Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom

[Amazon Link]

I can't quite remember how this got into my to-be-read list, probably this post by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. Thanks as always to the University Near Here Interlibrary Loan staff.

Jacob Levy is a PoliSci prof at McGill and posts at Bleeding Heart Libertarians (which I haven't read in the past, but will now start). Prof Levy admits up front that he's written here for his fellow scholars, so I have nobody to blame but myself.

Why do I say that? Here's why: my understanding of political philosophy is at the dilettante level. It has been there for decades, and I don't see the needle budging off that value anytime, sooner or later. Yet, I keep reading stuff, hoping that at least some of the material will stick. That sometimes gets me into trouble, as with reading Richard Epstein on matters legal. And it did here. I probably wouldn't pass a test on the material, Professor. But I swear, I looked at every page. Given that I may be displaying my ignorance in what follows…

The book discusses the role of "intermediate groups" in liberal polities: religious/ethnic/charitable organizations, universities, and the like. We tend to take "freedom of association" for granted among our rights, which includes, of course, the freedom to be a member, or not to be a member of such groups.

And the reverse is at least roughly true: those groups have a right to define themselves, which includes the right to restrict their membership to those they choose, and to remove members that fail to follow their rules.

And therein lies some conflict: such groups, even in the midst of liberal states, can have highly illiberal structures and policies. Could that be a problem? Levy plausibly argues so.

Also: the mere existence of such groups is in inherent tension with the state(s) in which they are embedded. The state likes to be in charge, and any outside powers and authorities represent a possible challenge to that.

Levy takes us on a historical tour of these conflicts, showing how the a range of political philosophers tackled this issue. It dates back to the rise of the modern state only a few centuries ago, when the statists of the day had to prevail over the existing political institutions in order to succeed. So there is (and has been) no arguing from fundamental principles possible here: everything's tied into actual historical events and how things played out in different countries, mostly in Europe.

Here's where I was especially weak. Levy namedrops names and movements, assuming you're as familiar with them as kids today are with the movements of Kanye, Taylor, and Beyonce. Jansenists? Let me check Wikipedia…

Does Levy have a solution? No, he does not. He convincingly argues that neither "pluralists" (roughly, advocates for strong, relatively unfettered intermediate groups), nor "rationalists" (advocating strong state control or prohibition of such groups) have correct arguments. Essentially: the struggle is unresolvable, involving incommensurable (but valid) human values, and the best course of action is to admit there are no "ideal" solutions that pop out of the dialectical mist.

Fine. I just recommend that my fellow amateurs might want to wait for Prof Levy's "… for Dummies" book.