Links, Rights Theory

Political Stability in the Open Society

John Thrasher and I have published an article in the American Journal of Political Science, “Political Stability in the Open Society,” that BHL readers may find of interest. If you’re interested in how to have a diverse and free but stable social order, take a look. I’m cross-posting the blog post linked here.

In “Political Stability in the Open Society,” we argue that John Rawls’s model of a well-ordered society—as an account of a realistic utopia—is defective for two reasons. First, the well-ordered society model wrongly excludes the deep disagreement and diversity that we find in contemporary political life from figuring into a model of liberal order. Second, when deep disagreement and diversity are integrated into the model, discovery becomes an important part of modeling a stable liberal order. A liberal society is one where people are free to experiment with different approaches to the good life and justice given that we know much less than we might about how to live together.

If we are committed to recognizing deep diversity and the need for social discovery in modeling a stable liberal order, we must modify the idea of a well-ordered society and the ideas most closely associated with it in a liberal theory of justice. In particular, a more dynamic notion of stability for the right reasons is required for a new model that we call an open society. An open society is a liberal society that allows for deep disagreement about the good and justice and which sustains institutions that can adapt to new discoveries about what justice requires.

Our goal is to explain the idea of stability appropriate for an open society. The challenge is that, given the importance of respecting diversity and openness to social change, stability for the right reasons now seems to have a cost; stable rules are hard to replace with better rules. On the other hand, some rules need to remain stable to support productive social change and experimentation.

Given these challenges, we distinguish two different kinds of stability that apply at different levels of social organization. The first kind of stability applies to constitutional rules that set out the general legal rules within which our lower-level institutional rules operate. These constitutional rules must remain in equilibrium despite challenges and threats in order to preserve the social conditions that foster experimentation. But we reject a similar form of stability for lower-level legal and institutional rules. Experimentation at that level can be productive in ways that constitutional experimentation is not. Instead, lower level legal and institutional rules need to be robust in the sense that, when challenged, old rules can be replaced by stable new rules without undermining the system of rules as a whole.

One important implication of our analysis is that, in the open society, a shared conception of justice is less important than a stable constitutional framework where many aspects of the open society, including justice, are open for debate. Rather than focusing on the particular principles of justice that are most reasonable for a well-ordered society, theorists should focus on the properties of different constitutional orders that encourage productive social evolution and experimentation. A second implication of our analysis is that open societies may turn out to be substantially different from one another. There will likely be no single type of social order that suits any given open society. This is all to the good because these diverse orders can learn from each other’s experiments.




  • “These constitutional rules must remain in equilibrium”

    Does that mean that they do not change? But given that there may be “different constitutional orders that encourage productive social evolution and experimentation,” one would expect that some of these orders are better than others in encouraging productive social evolution and experimentation. In that case it would be good if one such order could learn from another, which requires some mechanism for constitutional change. Do you address this in the paper?

    • John Thrasher

      Yes, indeed, that is one of the main points of the paper.

  • King Goat

    Do you discuss the problem of slavery in the United States? It seems like an important historical example where constitutional rules built for higher order stability prevented morally fundamental change at the lower order.

  • Bill Othon

    I appreciate the need for flexibility in the organization of rules to help optimize them, and the establishment of a federal government with enumerated powers fits well in the model. We live with 50 democracies as states, each with the ability to try things out. California will rule differently than Texas, and we can evaluate the results (both within the states themselves and from afar).

    One maybe positive affect of Trump is that liberal states that might first consider federal approaches to solving issues are now considering local solutions. In the aftermath of US disengagement from Kyoto, California can establish climate laws on their own. And we can see if the constraints to the economy really are untenable or whether the economy can adapt to the new restrictions.

    And even better, this model could allow citizens to gravitate towards areas they feel reflect them best. So stability could be enhanced (except for the crazy real estate prices in certain stares…). I do regret this approach, since learning true open-mindedness requires some engagement with opposing views, and I’m not really sure migration would be the result. Available jobs may trump all.

  • Sean II

    “A liberal society is one where people are free to experiment with different approaches to the good life and…institutions that can adapt to new discoveries about what justice requires.”

    Hard not to notice how much this clashes with present trends in our culture. Far from letting neighbors experiment with different forms, people seem intent on forcing a winner take all contest in which the prize is getting to shove your own values and institutions down the loser’s throat.

    I mean, at this point we’re all expected to love or hate the same stupid fantasy movies for the same blatantly ideological reasons.

    Not much hope for developing competing approaches to the good life when we can’t even stand to let each other have competing approaches to Ghostbusters, The Last Jedi, and Black Panther.

