Liberty Matters

Pluralism against a Backdrop of the Weberian State: A Rejoinder


My thanks to all four commentators in this symposium. My initial essay offered a summary of one set of claims from Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom: that we should think of the history of liberal thought as encompassing two very different strands, one rationalist and the other pluralist; and that we should think of the prehistory of liberal thought as offering two different sets of resources for the ideas that would later crystallize as liberal, one the relatively familiar idea of the social contract and the other the relatively forgotten idea of the ancient constitution. These are of course not the only ideas in the book. Some of the essays engaged directly with Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom as a whole, while others (quite reasonably!) engaged with the essay. I’m afraid that my replies to the latter will in part consist of the boring answer, “I talk about that in the book.” But both David Hart and Gary Chartier raise important and serious points, and any attempt to deal with them in a few sentences would fail to do them justice. In both cases, my best efforts are, well, in the book. In this first response I’ll accordingly talk about David’s and Gary’s questions; in the second I’ll turn to Chandran Kukathas’s and Jeremy Jennings’s.
David notes that pluralism is not always conducive toward liberty, and notes cases ranging from the corps of ancien régime France to slavery in the American South. With this I entirely agree, and I take the liberty of quoting here from the book’s Introduction.
There is a deep, recurring tension within liberal political thought between seeing those groups that stand between the person and the central state as sites where free people live their diverse lives, and seeing them as sites of local tyranny that the liberal state must be strong enough to keep in check. One strand of liberalism emphasizes freedom for persons as they are, living the lives that they already lead, lives that are embedded in particular communities and partly shaped by particular cultural and religious traditions. The other looks to the importance of free persons’ ability to transform or transcend those current lives. On one side of this divide lies a liberalism I will call “pluralist”: skeptical of the central state and friendly toward local, customary, voluntary, or intermediate bodies, communities, and associations. On the other we see a liberalism I will call “rationalist”: committed to intellectual progress, universalism, and equality before a unified law, opposed to arbitrary and irrational distinctions and inequalities, and determined to disrupt local tyrannies in religious and ethnic groups, closed associations, families, plantations, the feudal countryside, and so on.While I will suggest that liberalism as such necessarily faces a tension between these two strands, particular liberal thinkers or theories do not necessarily sit balanced between them. The moral, social, and political truths in the two strands are difficult to fully respect simultaneously, and so theorists who consider these questions tend to incline in one direction or the other. I illustrate this with a survey of disputes among proto-liberal or liberal theorists across this intellectual divide, some stressing the threats to freedom posed by the state, some those posed by intermediate groups. A clear difference of emphasis emerges: John Stuart Mill saw the threat to freedom posed by the structure of the Victorian family, and by conformist intellectual cultures, but not by an enlightened state governing imperially over neighboring nationalities or distant lands. Tocqueville meanwhile saw the importance for freedom of voluntary associations in America and of corps intermédiares in ancien régime France, but thought the authority of men over women within the family “natural.” These contemporaries and mutual admirers, among the most profound thinkers in the liberal tradition, shared a deep attachment to freedom and a fear that it would be swamped in a democratic age, but their basic sensibilities about where to find threats to it and how to defend it often pointed them in opposite directions.Each view brings with it both insights and blind spots. Just to the degree that each one illuminates some genuine threats to freedom, it obscures others. Another example of that, from the same era, is provided by the liberal historian Lord Acton. His pluralistic commitment to checking state power, his opposition to centralization, allowed him to see more deeply than his contemporaries the danger posed by the growing identification of nation and state, to argue forcefully for multinational states as well as federalism and religious liberty. It also allowed him to believe that the most important threat to liberty at stake in the American Civil War was Lincoln’s assertion of central supremacy over the states, and not the Southern states’ own commitment to human slavery. He understood that slavery was evil, yet protecting federalism and decentralization seemed to him more urgent.The ideas that Tocqueville was right about associations but wrong about the family, that Mill was right about the family but wrong about imperialism, that Acton was right about nationalism but wrong about the American Civil War, and that in each case the right and the wrong are very hard to disentangle inspire the central claim of this book. I argue not only that the tension between rationalism and pluralism within liberal thought is longstanding, but also that it is to a large degree irresolvable. We can try to be open to reasons and arguments of both sorts; we can try to reach case-by-case judgments in particular times and places. But there is no systematic way to combine all of the virtues and none of the vices of the two mindsets, and no secure middle way that would allow us to know for sure which are virtues and which are vices. I generally favor pluralist liberalism; I also think that it is the more neglected and unfamiliar of the two strands. The book therefore does much more reconstructive work with pluralist than with rationalist ideas and traditions. But the book is not a defense of pluralist liberalism, except as against the pretensions of some rationalist liberals that it should be ignored altogether. It is rather, ultimately, an argument for that claim of irresolvability. A full understanding of liberal freedom would draw on truths from both the rationalist and pluralist traditions; it would recognize that states and intermediate groups alike can oppress. And yet we cannot compromise between or combine the two accounts in a wholly satisfactory manner.[27]
Gary Chartier, I think, likewise takes me to be entirely an advocate of the decentralized institutions, associations, and legal orders which ancient constitutionalism and modern pluralist liberalism defend. This isn’t so, for two reasons. One, noted above, is that I am not uncritically an advocate of pluralist liberalism, and I don’t think it can contain the whole truth of a theory of freedom. The second, which I think I didn’t emphasize clearly enough in the book, is that neither ancient constitutionalism nor its modern pluralist-liberal descendant is simply a call to abolish central authority in favor of smaller units. Both ancient constitutionalism and modern pluralist liberalism are usually theories of multilevel systems, in which there are possibilities of local and central authorities balancing and checking each other. Think of the difference between being a federalist—that is, an advocate of a system that has both state/provincial and central levels of authority—and simply advocating the breakup of a place like the United States or Canada into its component states or provinces. Ancient constitutionalists were, and most pluralist liberals are, advocates of pluralistic systems.
