took another top-down “rationalist” reform during the 1848 Revolution to finally destroy (for the second time) slavery in the French colonies.
Had the Articles of Confederation prevailed in the United States (and the “Philadelphia coup of 1787” not imposed a more highly centralized and powerful national government on the ex-North American colonies[18]), it is possible to imagine a group of highly autonomous and competitive “mini-states” competing in a very rivalrous fashion amongst themselves to create a “Jonesian” system of competing jurisdictions across the eastern seaboard of America.[19] In such a system, without a powerful central government (“empire”) to enforce a fugitive-slave act nationwide, the pressures to abolish slavery would have intensified to the point where the local jurisdictions (the Southern slave states) might have been forced to adapt by reforming their “peculiar institution” or face collapse from the economic bleeding produced by runaway slaves and the constant outbreak of slave revolts[20] funded and armed by Northern abolitionists (like Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and Lysander Spooner). One can only speculate.
However, it seems that slavery was a highly adaptable system which might have survived for decades (spontaneously evolved?) without outside intervention to bring it to an end. In Russia and in some of the Southern cities in the 1850s, serfdom and slavery were adapting to economic forces as serf/slave owners granted their property some autonomy to set up workshops which they would run on condition of sending their masters a “cut” of the profits they made, much like the present income-tax system. One could say that we can see here a premonition of what the modern state based upon the income tax would look like some hundred years later.
Let me conclude by saying that “pluralism” in the form of intermediate institutions may or may not be conducive to liberty. Intermediate institutions may be a necessary condition for liberty, but not a sufficient condition. As Gary Chartier notes in his post, we must not forget the importance of the widespread belief in liberty held by the people who make up a society. Without that belief in liberty, no amount of intermediate associations will produce a truly free society.
[14.] Larry Siednetop, “The Two Liberal Traditions,” in The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honor of Isaiah Berlin, ed. Alan Ryan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).
[15.] J.G.A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law; a Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Camridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957).
[16.] See François Furet, "Night of August 4," in François Furet, and Mona Ozouf, eds. A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 107-114; and John Mackrell, The Attack on Feudalism in Eighteenth-century France (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973).
[17.] Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, ed. W.C. Taylor (London: Richard Bentley, 1839). 2 vols. </titles/2430>.
[18.] Sheldon Richman, America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Griffin & Lash, 2016).
[19.] Eric Jones, The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1981).
[20.] The pressure for reform caused by the constant threat of slave revolts has been underestimated by historians. See the older but still classic accounts by Marxist historians such as Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York: International Publishers, 1943, 1974) and Eugene D. Genevese, From Rebellion to Revoltuion: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979). See also two modern accounts by Scot French, The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004) and The World of the Haitian Revolution, ed. David Patrick Geggus and Norman Fiering (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009).