    • Bill Othon

      Have faith. Our culture is changing at a crazy pace. In 2007 Obama said marriage is between a man and a woman, just to get elected. Now it is the law of the land. Can we have mercy on those who will find this transition difficult, after living most of their lives in power? Or do we radicalize like Antifa?

      I thought Last Jedi sucked. And it didn’t have anything to do with Rose or strong female parts. It had to do with an abandonment of the mythology that made the first trilogy great, silly floating dead Leah, and with a disjointed set of movies that don’t seem to have a common thread. Just didn’t like it, and of course everyone is rationalizing the “why”. Can’t I dislike this “competing approach”?

      • Sean II

        Your own chosen example proves my point.

        Gay marriage has not been a triumph of pluralism. It used to be illegal. Now it’s sacrosanct. It used to be something you couldn’t do. Now it’s something you can’t criticize.

        What we never had was a time when some people could like it, and other people could dislike it, without passionately hating each other.

        We skipped past “live and let live” and went straight to “bake me a cake or else, motherfucker!”

        That’s not pluralism, and it certainly is not liberalism.

        • Bill Othon

          Absolutely agree with your last point, don’t want police forcing bakers to put two guys on top of a cake. And I agree with current shrill environment.
          The greater power felt by historically repressed groups I think will lead to near-term retribution.

          So maybe we are at a tipping point. To the point of the essay, I think our system is capable of change and continually optimizing rules. Plus I think the states allows us to experiment, and evaluate new ideas within local domains (like legal marijuana). Can our society equalize? I think we have in the past, we’ll see. I still have faith

        • Rob Gressis

          Naive question: Isn’t this–people seem intent on forcing a winner take all contest in which the prize is getting to shove your own values and institutions down the loser’s throat–a good thing? If I’m not mistaken, the loser is always the same, and, save for the election of Trump, he always loses and, after some grumbling, accepts that the shover was right all along. Thus, that gay marriage is a good thing seems to be the general view now. And the same thing will happen with trans issues. And so on, for every progressive value. So, we will eventually reach a lot more agreement and have heated debates over fairly minor issues.

          I don’t really believe the presuppositions of my naive question, but I want to see how you respond. Not because I have a trap but because I find your opinions a lot more interesting than mine.

          • Brooklyn Boricua

            Didn’t he answer the question though? He’s a liberal. He’s not a progressive. He believes in “live and let live,” and doesn’t see anything at all to recommend about a society that does not–whether or not that intrusion is on behalf of the “progressive value.” Obviously people with other political philosophies will feel differently, but that is pretty clearly not Sean.

            Some people think that there is nothing the slightest bit wrong with gay sex. Others think that it is a grevious sin against God and nature, and a one-way ticket to the eternal and unfathomable torments of hell. Liberalism means that both these people simply mind their fucking business. How anyone could confuse it for meaning anything else whatsoever has always baffled the hell out of me.

          • Rob Gressis

            Well, yeah, I know Sean II won’t think it’s a good thing. But I gathered that one of the things he thought was wrong with it is that it might generate intense conflict. But I was pressing him: maybe it won’t generate intense conflict; maybe it will just produce near-unanimity, and such near-unanimity would be good for social harmony.

            That said, you could be right — it could be that Sean would think such a society would be bad, not because the people believe false things, and not because there’s so much conflict, but simply because people are perfectly happy to impose their beliefs on others.

            That said, I wonder if Sean II thinks it’s even possible to have a live and let live society.

          • Brooklyn Boricua

            I don’t really see how the possibility of “intense conflict” could be the primary thing that would be bothering Sean about the narrative you describe–that is, if he is a liberal in even the loosest sense of the word. The primary thing would have to be the intrusion into the private choices of citizens, the violation of “live and let live.”

            If one prioritizes avoiding “conflict” and promoting “social harmony” above live and let live, then one is not a liberal; one is a conservative. Most liberals are going to have a high level of confidence in people’s ability to learn to get along peacefully even with great amounts of so-called “intense conflict” when it comes to things like personal moral codes. But whatever we do predict, if we happen to think it’s not worth it, we’re not liberals.

            So I see what you’re saying with your last sentence, and what you’ve been saying. Sean is the most interesting commentator because he allows himself to be much more pessimistic than any liberal normally allows himself to be. But again, he certainly couldn’t characterize the narrative you describe as “a good thing,” even if he did buy the suggestion that it promotes social harmony. Whatever good effects he thinks may come from it, he’s crossed the line out of liberalism entirely if he’d describe it that way as a whole.

