Liberty Matters

A Response to Levy


First, I wish to congratulate Jacob Levy on the excellence of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom (RPF). I have long been an admirer of his work, and his latest contribution confirms his place as a political theorist of the first rank.
There are so many things in RPF to comment on that it is difficult to know where to start. However, I might begin by suggesting that it is a very good example of how the study of history can make for better political theory. And in this endeavour Jacob Levy is probably far too modest than he should be about his achievements. At the beginning of his account of the ancient constitutionalism, he suggests that much of what follows will be familiar to historians although probably not to political theorists and philosophers. If this is undoubtedly true of the latter I suspect that such unfamiliarity holds true for much of the history profession. It might be worth reminding ourselves that Quentin Skinner’s much-read and widely admired Liberty before Liberalism[21] makes no mention of this tradition, preferring rather to contrast the Hobbesian and what he sees as the liberal and hegemonic view of liberty only with the neo-Roman theory of free states. Note that Skinner speaks only of “the liberal understanding of freedom” whereas it might be said that Jacob Levy’s entire project is underpinned by the aspiration to make his readers understand that there are liberal understandings of freedom and ones moreover that defy synthesis.
Here too Jacob Levy neatly brings out the contrasts between Skinner’s favoured neo-Roman republicanism and ancient constitutionalism.  If one looks to Roman precedents, the other looks admiringly to the Gothic Middle Ages. If Machiavelli and his followers saw a life of freedom as only being possible in a sovereign city-state, for the ancient constitutionalists free cities were located within a complex web of often competing jurisdictions. Perhaps most significantly of all, and despite seeming overlap, both traditions had very different readings of the idea of a mixed constitution. As Jacob Levy correctly remarks, “participation by clergy … belonged distinctively to the institutions of the ancient constitution, finding no equivalent in mixed-constitutional republicanism.” Indeed, to the humanistic neo-Romans of the past and the present the very idea of such participation would be anathema.
Similarly Jacob Levy does well to dislodge Hobbes and contract theory from the central place they all too often play in histories of liberalism and in contemporary liberal theorizing. As Levy observes, the ancient constitutionalists were quite happy to make use of the language of contractarianism, but for them the contract was literal and historical and not hypothetical. More fundamentally, the ancient constitutionalists used the idea of contract as a way of defending the freedom of groups and associations against the “increasingly rationalist modern state.” Contractarian theories, on the other hand, were specifically designed to justify that modern state and not to provide grounds of resistance to it. Here it is interesting to note that the theorist that Benjamin Constant probably took most exception to was Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes, Constant wrote at the beginning of his Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments,[22] was “the man who reduced despotism to a theoretical system most cleverly.” He was, Constant continued, “quick to support unlimited political power, in order to declare thereby in favour of the legitimacy of absolute government by a single person.” The error of the modern democratic age had been to transfer that unlimited power to the people. As Constant observed, whether that power was entrusted to one man, to several, or to all, “it is still equally an evil.” Sovereignty, therefore, had only a limited and relative existence, and, as Constant wrote, “at the point where independence and individual existence begin, the jurisdiction of sovereignty ends. If society oversteps this line, it is as guilty as the despot who has, as his only title, his exterminating sword.” Here the word “sovereignty” could just as easily be “reason.”
Moreover, by developing this argument Jacob Levy demonstrates convincingly that liberalism cannot be reduced to a doctrine concerned only with individuals and states; that its origins are distinctly premodern, and, contra the late Brian Barry, that it is a nonsense to narrow liberalism down to an Enlightenment doctrine that “stood for equality before a uniform law and the abolition of group-based legal distinctions.” Unfortunately, both its friends and foes have tended precisely to see liberalism in this way, thereby opening it up to a series of largely unfounded criticisms, not the least of which have been that it ignores the social constitution of mankind, idealizes homoeconomicus, and, of course, displays an excessive faith in reason.
In his undermining of this dominant narrative, it is hard not to draw parallels between Levy’s RPF and Larry Siedentop’s equally subversive Inventing the Individual.[23] The theses are very different – Siedentop argues that our understanding of the freedom of the individual has deep roots in the moral intuitions of Christianity – but both, like Germaine de Staël, see liberty as being ancient, not modern, and both marginalize the contribution of the writers of the Renaissance and their rediscovery of classical humanism in favor of giving a greater prominence to the canon lawyers and philosophers of medieval Europe. Crucially, both reject Western liberalism’s usual account of itself as a doctrine that, in the name of autonomy, is fundamentally and irreconcilably antipathetic to religion and all its works.
