Symposium on Rationalism Pluralism and Freedom

Rationalism, Pluralism, Freedom and Democracy

The idea at core of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom reminds me of a memorable hook from a particularly catchy song. Once you’re exposed to it, it’s in your head: the tension between rationalism and pluralism is suddenly everywhere. In a paper I finished shortly before reading this book, I framed my critical argument of a particular theory of democracy in terms of ideal/non-ideal theory; it now seems clear to me my own argument makes more sense as a critique of excessive rationalism (Or, to borrow, perhaps my favorite turn of phrase from the book, I was identifying the blind spots created by treating the state as a “justice-dispensing machine.” (58)). Going forward, it’s difficult to imagine thinking about liberal (and not just liberal) political theory without the conceptual map provided by this book. It’s a great strength of the book that its focus remains resolutely on identifying and historicizing a core tension in liberalism, rather than attempting a synthesis or solution. Even when Levy announces a particular section will let his own normative pluralist commitments show, the following discussion remained remarkably even-handed. The book also makes an implicit but powerful case for the value of historical work: the leading candidate for the core tension within liberalism, often characterized as ‘classical v. modern,’ makes a great deal of sense if we focus on the politics and thought of the 18th and 19th centuries. One enmeshed in that debate is unlikely to notice what Levy’s wider lens makes clear. As other reviewers have observed, Levy’s book has the potential to be highly generative. I’ll take this opportunity not to air whatever minor quibbles and dissents I have with the book, but rather to explore how it might be applicable beyond the scope of his book—in particular, to democratic theory.

Levy tells us early on that he’s not interested in making this a study about democracy; it’s one of the reasons he gives for leaving political parties out of the category of intermediate groups he considers here. This is a wise choice, I think, given the scope of the work, but in thinking about the rationalism/pluralism tension today, it’s an obvious question. Without delving into the many controversies and debate regarding the precise nature of the relationship(s) between democracy and freedom, conceptually and historically, it seems uncontroversial to suggest that, at least as probabilistic matter, relative to contemporary alternatives, democracy seems to be associated with greater freedom on both rationalist and pluralist accounts. How does democracy make this contribution? It provides a tool for resisting the potential excesses of an overbearing centralized power, as well as an environment that allows for a variety of potential paths of escape from freedom-diminishing effects of associational life (in part, as Levy has argued elsewhere, by enhancing the value of exit through creating conditions where those who are likely to seek exit can find refuge). Even at its best, democracy doesn’t resolve the tension—for some of the pluralist-leaning liberals surveyed in Levy’s history, such as Tocqueville and (especially) Lord Acton, mass democracy heightens the dangers of centralization and homogenization, and they were not wrong to be worried. A prominent scholar of democracy has recently treated “reducing autonomous power clusters within one’s territory” as one of the three core features of democratization. An important part of the pluralist contribution to freedom made by intermediate groups is their capacity to resist or thwart excessive central power, so on this sort of account, democratization might be seen as a threat to pluralist freedom. But, at least where state capacity is high, it doesn’t seem clear that the autonomy of intermediate groups, perhaps especially minority intermediate groups, is likely to be worse off in democratic societies.

One way to think about the value of democracy for freedom is that it serves as a tool (or potential tool) to thwart the exercise of some forms of abusive power. This is a fairly standard account of democracy’s value when the relevant actors modelled are citizens and states. How does the introduction of a third actor, intermediate groups, change that image? Levy warns against two too-simple solutions, both of which are not infrequently found in democratic theory: the pure liberal theory of freedom of association (which treats groups like citizens) and congruence (which treats groups like states). The problems with congruence are of particular importance to Levy, as he seeks to show it has radically anti-associationalist implications. (As an aside, I would have been very interested to see him take up Christopher Wellman’s argument that immigration restrictions can be understood as an act of freedom of association by a democratic polity, which treats not groups as states but states as groups.) Levy’s persuasive account of the problems with these two strategies lead us the question of what intermediate groups are, beyond just “something else.”

For the democratic theorist, an important question is whether these intermediate groups are entities we should wish to see democratized (setting aside the difficult issue of the use of overt state power to achieve that democratization). This topic has been most thoroughly explored in the realm of economic firms, where the terms of the debate were largely set by Josh Cohen’s question of whether the firm provides a “parallel case” with the state, such that the normative case for political democracy can be used to argue for economic democracy as well, posing “is there enough congruence between the firm and the state to demand democracy in both, for similar reasons?”

