Liberty Matters

Liberal Theory’s Essential Tension: On Jacob Levy on Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom

Political theory has both a descriptive and a normative aspect. As theory, it aims at consistency and coherence, for no description of the world has any point if it is unable to recognize and account for apparent oddities and aberrations. As politics, it advances a view of how things ought to be, or at least, ought to be changed, revised, or improved. Theory implies consistency; but in politics there is rarely such a thing in any deep sense, for politics is about reconciling differences—most of all when they are too deep, or too entrenched (which is not the same thing), to admit of principled (or philosophical) rapprochement.
The political theorists of the liberal tradition, most noticeably when they have come in contractarian guise, have aspired to the development of a normative philosophical position that reconciles the differences among actual people and groups or communities not only in theory but also in practice. The key to the solution is rationality. We would all, surely, agree to live according to arrangements that reason revealed to be good, or just, or secure, or consistent with living freely. And if we would, the intransigence of dissenters can without hesitation be brought to practical reconciliation with the reasonable majority by the wholly justifiable enforcement of right. Implicit in this move is the thought, first, that practice must bow to reason—which is perhaps not so difficult a thing to accept—and, second, that that reason to which all must yield is not anyone’s particular reason but reason itself—which is a tougher proposition to swallow. There is, after all, no shortage of claims to possession of the one true understanding of the nature of things. Indeed, there is a great plurality of such claims. If politics yields to philosophy, it is only through violence.
It is one of the great merits of Jacob Levy’s study, Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, that it recognizes this essential tension between politics and philosophy. Yet its insightfulness does not end here. If politics and philosophy may not be reconciled except by violence, cannot the answer be that we seek a higher philosophy that recognizes the wrongness of violence—that recognizes that what must govern human affairs is not power but something else. Freedom, perhaps. The answer could be simply to let people be, that their many and various ways and convictions might lead them wherever they wish to go, to live however they see fit, in communities or groups or gatherings of whatever sort within which they might find meaning.
If one strain of the liberal tradition emphasized the importance of political power deriving its authority from the willing agreement of the governed, the other emphasized its corollary: that those unwilling to agree or acquiesce be left in peace or permitted to depart—freely to form their own ways of governing themselves. The problem, however, is that those who repudiate the authority of one group and strike out on their own cannot avoid replicating the original problem of politics. To fulfil the desire to flourish, human beings are inclined to cooperate; but as their numbers increase, so will the possibility of agreement diminish, and laws—as well as the power to enforce them—will be established to deal with dissent. Inescapably, some dissenters will long for the freedom to escape the communities that so confine them, though others will wish only to remain and seek wherever they can find it the power to reassert their freedom within the collective—if necessary, by an act not of secession but of irredentism. These are the people within a group who prefer the rationality of the powers beyond to the rationality of those within. Their freedom, in their own eyes, is congruent with their freedom from their group, rather than with the freedom of their group from the outside powers that would govern it.
This tension is a permanent feature of the human condition. No less enduring is the philosophical quest for a resolution—since the answer to this conundrum is for many political theorists the holy grail they have been trained to seek. The discipline of political theory is therefore as replete with explanations of why others have failed as it is with attempts to find the answer, or to convince others who cannot or will not see it.
Political theorists, on the whole, have very little capacity to shape or change the political world. That is not to say that ideas have no effect—only that the influence of theorists is limited. When they do have that capacity, all too often it is because their ideas are taken up by those willing to exercise power to implement them. This is no less the case when those ideas are about freedom. And those who are forced to be free will enjoy one kind of freedom even as they forgo—or forsake—another.
The conclusion of Jacob Levy’s book is a sobering one. He writes in its final paragraph: “If we are concerned with liberal freedom we are … left with no choice but to reject synthesis—whether of intermediate groups’ ethos with the state, or of rationalism and pluralism. This means living with a degree of disharmony in our social lives, our moral psychologies, and our political theory.”
What can we take from this ultimate assessment? To my mind what it points to is a form of political philosophical skepticism. It is not a counsel of despair, or a suggestion that nothing matters, or least of all that freedom is not worth pursuing. It is rather that there is a great need to be wary of those theorists and those theories that promise something that cannot be delivered: a way of reconciling all liberal values.