Again, with undue modesty, Levy characterises RPF as “stylized history,” suggesting that his ambition is only to provide an alternative to other stylized histories of the emergence of liberalism. Here we can concede that all histories of ideas are to an extent stylized in the sense that they need to impose order upon complex patterns of thinking and all too often this is done through the use of a set of antinomies (collectivism versus libertarianism, revolution versus reform, and so on). But to view Levy’s text solely in this limited light would be a grave injustice, as one of its greatest achievements is to provide a rich, insightful and wide-ranging reading of a series of writers who have often been unduly ignored. Levy himself draws attention to some of these thinkers in his contribution to this discussion. Yes, many of us will be familiar with the French monarchomachs, but can we say the same of Althussius and the Anglo-Irish Robert Molesworth? One of the most welcome chapters concerns the British Pluralists – Acton, above all, but also Figgis and Maitland – thinkers of whom it is good to be reminded of their importance. Can it be true, as Levy suggests, that David Runciman entirely ignores Acton in his own recent study of the Pluralists?[24] If so, it is a startling omission. Especially rewarding are Levy’s analyses of the opposed accounts of how freedom might be protected to be found in the writings of Montesquieu and Voltaire and, later, Tocqueville and J.S. Mill. And of course these contrasting positions skillfully illustrate Levy’s central thesis.
That thesis, as we know from this discussion, is that within liberal thought there are two mindsets – the rationalist and the pluralist – and that the existence of these two mindsets is not only long-standing but also “to a large degree” irresolvable. If Levy’s historical narrative amply proves the existence of these two mindsets, I suspect that many of us who regard ourselves as liberals have felt the existence of them within ourselves. For example, I am pretty sure what I think about what we in the United Kingdom call faith, or denominational, schools. I am in favor of them and am happy for them to receive financial aid from the state. This, it seems to me, denotes more than a recognition of religious toleration: it is to affirm the value of cultural difference and the contribution that this can make to the broader well-being – the social capital – of the community in which I live. But these schools are undoubtedly a source of inequality in our society and some of the things that are apparently taught in such establishments leave me feeling decidedly uneasy. I am a practicing Anglican (as we say in Britain) and somehow or other I have had to reconcile my faith with a Church that has discriminated against both women and homosexual men. Fortunately there has been progress here of late, but I can fully understand why some liberal friends question my attachment to such an institution.
Jacob Levy himself makes reference to the debate about the wearing of the hijab, or veil, by Muslim women. Cécile Laborde, in her Critical Republicanism: The Hijab Controversy and Political Philosophy,[25] has done sterling work in setting out the arguments that might make possible a compromise on this issue, but it is well worth remembering that this public debate has waged pretty furiously for the past 20 years and shows little sign of abating. For the rationalist liberal, banning the wearing of the veil sets Muslim women free from group/male oppression; for the pluralist such an act is to criminalize a legitimate form of cultural/religious expression. It is hard to see how these two liberal positions can be reconciled.
But Jacob Levy also points us to some of the difficulties of the pluralist position. These are mostly addressed in the final part of RPF. However, we get a clear glimpse of these issues simply by referring to one of Levy’s dramatis personae : Lord Acton. As we know, the Catholic Acton never got around to finishing his projected history of liberty, but we know enough about his opinions to be sure of his opposition to the centralizing tendencies of the nation-state. Yet such was his commitment to national and religious plurality that he found himself siding with the causes of State Rights and the slave owners in the American Civil War. Pluralist liberal endorsements of multiculturalism have undoubtedly produced similar troubling outcomes in recent years.
Of course, Jacob Levy makes clear that his text should not be read as a defence of pluralist liberalism, except in so far as it is corrective to rationalist liberal claims that it should be ignored altogether. Nevertheless, as he states unambiguously, he does not stand above the fray, and he “generally” sympathizes with “the pluralist tradition.” So where exactly does he stand? Not for the egalitarian liberalism described by Charles Taylor. Nor for some fuzzy Rawlsian consensus or – the best contender of all – for Hegel’s account of ethical life. Rather, as Chandran Kukathas observes in this conversation, he leaves us only – if “only” is the right word – with the prospect of living with a degree of social disharmony. David Hart suggests that he can hear the breath of Hayek on Levy’s shoulders. I wonder if it might rather be Michael Oakeshott[26] (mentioned four times in the text) who is sitting there. Oakeshott too claimed that he was only engaged in the activity of description, but his readers then and now always have felt that beneath the mellifluous prose lay a series of normative conclusions.  What, we might ask, are those of Jacob Levy?
[21.] Quentin Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
[22.] Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003). </titles/861>.
[23.] Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Harvard University Press, 2014).
[24.] David Runciman, Pluralism and the Personality of the State (Ideas in Context) (Cambridge University Press, 1997).
[25.] Cécile Laborde, Critical Republicanism: The Hijab Controversy and Political Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2008).
[26.] Michael Oakeshott, “Rationalism in Politics,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. New and expanded edition. Foreword by Timothy Fuller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991. First edition 1962.), pp. 5-42.