Centralizing liberalism and pluralist liberalism

A friend passed on this article from Reason a few months ago, which gives a helpful review of a book on two strains within liberal political theory. Here is Roderick Long’s description of Levy’s taxonomy of liberalism:

For Jacob Levy, a political theorist at McGill University, this disagreement between Mill and Tocqueville [over whether local or national tyranny is more dangerous] 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 in-group 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.”

Given its epistemological associations, the term rationalist is perhaps an unfortunate choice; “cosmopolitan” might have been better. Levy stresses that his use of “rationalist” is meant to invoke not “theories of knowledge or standards of argumentation,” but rather “processes of bureaucratic rationalization,” and in particular of state demands for “rational accounts” to justify “the practices of non-state groups”; in brief, “Weber, not Descartes.”

But Levy himself seems to bring in a broader range of connotations than this, since he associates rationalism with simple principles (Levy cites Mill’s “very simple principle” as an expression of rationalism) and legal uniformity (Tracy’s insistence that all states should have “the same civil and criminal laws,” on the grounds that “a true proposition is true everywhere,” is described as the epitome of “rationalist philosophical distrust of institutional pluralism”).

Yet neither simplicity nor legal uniformity is necessarily incompatible with favoring group autonomy in preference to central direction. Think of the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, who certainly favored simple principles (the “non-aggression axiom”) and legal uniformity (the “libertarian law code”), yet who nearly always sided with intermediate groups in any conflict with the centralized state, even to the point of excessive generosity to the Confederacy. Likewise one can be in favor of, for example, uniform weights and measures without seeking to have such uniformity imposed by legislative fiat, trusting instead to consumer preferences to motivate convergence. It’s not because of governmental edict, after all, that no banks supply gigantic triangular ATM cards. Universalism at the level of principles is compatible with pluralism at the level of institutions.


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