Two Liberalism: The Eternal Tension between Rationalism and Pluralism

By Long, Roderick T. | Reason, October 2015 | Go to article overview

Two Liberalism: The Eternal Tension between Rationalism and Pluralism


Long, Roderick T., Reason


Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, by Jacob T Lezvy, Oxford University Press, 322 pages, $49.95

IN THE 2000 film The Patriot, Mel Gibson's character asks an advocate of American independence: "Why should I trade one tyrant 3,000 miles away for 3,00o tyrants one mile away?" The line was borrowed from a reallife historical figure, the loyalist Boston clergyman Byles Mather (nephew of Cotton Mather), who reportedly made the remark in the perhaps less than tactful context of watching the 3,000-strong funeral procession for the victims of the 177o Boston Massacre.

Mather's skepticism would have been shared by John Stuart Mill. "Any despotism is preferable to local despotism," Mill wrote in "Centralisation;" an 1862 essay. "If we are to be ridden over by authority," he continued, "if our affairs are to be managed for us at the pleasure of other people, heaven forfend that it should be at that of our nearest neighbours." The latter would involve becoming "the slave of the vulgar prejudices, the cramped, distorted, and short-sighted views, of the public of a small town." A more distant and centralized power, whatever its defects, is at least likelier than local power to be guided by "some knowledge, some general cultivation, some attention and habitual deference to the opinions of the more instructed minds." In other words, the cosmopolitan is less to be feared than the parochial.

Nearly three decades earlier, in Democracy in America,Alexis de Tocqueville expressed precisely the opposite preference, defending the superiority of local over centralized power. "When towns and provinces form so many different nations within the common motherland, each of them has a particularist spirit opposed to the general spirit of servitude,"Tocqueville explained; "provincial privileges" are accordingly among the "things which softened the blows of authority and maintained a spirit of resistance in the nation." But "now that all parts of a single empire have lost their franchises, usages, prejudices, and even their memories and names, and have grown accustomed to obey the same laws," he laments, "it is no longer...difficult to oppress them."

ForJacob Levy, a political theorist at McGill University, this disagreement between Mill and Tocqueville is emblematic of a dispute that runs through the entire history of liberalism (using the term liberalism in the broad academic sense that includes both pro-free-market classical liberals and pro-welfare-state modern liberals). In Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, he traces two strands running through the liberal tradition, strands differentiated by their attitudes toward "intermediate groups" (that is, groups intermediate between the individual and the centralized state), a category in which Levy includes "churches and religious groups, ethnic and cultural groups, voluntary associations, universities," and the family, but also "levels of government below the center--towns and cities, or the provinces and states of a federation." Levy justifies including governmental and private groups in the same category on the grounds that the dispute he's tracing tends to do so as well.

One strand within liberalism--a strand associated with, for example, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Destutt de Tracy, and Mill--sees these intermediate groups as arenas of "hierarchy and subordination," driven by "local prejudices" and "excessive attachment to custom," and all too often hostage to the "insular power of ingroup elites," to be contrasted with the more "publicly accountable"

character of the centralized state.

The other strand--associated with Montesquieu, Benjamin Constant, Lord Acton, and Tocqueville--sees intermediate groups as, in themselves, a vital expression of individuals' freedom of association, and in their consequences, a crucial site of "institutional resistance to expansions of state power" and of "alternatives to acting through the state."

In short, the first strand, which Levy calls "rationalist," prioritizes "the freedom of persons within groups," while the second, dubbed "pluralist," prioritizes "the freedom of groups from the state. …

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