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Despots, Systematizers, and the Liberal Quandary: Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom
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Despots, Systematizers, and the Liberal Quandary:
Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom
Jacob T. Levy, Rationalism, Pluralism, & Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. pp. 320. $49.95 (hc). 978-0-19-871714-0

Say that you are a liberal who has sympathy for individuals who want to chart their own course of life. Who do you fear more? The local despot who imposes his will on recalcitrant subjects? (Think of the sheriff who tells Cool Hand Luke that they have a failure to communicate.) Or the central planner who brooks no dissent and runs roughshod over the facts on the ground? (Think of the “best and brightest” who orchestrated the Vietnam War.) If the former, then you may be a rational liberal, committed to an enlightened state checking the power of rabbis, priests, imams, fraternity presidents, lodge leaders, and local politicians. If the latter, then you may be a pluralist liberal who thinks that religious, civic, and educational groups are essential avenues for and protectors of individuality. The most likely scenario, however, is that you have a bit of both in your soul, in which case, according to Jacob T. Levy in his important new book, Rationalism, Pluralism, & Freedom, you experience the quandary that marks the liberal tradition from its inception.

Levy daringly enters the fields of analytic philosophy, jurisprudence, Cambridge-style history of political thought, and social science to provide fresh angles on the question of whether to trust centralized or decentralized power, knowing that each are likely to be abused if unchecked. In Part One, Levy identifies the concerns that motivate his analysis. If groups such as the Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, the Boys Scouts of America, or universities are controlled by the state, then there are few places for the individual to hide or commune with others. On the other hand, too much associational freedom allows in-group elites to exert, and potentially abuse, their authority. Each side’s best arguments are based on the “the infirmities of its rivals” (John Stuart Mill, cited on 60); groups and states can always point to their opponents’ abuses to justify increasing their own power. Part One details the problems that arise from treating groups as either large individuals or small states. Levy, instead, proposes to treat groups as groups, that is, particular associations that alternately threaten the state (through accumulating wealth, acting in secret, forming transnational alliances) and individuals (through establishing internal hierarchies, barriers to exit, and acting as intermediaries of the group to outsiders). “Our freedom can be threatened by states and groups—and by each directly in response to the other. Understanding which threats are more important where and when is not a formal or philosophical exercise;” rather, it is a recurrent practical problem that Levy’s arguments may help us manage with more grace (83).

The historical section of the book, Part Two, explains how pluralist liberalism emerged out of the ancient constitutionalist tradition. For many liberals, early modern political thought is predominantly about the rise of the social contract whereby individuals conjoin to authorize a state to protect their interests. For other historians, the civic republican tradition of cultivating virtue for the well-being of the polis goes back to Aristotle and continues through Machiavelli and Thomas Jefferson. Ancient constitutionalists such as the Calvinist theorist Johannes Althusius or the Anglo-American Whig theorist Robert Molesworth, however, looked back to the ancien régime when intermediate bodies such as guilds or parlements had the right to govern themselves and were “natural friends of legality and liberty, because their protections of their own rights was so tied up with the refusal of absolutist pretensions” (120). Historians are skeptical about the ancient constitutionalists’ claim to revive Germanic or Gothic traditions of liberty, but that does not change the fact that ancient constitutionalists made plausible arguments that found their way into Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws as well as texts by Lord Acton and early twentieth-century British Pluralists such as John Neville Figgis and Harold Laski.

The real delight of the book is Levy’s re-interpretation of familiar liberals such as Adam Smith, James Madison, and John Stuart Mill. In a...