          • Sean II

            1) Sean is the most interesting commenter…”

            Thank you, very much.

            2) “…because he allows himself to be much more pessimistic than any liberal normally allows himself to be.”

            And you’re right: my true arch-enemy is the Catotarian shill. I can’t stand those hired optimists who are forever trying to convince us liberty is on the verge of a breakthrough to mainstream popularity.

            For one thing, they’ve been saying that every year for (at least) the 30 years since I started paying attention. And of course classic etiquette dictates they should have quit talking after their 27th false prediction.

            3) Here’s the key to understanding Seanism:

            As much as I like liberty, I like accuracy more. Rationality, science, honest inquiry, etc, are and should be upstream of our political principles. Facts ought to come first.

            So the minute libertarianism asks me to lie for it, I turn traitor.

            Or to put it another way, the liberty I’m most concerned with is the one that lets you make true statements, because they are true. I’m not gonna sell that out for the sake on staying positive and on-message about school vouchers, or whatever.

            Tragically, the movement asks for just that, all the time. Gay marriage is a perfect example. There were good arguments, there were bad arguments, and there were outright lies. Even just within the liberty movement.

            One of the lies was: “gay people are just as interested in, and capable of, long-term monogamy as anyone else!”

            No they’re not. And the mood spoilers who predicted even higher divorce rates for gay marriage are already being vindicated to the chagrin of all.

          • Sean II

            “That said, I wonder if Sean II thinks it’s even possible to have a live and let live society.”

            Possible, but evidently not likely. See my reply to Colucci above.

            Basically one population has managed to approximate live and let live, very imperfectly, in a few places, and in one very recent time.

            What do we normally say about results which show up once in every 10,000 trials?

            Don’t get me wrong: live and let live is still the society I want, and I think it’s important enough to make the attempt. I just think it’s even more important to be realistic about the prospects.

          • Sean II

            1) Well, if pluralism is a good thing, then by definition we have to say the increasingly rapid workflow of [new idea => elite opinion => agree or else] is a bad thing. Because it means that for any given question at any given time, there’s only one allowable opinion.

            2) It’s really not true that the loser is always the same. In theory the culture war exists to crush Archie Bunker, and once he’s gone, we all get to enjoy peace. But that’s never what happens. They always find someone new to play the part of Archie. Even if he was yesterday’s arch-liberal Meathead.

            Last round it was Steve Pinker. Before that, Bret Weinstein. So you can tell this revolution intends to be permanent.

            “Doin’ right ain’t got no end.”

            3) But most importantly, the losing side isn’t always wrong. And the winning side is rarely well-argued, often they are quite obviously driven by unstudied emotion. On epistemology grounds alone we cannot celebrate the one-sided nature of this conflict.

            Take the trans issue. The evil trad monster position here says: “these people are either playing at something, or else they’re mentally ill”.

            Except…that is clearly true in a large majority of cases. Most dysphoria is temporary, corrected by tincture of time. Of the rest, there appear to be a handful of long-term success-by-transition stories, and a great many sad sacks who are in no way better for being indulged. For every LaVerne Cox, there are probably three human wrecks – suicide, HIV, homeless, etc.

            It’s hard to think of another health condition in which we’d be content with such disastrous outcomes. If 50% of people in AA tried to kill themselves, we’d ban it. If 50% of the people on Adkins ended up sleeping in alleys, we’d have an NGO dedicated to bringing emergency infusions of carbs.

            The decent thing here would be to leave the question open “until we can figure out what’s going on”. But that’s the very thing you can’t do. In an ideological climate, the act most certain to be mocked is any admission that your mind isn’t 100% made up.

            Same goes to a lesser extent with homosexuality.

            Note what we couldn’t do. We couldn’t end the persecution of gay people while still pursuing an open inquiry into the causes and effects of homosexuality.

            We couldn’t say “this thing is a clearly deleterious in evolutionary terms, hence in that sense a disease. Hence to be studied. Hence, technology permitting, one day to be prevented.”

            And we couldn’t admit the obvious fact lurking behind that potential: if science ever comes up with a shot pregnant women can take to stop the antigen or pathogen that triggers homosexuality, everyone will take it.

            Somehow, that seems relevant to the issue. If homosexuality is perfectly awesome, how come we can safely bet the house on it being wiped out within two generations of a vaccine’s arrival?

            This is just the sort of thing that happens when you cheat, when you force the pace from “hell no!” to “fuck yeah!” without passing through the realm of “maybe, I’m not sure”.

