The Reading Room
When Liberals Behave Illiberally
Attempts to reach a liberal utopia are likely to fail. I claim this not as a Burkean conservative but as a classical liberal and ardent defender of individualism. People should be free to live and interact by their own conscience and reasons as long as in so doing they don’t impose on others. However, a society that permits freedom of conscience will almost certainly contain individuals and groups who are manifestly not liberal in their everyday lives. They may respect others’ basic rights but also value solidarity over personal autonomy, hierarchy over role equality, tradition over experimentation. So long as nobody is locked into these ways of living who wishes to exit them, an open society should tolerate, and in some cases even welcome, their presence.
Michael Oakeshott makes a key distinction between enterprise and civil associations. As I understand him, enterprise associations are structured by a collective adherence to some end(s) on the part of each member. They are joined together by seeking the satisfaction of some goal. Almost always, these efforts are undertaken by overlapping subgroups comprising a society. By contrast, a civil association is bound together by mutual internalized recognition of norms and rules governing how its members interact. These rules can bind subgroups but they can also extend society-wide. The fact that a whole society can be bound by norms and rules needn’t imply that society is also bound by shared goals. Instead, the rules provide an institutional framework within which individuals and groups can pursue their various enterprises.
Conflating these types of association leads to problems, as we observe some generally liberal scholars or practitioners who advocate for promoting certain societal goals as if a whole society were an enterprise association. The main error of this “Promoter Mentality” is supposing that because something is valuable, it ought to command universal allegiance or at least be a common destination for all--sought through legal and political institutions if needed. I highlight two reasons this is a non-sequitur. First, some people don’t value a given desideratum as much as its promoters do. People rank and interpret values differently, so the promoter’s most prioritized interpretation of some value may fall further down others’ rankings, and they may reject the costs associated with pursuing that value. Second, and relatedly, from the fact that an all-purpose good is something (almost) all of us value to some degree, it doesn’t follow that we thereby have good reason to endorse societal measures to promote that value.
Take attempts to promote health measures in liberal democracies. In the past few decades we have witnessed various attempted “wars” on drugs, smoking, and obesity. Otherwise liberal health promoters defend various nudges and coercive measures to reduce or outright eliminate recreational drug use, tobacco, and consumption of foods lacking adequate nutrition. Aside from problems of paternalism, I argue that these health measures have no place in an open society. Promoting healthier lives is not a goal properly belonging to society because no goals belong to that society as a whole.
A lack of society-wide enterprise includes liberal desiderata. It is not the aim of an open society to make itself more or less anything. This means that open societies should not be in the business of using political institutions to try maximizing autonomy or individuality--any more than they should try to promote solidarity or tradition. That’s the business of diverse subgroups who can advocate for their respective causes in a normative division of labor.
We can learn much from Gerald Gaus’s The Open Society and Its Complexities, where he explores a distinction between the complicated and the complex. Human societies are complex. Mussolini claimed that the more complicated a society, the less it can have individual freedom. He may have been right if society were merely complicated and deterministic like a machine, with each of us cogs expected to play our parts in its functioning, and a dictatorial engineer as the planner. However, open societies are far more complex than machines, and the components of these societies are not cogs but free individuals with their own values, goals, local knowledge, and choices who are not preordained to reach some historical end state.
Why welcome this diversity? I can only suggest a couple of reasons here. A diversity of viewpoints and sensibilities keeps us alert to unexpected ways of calibrating our norms and solving problems. If we all adopted the same mindset, we might be prone to bark up the wrong tree rather than divide ourselves among the trees. A society that was too homogenous might cascade toward suboptimal norms or forget why certain norms function well. For instance, there is some evidence that conservative mindsets can serve as institutional memory. Such mindsets might be prone to endangerment if overeager liberal Promoters used society-wide institutions to pursue only their secular, or autonomy-related, or experimentalist agendas.