Liberty Matters

Levy on the Varieties of Association

Jacob Levy’s replies to his interlocutors are predictably gracious and good-natured. He appropriately emphasizes at considerable length the inescapable ambiguity of judgment and the unavoidability of trade-offs.
Jacob takes me to have read him as an unqualified defender of pluralism, rather than merely a sympathizer. So I hasten to emphasize that I very much recognize the degree to which what makes his project especially interesting is not only its explicit awareness of the tension between the rationalist and pluralist strands of liberal thought, but also its self-conscious embrace of that tension. And I agree entirely with him, too, that the tension on which he focuses is a feature of group dynamics generally, and not only of the relationships between states and intermediate associations. The use of force against people’s bodies and justly acquired possessions is a particularly serious and troubling form of interference with freedom, one I take to be categorically different from others; and associations that make people’s lives awful in nonforcible ways seem to me to be in a different moral category from those that employ force. But it would be thoroughly naïve to imagine that, provided force was off the table, an association’s capacity to interfere in serious ways with its members’ flourishing was morally and politically uninteresting.
I don’t doubt for an instant that Levy is correct that the state’s “rationalizing, centralizing, and bureaucratic tendencies can provide a counterbalance to the sometimes personalistic, conservative, and hierarchical character of associational and group life.” I’m sure, in practical terms, that many people have at multiple points had cause to celebrate the state’s restraint of the abuses perpetrated by associations. And, while I do believe consent matters, for the reasons I sought briefly to sketch in my initial response, I also believe that the considerations I adduce in support of grounding authority in consent ground a presumption, not an unqualified absolute. It’s just that the presumption seems to me to be very strong indeed and that the moral limits on the use of force seem to me sufficiently robust to rule out the things states do in ordinary circumstances.
That is one reason—hardly the only one, given the distinctive temptations and liabilities to which state actors are likely to be subject—why I am willing to live with the uneasiness Jacob understandably notes that we ought to feel “if complex associations were called upon to be top-level providers of dispute resolution in a stateless order.” My hope would be that, in such an order, dispute resolution might be particularly the province of associations marked by some of those features the statist pluralist might see as valuable in a state equipped to weigh in against oppressive intermediate institutions. It strikes me as at least possible that, despite their obvious limitations, narrowly commercial entities might be rather better at playing the needed role than other, more richly textured, associations, precisely because of their narrowness of focus. Such entities would seem more likely to focus on disputants as customers, perhaps as rights-bearers, than as group members with thickly layered identities, and so, perhaps, to replicate some desirable features of the modern state even while lacking its most odious characteristics.
Reflecting on this question prompts me to wonder, by the way, why explicitly commercial associations don’t figure among the intermediate institutions on which the pluralist strand has focused as counters to state power. It’s perhaps less surprising that proponents of ancient constitutionalism didn’t focus on such associations, which likely wouldn’t have qualified as ancient in the relevant sense. But I’m curious to know whether later, liberal or proto-liberal, proponents of pluralism gave any attention to them—and, if not, why they likely wouldn’t have.