            4) By the way, about gay marriage specifically: there is zero evidence it’s a good thing. Which isn’t surprising, because marriage equality didn’t pass on the strength of evidence gleaned from gay lives, it passed on the strong emotions of straight people.

            Had anyone bothered to study homosexual behavior, they would have quickly hit upon two things that made marriage seem like the wrong joke for that crowd.

            Both are time-tested stereotypes. Gay men are promiscuous. Lesbian love quickly sours. (I’ve learned never to ask a lesbian “How’s Christy?”, because if you’ve been away long enough not to know, the answer will be “Hell if I care. It’s Trish now.”)

            5) Didn’t mean to get caught up in the specifics there, but the same logic applies generally.

            With race, we went straight from Jim Crow to forced association (and latterly, to a system of A avoids B and C while demanding that B be nicer to C). Now you can start a Twitter riot by saying “it’s okay to be white”.

            We skipped the part where no one was made to wear the mark of Cain.

            With feminism, we went straight from “women can only do two things” to “women can learn Jedi without trying”. Now you can start a ruckus just by citing the differences in upper body strength.

            We skipped the part where you didn’t have to exaggerate what women can’t do, nor exaggerate what they can.

            And so on. The common thread is: cultural progress gains speed at the expense of subtlety and nuance. We have a series of revolutions where the vanguard is some Dictatorship of the Commentariat, and occasionally we have a Kronstadt, but the upshot is: someone’s always crushing, and someone’s always getting crushed.

            6) “Not because I have a trap but because I find your opinions a lot more interesting than mine.”

            You’re much too kind. Either that, or you’re calling me a weirdo by the smoothest means ever.

          • King Goat

            “Had anyone bothered to study homosexual behavior, they would have quickly hit upon two things that made marriage seem like the wrong joke for that crowd.”

            This is what gets me about Sean II. He professes to be all about taking a dispassionate look at the evidence. Here, ‘hey, take a look at homosexual behavior, isn’t it different than heterosexual behavior in important ways?’ This ignores so much context, it’s frankly amazing.

            For the vast majority of US history displaying homosexual behavior would mean 1. losing your job 2. getting beat up and 3. being arrested/put in jail.

            Vast majority.

            Lawrence v. Texas, which said that if homosexuals dare engage in their sexual orientation it can’t be criminalized as a felony, was not ancient history, it was a mere 15 years ago. Obergefell was not even three years ago, before that policy nearly everywhere was ‘your unions are less important/defective.’ And yet Sean points to taking ‘a look at homosexual behavior,’ to conclude for policy sake, hey, isn’t it different?

            It’s like someone ten years after slavery, when education for slaves was actually punished as a crime, saying ‘hey, you can tell these newly freed slaves aren’t interested in education, it’s a total waste of time for them!’

          • Sean II

            Parsimonious theory there. Lesbians and gays were both oppressed by the same prejudice, so naturally they responded by developing totally discordant behavior patterns once emancipated. Lesbians struck back by having many relationships but very little sex. Gay men rebelled by having lots of sex and very few relationships.

            Look what those crafty homophobes made them do!

            Goat, I swear to god…if a black guy double-dipped a chip at a party, you’d waste no time excusing his faux pas as a product of the Dredd Scott decision.

          • King Goat

            Yeah Sean, people wouldn’t have major differential judgments by sex! Because sex, pfft, what’s that in socio-political reality! An easily ignored variable! LOL

          • Octavian

            While is true that groups of people subjected to different treatment will likely end up different in many ways not due to innate differences, it is also equally true that there is no reason to expect or assume that two groups that are innately different in one observable way – sex, orientation, ethnicity – will tend to be the same in every other way, and that any other differences may be safely regarded as due to differential treatment. These are parallel fallacies.

          • King Goat

            I think it’s sensible to say that a biological difference between groups, say men and women or gays and straights, could also make for other differences, including in behavior and/or outcomes. Biology matters. But I think it’s also quite sensible to presume that it will be more common that such groups will react similarly more of the time given that they’ll have much more in common biologically (they’re all human after all) than they will have different. Given that, and given our rather bad history with making policy based on presumptions of biological difference, I think it’s good to have a rather strong (but of course rebuttable) presumption against restrictive policies based on conclusions of biological difference.

            Of course, that’s not really here or there in this instance where we have such an obvious non-biological explanation for difference (groups of people subjected to different treatment for a very long time before this point and it only being relatively recently rescinded) staring us in the face.

            Sean’s argument is like saying that because, say, male dogs tend to react to beatings by becoming more aggressive and female dogs tend to react by becoming more submissive the beatings cannot be said to be serious determinants of behavior.