This means that I agree with Gary in part, but only in part. As I write early in the book, Nozick’s utopia of self-contained utopias is not the best vision of pluralist liberalism, for reasons that overlap with Gary’s interest in consent to associational membership. In the Nozickean world, the various thick communities seemingly exhaust the social landscape, dividing it up neatly among themselves. But liberal freedom depends in part on the existence of a social space in between, a place where dissenters can go, new associations can be formed, and members of the various communities can meet on relatively neutral terms. This requires literal space; I’ve argued elsewhere that cities are a characteristic locale.[28] And it in part requires normative space: arenas like the market in which governing rules are impersonal even if the rules governing other aspects of life depend on who one is, Gesellschaft space between Gemeinschaft communities. Gary emphasizes consent, of which I think too much can be made, but it’s true that we can’t impute consent (or even acquiescence) to membership in local, communal, or customary groups if there’s no social place they could go if they chose to leave. Philosophical writings on the right of exit often treat it exclusively as something recognized or not by the group’s own norms, but it’s really in part something that arises out of the interaction between the group’s norms and those of this in-between space.
Where I suspect I disagree with Gary is in linking that in-between space governed by Gesellschaft norms and serving to limit the power of intermediate groups with the Weberian modern state. That is, I think that ancient constitutionalism was a theory for how to limit—not how to abolish—the early modern absolute state, and I think that pluralist liberalism is probably best understood as a theory concerned with intermediate bodies in an order in which they are genuinely intermediate—that is, in a hybrid order that includes the modern state. Gary argues in his important book Anarchy and Legal Order[29] that this connection isn’t a necessary one, and that there are reasons to think it undesirable and unjust; that stateless orders can include appropriately abstract systems of law.
I don’t disagree with his diagnoses of the many evils associated with the state form; but I treat the state as a social fact, a given in our current historical and technological circumstances. As a pluralist and an anti-contractarian, I’m uninterested in the mythology that seeks to dress up the state in moral legitimacy all the way down, grounded in individual consent; but that also means that I deny the anarchist contrapositive, that the absence of such consent or moral legitimacy all the way down much matters for how we live with states. And so my approach to thinking about pluralist liberalism treats associations against the background of the Weberian state. While I don’t moralize the state or treat it as automatically likely to promote the freedom of those subject to it—quite the contrary—I do think its rationalizing, centralizing, and bureaucratic tendencies can provide a counterbalance to the sometimes personalistic, conservative, and hierarchical character of associational and group life.
As far as the (entirely true) claim that the corps intermèdiaires of the ancient constitution were often involuntary and internally unjust: I think that part of the gradual evolution of ancient constitutionalism into modern pluralist liberalism was the work by theorists after Montesquieu to think about pluralism without privilege[30] and to understand how voluntary associations could perform the work that the privileged and involuntary corps had performed in the past. But such thinkers as Tocqueville and Acton, and even the usually less-gloomy Benjamin Constant, were doubtful. Pluralist liberalism is not only interested in associational freedom; against the background that states exist, it is interested in how intermediate groups can effectively limit and counterbalance the state. I think the 19th-century liberals had, and we have, good reason to think that sometimes such balance will be most effectively provided by groups that do not themselves fully satisfy at the bar of justice—groups that are semi-voluntary in membership, groups that have a strong claim on their members’ identity and loyalty.[31]
Now, it’s entirely possible that the combination of a Weberian state and intermediate associations will give us the worst of both worlds—state power captured by large groups or powerful group elites to enforce both internal power and the suppression of other groups. (Something like this has often been true of the relationship between states and patriarchal male power, for example.) But given the existence of states, the pluralist liberal hope is to be able to provide some kind of balancing and mutual constraint, so that we can have access to some impersonal and rationalist rules that limit group power, while also preserving enough meaningful group social power to be able to hold the state’s centralizing and anti-associational tendencies in check.
[27.] Levy, Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, "Introduction,"" pp. 2-3.
[28.]“Sexual Orientation, Exit, and Refuge,” in Avigail Eisenberg and Jeff Spinner-Halev, eds., Minorities Within Minorities: Equality, Rights, and Diversity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
[29.]Gary Chartier, Anarchy and Legal Order, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
[30.]Jacob T. Levy, “Corps Intermédiaires, Civil Society, and the Art of Association,” NBER Working Paper No. 21254, June 2015. <>.
[31.]Jacob T. Levy, “Federalism, Liberalism, and the Separation of Loyalties,” American Political Science Review, August 2007, pp. 459-77. <>.