A valuable feature of this book for me is that it helps make clear the conceptual limitations of this approach and framing. If we understand democracy as not *just* a description of a particular constitutional form employed by a subset of modern States, but also as a tool to rearrange and redistribute power in a way designed to check some common forms of its abuse (a school of thought I’ve elsewhere identified as ‘democracy-against-domination’), then the question of what a democratized intermediate institution might look like no longer turns on its conceptual similarity to states; different adjustments to the patterns of power-dispersal might contribute to that process.) Levy shows that democracy in its statist form can’t be simply transposed onto all or most intermediate groups. But while it wasn’t his intention, he also shows how and why freedom might be benefited from their democratization (whatever that might end up looking like): because they have freedom enhancing capacities that might be threatened from exposing them to external power, but they also threaten the freedom of some of their own members. By helping us think more clearly about the role intermediate groups play in our lives, their internal complexity, and the ways they both threaten and protect freedom, this analysis opens the door to thinking more clearly about what democratization might mean in this context.

I’ll be presenting a (hopefully!) much more fleshed out and complete version of this argument at the Midwest Political Science Assocation annual conference in Chicago in April, if any interested readers are also attending.

David Watkins – David Watkins is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Dayton, and occasional blogger at Lawyers Guns and Money. His research focuses on contemporary democratic theory, republicanism, and political theory and immigration. Recent publications include “Compared to What? Judicial Review and other Veto Points in Contemporary Democratic Theory,” Perspectives on Politics, June 2015 (co-authored with Scott Lemieux), “Institutionalizing Freedom as Non-Domination: Democracy and the Role of the State,” Polity, October 2015, and “Justice for Border Crossing Peoples,” in The Meaning of Citizenship, ed. Richard Marback (Wayne State University Press, 2015).

  • Russell Arben Fox


    As an aside, I would have been very interested to see him take up Christopher Wellman’s argument
    that immigration restrictions can be understood as an act of freedom of
    association by a democratic polity, which treats not groups as states
    but states as groups.

    I think he does take it up, or at least he presents a response to it if one thinks carefully about the Oakshottian terminology that he re-appropriates as part of his rationalist-pluralist argument. Civil associations, on Jacob’s reading (unless I’ve misunderstood him at some point), provide support for, are aligned in, or at least do not have purposes which challenge the rational, operational guarantees and provisions of civil society; they are, in essence, state-like. If one wishes to think about states, including democratic polities, in non-contractarian terms (which Jacob’s arguments certainly encourage, I think), then one logically ought to recognize in them the function of a civil association, which is one particular kind of group, and not an enterprise association, which is purposive and can conceive of itself in ways which challenge the rational operation of the civil order.

    So what does all this mean? It means, I think, that Jacob’s arguments would suggest that states can’t legitimately speak of restricting immigration as a freedom-enhancing move for their members, because states (democratic states, anyway) can’t legitimately claim to be providing that kind of associational, purposive freedom to their members in the first place. But that would imply that other groups–and thus, presumably, other non-state governing bodies–could restrict immigration accordingly. If I’m reading Jacob correctly, I’m not sure how much I agree with him, but I know that I agree with him a lot more today than I would have a decade ago, when the rhetoric of national communities was a lot more compelling to me than it is today. Of course, that opens up another can of worms–“nations” as groups, in contrast to (maybe even in opposition to) nation states. There’s an argument about Quebec lurking in here, but I’ll wait to see Jacob sets me straight.

    • jtlevy

      Yes, to pretty well everything Russell said. My anti-contractarianism and my opposition to the idea that the state is the enterprise association wielded by the nation– in other words, to the Miller-Walzer-Taylor view of nation-states– go hand-in-hand.

      I think, and argue in various places, that contractarianism needs the nationalist story to cohere– that Locke’s vagueness about who constituted a “people” really called for Rousseau’s nationalism to finish filling it in. And I think the Rawlsian “peoples” can’t escape that, either. But I think this is part of an argument against contractarianism, not for nationalism.

      I like Wellman and think he’s very smart, but have just never been able to see that he’s established the state-association analogy at all. If there are good and sufficient arguments to be made against open borders, they really need to be grounded on something else.

      Incidentally, I recommend the debate between Kit Wellman and Chandran Kukathas on these questions, available here: .

      • Russell Arben Fox

        …in other words, to the Miller-Walzer-Taylor view of nation-states…

        I’m going to register a very minor dissent, and insist that Miller’s, Walzer’s, and Taylor’s views of “nations as purposive groups that may coherently wield the civil authority of states” involve a lot of diverse particulars, especially when you bring questions of democratic legitimacy into the debate. On a continuum which goes from “states provide tools which national groups which form themselves into enterprise associations may legitimate make use of through democratic means” to “the state is the enterprise association wielded by the nation,” I would run them Taylor, then Miller, then finally Walzer towards the end, but I could be argued out of that.

        • jtlevy

          Well, I’ve only really put in the effort on Miller and Walzer, and I think there’s very little space between them. For Taylor I’d have to reread some of the late 80s/ early 90s material/

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