          • Sean II

            So to be clear: your theory is that the oppression of homophobia was sex specific, with lesbian sex being winked at and even fetishized, while gay male sex was regarded with utmost disgust.

            And of course this explains why lesbians hardly have any sex, while gay men have more than anyone?

            Yeah, makes a ton of sense. I can see you really thought that one through.

          • King Goat

            That’s not exactly what I’m arguing, though it’s quite sensible. If gay men faced unique challenges and dangers from acting on their orientation of course they’d develop a culture of impersonal and surreptitious sex more.

            Of course, there’s also other sensible explanations, you might like this one: dudes and gals are different, let’s say ‘inherently’ and they might develop different inclinations when faced with severe oppressive conditions placed between them and an instinct (sex) and a individual-cultural imperative (forming close unions).

            My point, of course, is that *given* that gays, male and female, until *very recently* and after a *very long* period of *severely* oppressive conditions if they were known to exhibit inclinations even in basic, initial steps toward the kind of unions that heterosexuals could enter unproblematically, might have developed beliefs. practices, inclinations, etc., that would of course make their behavior re: unions different than heteros for quite a while even after those oppressions are largely lifted. But to assume that that shows some inherently different propensities re: the unions is like my example: knowing a dog has been beaten in their early life and concluding their later aggressive or submissive behaviors has nothing to do with the beatings. That’s daft, it ignores the most common of sense. Likewise that common sense connection isn’t negated by the fact that male and female dogs react differently after the beatings.

          • Rob Gressis

            Sean II wrote, “your theory is that the oppression of homophobia was sex specific, with lesbian sex being winked at and even fetishized, while gay male sex was regarded with utmost disgust.

            And of course this explains why lesbians hardly have any sex, while gay men have more than anyone?”

            I think this actually does make a lot of sense. Here’s why: there is at least sometimes a link between finding something forbidden and finding it sexually arousing. If gay male sex is considered the ultimate taboo, then there is something particularly arousing about it, at least for some people. And if lesbian sex is winked at, then that taboo and the accompanying prurience goes away. Add to this different male and female sex drives, and then you could have very different approaches to marriage relationships between gays and lesbians.

            I figure you want to say that the different male and female sex drives are the whole story, and we don’t need to add the other stuff about culture, etc., but the culture stuff did happen. As you’ve conceded to me in the past, under extreme social sanction, even people’s biological impulses get corralled. If there’s a long condemnation of gay sex in particular, this could lead to certain long-lasting cultural practices that manifest even to this day that change the complexion of gay relationships. I admit, I’m a bit skeptical about that last part (there seems to be a lot less condemnation of gay male sex now, so I’m not sure that the taboos would still have any arousal-enhancing effects), but I don’t know enough about, well, anything to know how skeptical to be.

            I will say this: imagine that we had *really* good data on how much sex, and with whom, gay men had from the 1890s to the present. And imagine that there was no difference in their rates of sex and numbers of relationships between 1890 to now. If that were true, I think that would be really good evidence that culture is playing no role and biology explains it all. On the other hand, if the rates changed, then wouldn’t that be good evidence that culture explains at least some of it?

          • Sean II

            I’ll get you a longer reply later, but for now… let me just say we’re trending toward the territory of an 80s therapy session:

            “You drink too much because your father drank a lot.”

            “You drink too much because your father never drank.”

            “You drink too much because your father set such a demanding example with his moderation”

            Surely, surely, if anyone had been asked to call this game before the score was in, they would have said:

            “The less stigmatized form of sex will regress to the normal mean more quickly when the stigma is removed. Because it has less distance to travel. While the more stigmatized will recover less quickly, because it has so much further to go.”

            Anything else is making pretzels.

          • King Goat

            What do you think the ‘normal mean’ here is? I hope I don’t have to explain that this isn’t a numerical question.

          • Rob Gressis

            “Well, if pluralism is a good thing, then by definition we have to say the increasingly rapid workflow of [new idea => elite opinion => agree or else] is a bad thing. Because it means that for any given question at any given time, there’s only one allowable opinion.”

            *Do* you think pluralism is a good thing? If so, why? Is it just the Millian reason that the more experiments in living there are, the more likely we are to figure out the best way to live? Or is there some more Kantian notion–people have autonomy, so we shouldn’t pressure them to take views that are inauthentic to them? Imagine that almost everyone was strongly disposed to accept whatever the best science says, and was strongly critical of people who wanted to dismiss it because it went against their self-image. Would you still want pluralism in this kind of world?

