Liberty Matters

Response to Kukathas and Jennings


I am very gratified by the posts from Chandran Kukathas and Jeremy Jennings—very possibly the leading scholars in the English-speaking world of the issues treated in (respectively) the normative and the historical portions of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom. If they both think I’m onto something—and they seem to—then that’s about the best vote of confidence I could have hoped for.
Chandran, typically, puts ideas with which I agree into words more elegant than any I could hope to write. I call the reader’s attention to this passage in particular:
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. 
Notice that he makes no reference here to states or associations—or indeed to centralization or decentralization, or rationalism or pluralism. The account is perfectly general, in Oakeshottian style, and it makes clear that the complex relations between states and intermediate groups I try to parse in the book are a species of a broader genus. Moreover it makes clear how much states and associations have in common. In the book I explicitly aim to set associations and groups off as a category phenomenologically and morally distinct from both individuals and states, while also trying to recognize that states are a special case of group life. Chandran here emphasizes the latter, I think.
What I draw from this is that even in the absence of states, the tensions would endure. Indeed, as I argue briefly in the book, nonstate complex associations take on state-like features relative to the groups within, as the higher-order association (a university, the Catholic Church) becomes legalistic, bureaucratic, and institutionalized, and enthusiastic commitment to causes starts to manifest in subordinate associations (student clubs, religious orders). I do think that states have some very particular sociological and moral features, and I ultimately argue that we should insist on a kind of liberal neutrality from states while acknowledging the purposive character of even large and bureaucratic complex institutions. But the uneasy relationship among bureaucratic centralization, thick meaningful association, and liberty is evident in complex nonstate associations even when there is a state in the background, and matters would become uneasier still if the complex associations were called upon to be top-level providers of dispute resolution in a stateless order.
As Chandran says, this is not a counsel of despair. The unavailability of a perfect resolution, of being securely free in just the right ways from local personalistic despotism and from distant bureaucratic tyranny all at the same time, in no way diminishes the real choices we often face between better and worse. It just warns us against confident visions of the best, visions that lack any sense of conflict and trade-off.
This brings me to Jeremy’s questions:
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 (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?
I’ve faced this question from others too, and I admit that it bemuses me, since I think of myself as … not shy with my normative judgments. The Multiculturalism of Fear (Oxford University Press 2000) and my subsequent work on ethnic politics, indigenous rights, and federalism were full of them. Two of my reasons for writing Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom the way I did were to chasten myself as a normative theorist, and to situate the kinds of normative arguments I will go on making for many years to come. I wanted to make myself see the limits of the kinds of claims I’m predisposed to make (and in some cases, as with the pure theory of freedom of association, I argued myself out of such claims altogether), but having done so, to be able to make directly normative arguments in the future without surrounding them every time with the various qualifications they call for. If, as I argue in the book, neither Tocqueville nor Mill nor Acton could avoid crucial blind spots that related directly to their areas of insight, well, then, I’m unlikely to do so either. That I’ve managed to invite this question surprises me; I generally assume that my problem is that the normative arguments sit too close to the surface, not too far. I’m happy to learn that I’ve held them in some check in this book, but I did so partly in order to let them loose in the future.
I’ll very happily admit the importance of what I’ve learned from Hayek; while I’m critical of the way he understands the history of the liberal tradition in The Constitution of Liberty (University of Chicago Press, 1960), I also say that I’m trying to fulfill a call he issued a half-century ago for a full study of the problem of rationalism in that tradition.  I push back against his conception of what that problem is, but I think that really I’m working on the same problem that he was. (He just didn’t see it quite clearly.) I’m never quite as sure what to say about Oakeshott, not least because, as Jeremy notes, Oakeshott’s normative views are often hidden within his idiosyncratic kind of descriptive philosophy. I find his categories useful, and there’s something in his intellectual sense of “rationalism in politics” that I put to work in my sociological understanding of rationalist liberalism. But I don’t mean to bury my normative commitments, just to keep them in check for purposes of the argument of this book. I believe in very robust freedom of association, religious freedom, and cultural freedom; a more robust federalism and governmental decentralization than is popular among American left-liberals; a diversity among intermediate institutions—religious and nonreligious, internally strict and internally loose, local and global, and so on—rather than a strict insistence on mirroring social diversity with each of them. I think that intermediate group power, real though it is, is often limited by the availability of an open and pluralistic society and rights of exit, while state power in general and state power in large democratic nation-states in particular tends to grow dangerously if not checked by intermediate bodies. And I think that our individual liberties are, very often, most meaningfully and powerfully exercised in association with others: freedom of religion in a church, freedom of speech in an activist group, freedom of thought in a university, and so on. This means that oftenwhen the state purports to be protecting our liberties against local oppression, it is doing nothing of the sort.
The thesis of the book is what it is because all of those oftens in the previous paragraph really are oftens not alwayses. For a lot of purposes in political and social theory we need to make do with tendencies and generalizations and institutional approximations. “Get all the answers right, in every case” isn’t useful action-guiding political advice. I have my views about which arrangements will get more answers right more of the time. But that doesn’t allow me to shrug off the times when those arrangements get things wrong.