            You make a good point in (2). Circular firing squad. But also whale cancer:

            “3) But most importantly, the losing side isn’t always wrong. And the winning side is rarely well-argued, often they are quite obviously driven by unstudied emotion. On epistemology grounds alone we cannot celebrate the lopsided nature of these conflicts.” It’s interesting to me that anger is so much more successful as a social strategy than sober consideration of the facts. It’s interesting only because sober consideration of the facts gets so much good press. That said, anger is starting to get good press from philosophers: Jesse Prinz wrote a whole book lionizing anger, and Sally Haslanger warned against doing yoga because it might calm you down so much that your anger diminished, making you a less effective advocate for social justice. I wonder if they’ll add Paul Bloom’s _Against Empathy_ to the mix? That could be volatile.

            Re: your trans point, I think that’s a bit misleading. The suicide rate is indeed quite high, but it’s high whether or not the person gets the operation. It’s not the operation’s fault that trans people have such high rates of suicide. The hope is that if society became more trans-friendly, then the suicide rates would go down. That said, probably a lot more people would make rash decisions as children that they later regret, which could undercut the whole suicide rate thing. And of course, a trans-friendly society could be costly. It could mean reeducating people in some pretty profound ways. E.g., Robin Dembroff and Daniel Wodak have argued that it’s immoral to use “he” or “she” for *anyone* (see here:

            As for your remark, “[homosexuality] is a clearly deleterious in evolutionary terms, hence in that sense a disease. Hence to be studied. Hence, technology permitting, one day to be prevented at the discretion of parents.” I think this argument trades on an ambiguity. There’s one sense of disease according to which it’s a condition deleterious in evolutionary terms. But there’s another sense in which it’s something that’s directly deleterious to an individual’s health. Homosexuality might be a disease in the first sense, but it’s not obviously a disease in the second sense. So it doesn’t follow that it should be prevented. As for your remark that people who had control over it would ensure their children turn out straight, I’m not so sure about that. It will be interesting to see, though.

            Re 5, about skipping parts, I’m willing to buy that we skipped a lot of parts w/r/t gay rights (I recall people going from saying “who cares what the laws say? Gay marriage is a human right!” to “it’s the law of the land!!” almost overnight), but it’s less convincing w/r/t race and much less convincing w/r/t sex. I don’t think we skipped the parts about sex and race. Those two revolutions have been much slower in comparison to the gay rights revolution.

            7) I’m not calling you a weirdo. You write with a Chestertonian spark, hence the interestingness of your posts.

          • Octavian

            Rob, I think there are two answers to your hypothetical, one moral, the other practical.

            1) The practical: sooner or later, there’s going to be some ‘progressive value’ that you don’t share, or over which there will be a dispute over what the ‘progressive value’ is. Maybe today you’re accepted as a good, progressive Episcopalian, but tomorrow even that may be considered inherently bigoted; today it’s okay for you to not be attracted to and date people with certain body types, but tomorrow that may be the new bigotry. Orthodoxy tends to narrow, and eventually nearly everyone ends up becoming a heretic, either openly or surreptitiously. More over, narrow orthodoxies restrict emergence of new ideas that might be better, so you’d better hope the orthodox to which we’re converging is the best one possible; if there’s any doubt about that, then it behooves us to allow diversity.

            2) The moral: all sins are not equal. You may think it wrong not to acknowledge gay marriage, but you shouldn’t treat someone who doesn’t the same as if they hated gay people. And if one thinks draconian punishment (social or otherwise) is justified in order to expedite change, why not impose the death penalty on litterers to save the environment? Should one’s reaction not be proportional to the action itself?

          • Rob Gressis

            I agree with both your points; I just wonder whether Sean II likes pluralism because it’s instrumentally good or rather because it’s intrinsically good.

          • Sean II

            Instrinsic, schminsic. There’s nothing inherently good about letting people secede from society. Between the ATF and the cultists at Waco, I rooted for the fire.

            That’s not quite true, I just wanted to say it. Here’s a real answer:

            In keeping with my age-induced consequentialism, I favor instrumental reasons. The argument from experimentation is good enough I’m not sure we need another.

            But even so, we have one. I don’t want to use “right” here, because that word seems to cause brain damage among chronic users, but maybe we could just say it’s desirable to leave people alone as long as they’re not hurting anyone who didn’t sign a waiver.

            For example: I think polyamory is stupid. More precisely, I think it’s not a nice way to treat women. I think that once you understand human sexual behavior, only an asshole would put a lady through such emotional torture.

            But I don’t want to blow up Sandals or anything like that. Although I certainly cannot defend it as a useful experiment. There’s nothing to learn from polyamory that we didn’t already know from watching the aftermath of high school love triangles and open relationships in college. (Big spoiler: turns out the party girl was gunning for commitment all along, she just picked a poor strategy.)

            So there’s a little plural society that I think is a) useless as an experiment, and yet b) somehow I don’t want to ban it.

            I guess if you poke that intuition with a stick, I’d end up saying something utilitarian like “eh, it isn’t harmful enough to warrant bringing in the blunt instruments of intervention”. Or maybe I might say “it’s a small enough harm we can let people opt into it, as long as there aren’t too many fool enough to try.”

            Cue the screaming of the NAP neckbeards, who are disgusted by nothing…except the idea that a love of humanity sometimes entails saving humans from themselves.

        • CJColucci

          What we never had was a time when some people could like it, and other
          people could dislike it, without passionately hating each other.

          And why was that?

          • Brooklyn Boricua

            For one thing, because live-and-let-live was never a value being actually promoted at any point during the transition.

          • Sean II

            Good question. I’m really not sure. But there is little evidence that human beings can perform the trick “live and let live”.

            To be more precise: we CAN sometimes let distant strangers live and be different, though only by the shortcut of not caring about them.

            No puritan in New England ever got too worked up about sex customs in Polynesia.

            But put us close enough to care about each other, and we have a reliable tendency to show discomfort with anyone not following the same unified set of rules.

            The more important the rule, the more we insist on conformism, and the less we tolerate any pluralistic experimentation.

        • King Goat

          “We skipped past “live and let live” and went straight to “bake me a cake or else, motherfucker!”

          We went from: 1. being against “you can’t have this thing that most people find to be the most self-actualizing thing in their life because boys liking boys, eww gross!” to 2. “you can’t discriminate against someone because they happened to take advantage of number 1”

          That seems….normal and expected. I mean, it’s exactly where we went with other examples of groups severely oppressed or marginalized.

          • CJColucci

            That seems to be the nub of it right there. While a pure “live and let live” may be impossible, there are degrees. Once upon a time, same-sex couples couldn’t get married, couldn’t enter into all sorts of legally-binding arrangements that came “off the shelf” with matrimony without spending a fortune on lawyers, and couldn’t enter into several types at all. In those days, no one even wanted a cake because there wasn’t anything the cake could be for. Now same-sex couples can get married, but bakers may have to accept money for selling cakes to people they don’t approve of. That’s not pure “live and let live,” but it’s a damn sight closer than the alternative.

          • Octavian

            It’s not that the shift happened, but the rapidity with which it happened, that is remarkable. In little over a decade, “marriage is between a man and a woman” went from normal and mainstream, even among center-left politicians, to something akin to white supremacy (at least in popular culture). Attitudes toward Catholics and Jews didn’t change that fast.

          • King Goat

            1. I’m not sure why the rapidity would be so remarkable, we live in a ‘faster’ time (internet, cell phones, 24 hour news stations).
            2. Given that, I’m not sure it’s that uniquely fast. Take a historical example, in 1953 America segregated schools were common, ‘whites only’ lines were common, blacks were widely kept from voting in many places, miscegenation laws operated, *lawmakers* in many states felt comfortable dropping the ‘n’ word in public legislative debates. By 1973, a mere 20 year span, all that had changed and anyone advocating reversing that was pretty roundly marginalized. Or take another example, within 10 years of California (under Reagan!) enacted no-fault divorce laws almost every state followed course, in a very brief period of time the long standing and widespread stigma against divorce and those that were divorced just blew away. Heck, even evangelical Republicans who might abstractly question whether divorce liberalization was a good thing wouldn’t engage in the kind of behaviors, attitudes and talk about those that are divorced that was common before liberalization.

          • Rob Gressis

            “Take a historical example, in 1953 America segregated schools were common, ‘whites only’ lines were common, blacks were widely kept from voting in many places, miscegenation laws operated, *lawmakers* in many states felt comfortable dropping the ‘n’ word in public legislative debates. By 1973, a mere 20 year span, all that had changed and anyone advocating reversing that was pretty roundly marginalized.”

            That’s a bit misleading, though. 1953 was about the end of segregation–it was already under pressure. It started as a government policy in the South in 1877. What we’d need to do is look at when people first started seriously talking about ending segregation and seeing how long it took from there. But even that would be problematic because in order for people to openly talk about ending segregation, there already has to be enough cultural pressure for that to be acceptable. So I don’t know how to measure how rapidly a social change happens, but with gay marriage a good starting point is Sullivan’s 1989 article endorsing it as the starting point and Obergefell (2015) as the ending point. All told, that’s 26 years from an idea so wild that even gays opposed it to an idea so obvious that opposing it is bigotry. I don’t know how to do a similar timeline for “first, tentative criticisms of segregation” to “support for segregation is bigotry”, because I suspect that several people had been vocally denouncing it since it started.

          • King Goat

            Is that a good starting point? Or maybe better put, why start with ‘gay marriage’ when that’s just one later coming component of a longer gay rights movement that started with things like decriminalization, ending discrimination in government agency employment, etc.,? In other words, there’s a general idea: there’s nothing really wrong with gays that warrants different policy treatments. The idea starts as a minority idea and it starts to manifest in challenges to specific contrary policies, first things like criminalization or discrimination in government employment. The idea starts to gain ground in and then win in an ‘overall’ way (maybe an indicator of this is federal enactments) in those areas, and then it quite naturally looks at other policies that could logically be an extension of the general idea. Since the general idea has gained ground/momentum via the many previous fought for changes the change on the later challenged policies happens faster.

            So, back to civil rights, don’t you think there was a quick turnaround from when the initial groundbreaking anti-segregation results like Brown came down to logically related but hardly socially foreseeable changes in other areas (like housing discrimination and intermarriage)? We went from ‘look, Negro kids should be able to go to the white schools and it’s bigoted to think otherwise’ to ‘oh, also black people can buy the house next door to you and date/marry your daughter and your mayor/congressman is black, and it’s bigoted to think otherwise’ in about 20 years. Likewise, we went from ‘look, gay behavior shouldn’t be criminalized and they shouldn’t be discriminated in government hiring, and it’s bigoted to think otherwise’ to ‘oh, and they shouldn’t be barred from getting married, and it’s bigoted to think otherwise’ in about the same time period.

          • Rob Gressis

            Huh. Maybe you’re right. If I had more historical knowledge, I’d have a stronger opinion, one way or the other. But history is boring, so I don’t!

          • King Goat

            That reminds me of my kid complaining about history at school and me giving my stock response, ‘it’s not boring it’s a story that’s true’ which got the response ‘yeah, true and boring.’

          • CJColucci

            When kids complain to me about history, I tell them they didn’t teach history when I was in school because there hadn’t been enough yet.

          • Sean II

            Segregation’s a tricky case, because its a taboo only in talk. You’re still allowed to do it. And everyone who can, does.

          • King Goat

            This is more of your cynical nonsense about how no one ‘really believes’ differently than you. It’s akin to adolescents growing up in a religious denomination they are made to go to by their parents think everyone there is *really* a phony that doesn’t live up to the homily. As Richard Florida’s work demonstrates, those with the most control over where they can live tend to choose to live not in the least diverse rural districts (that many of them are from) but in the most diverse urban areas. That’s a weird strategy for segregationists!

          • Sean II

            You do a great Kevin Bacon from Animal House. Gets me every time.

          • Sean II

            “we went from thinking that Jews were inherently communistic threats to America to thinking that people that didn’t want their kids to marry Jews were awful bigots…”

            If you keep own-goaling like this people will think we’re in cahoots.

          • King Goat


  • stevenjohnson2

    The OP and the abstract seem to be unaware what they are preaching for is already here. It’s called the world. There is already deep disagreement between states, with dynamic change constant and inevitable due to competition. The fundamental constitutional rules of sovereignty that permit these deep disagreements to emerge is what makes the world an open society, hence the status quo that conservatives should defend.

    As to the observation that some people might make, that war is a terrible kind of “experimentation,” as the OP so coyly puts it, that is part of the deep disagreement. Permitting deep disagreement of this kind is precisely what makes the open society also a great society. It is the constitutional order of sovereign states that permit different nations to pursue different systems that should be unchanging, though the struggle of nations will always lead to dynamic change.

    Well, it’s either that, or* the whole thing is vaguely hinting that some states being slave states and some states not being slave states was exactly the kind of deep disagreement that was the essence of freedom in the past. Or possibly that some states establishing religious laws or establishments would be an example of such freedom in the future.

    *Technically there’s the possibility it’s all just gabble meant for a publication credit. But surely tenured professors are too credentialed to indulge that sort of thing!

  • Tedd

    I haven’t read the full article by Thrasher and Vallier but, based on the above excerpt, it strikes me that what they’re describing is similar to what we find in science: An overarching set of rules that are fixed (the scientific method), and underneath a more or less blank slate on which we could find anything that’s consistent with the overarching rules.