wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Chandran Kukathas

The Liberal Archipelago

The tendency to pursue collective purposes, and to seek to establish a degree of social unity, is only that: a tendency; and one which exists in tension with the other tendency of the liberal state: to pursue no collective purposes—to share no common enterprise—but to offer only the framework within which its members may pursue their own ends separately.

Yet here it might be argued that, if the liberal state is itself neither one thing nor the other but something with elements of both kinds of liberalism, why not theorize that entity which is the product of a compromise between the two extremes? The answer is that this simply will not be possible when that compromise reflects not any principled resolution of philosophical differences but varying patterns of mutual accommodation among people and groups whose principled aspirations, and whose view of what would constitute a 'principled compromise', pull in different directions. Actual political arrangements reflect not philosophical settlements but the reality of the distribution of power in a society—a point recognized especially clearly by Rousseau, and also by Marx (even though both thought the problem could be overcome, the first by a political transformation and the latter by an antipolitical one). Here William Galston is quite right to point out that the liberal state will have an interest in 'ensuring that the convictions, competencies, and virtues required for liberal citizenship are widely shared'. And like all states, the liberal state will pursue its interests. But the product of this will not be anything but reflective of the distribution of power within the state. In the liberal state, there is a great deal that will not be tolerated—even though it is a state whose capacity for toleration is unmatched. But this does not mean that what is not tolerated will be repudiated because a principled compromise position underpins the settlement and clear lines of demarcation will have been drawn. What the refusal to tolerate will more likely reflect is the balance of power, and the extent to which particular substantive or comprehesive views about the proper shape of a liberal society prevail. Might always comes clothed in the philosophy of right.

Liberalism is a political philosophy which is a response to the problem posed by human diversity, and by the differences and disagreements which emerge whenever human beings try to live together. A liberalism which maintains that the liberal state is, or should be, reflective of a liberal theory of the good suffers from one important limitation. It cannot accommodate those who reject the liberal theory of the good—though it can coerce them into accepting it when they are in the minority. A liberalism which maintains that the liberal state should be no more than an umpire suffers from a different limitation: it will accommodate those who are themselves illiberal, since it allows for a wide diversity.

In reality, however, neither version can plausibly prevail on its own. A liberal state dominated by a liberal theory of the good—by a particular conception of justice—will find itself pressed by those who dissent from the orthodoxy. To the extent that they are not suppressed, this will be because the principles of the liberal theory of justice are dishonoured or ignored. A liberal state dominated by the more minimal liberalism of the independent umpire will find itself pressured to inject greater substantive content into its determinations. As Tocqueville observed of the liberal state that was nineteenth-century American democracy, there is always a tendency towards centralization and standardization under the influence of the voice of the majority. And, one might add, of the powerful. In these circumstances, can there be any reason to argue for one particular tendency? Indeed in some ways it might seem faintly naive, if not entirely quixotic, to devote an entire work to imagining a world that can never be. The march of the twentieth century has been down the road of rationalization, heading in a direction Max Weber thought unalterable, towards the creation of the modern sovereign state. This is an entity which is not only territorial but also internally sovereign, recognizing no higher authority within its borders, and maintaining its right to hold a monopoly of violence. What reason could there be for trying to conceive of matters differently?

One reason is that it is important not to lose sight of the fact that what seems natural and inevitable is all too often merely contingent. And so it is with the modern state. There is nothing inevitable about this form of social organization, or natural about this form of demarcating authority. It is worth pointing out that what is presented as essential and important is only a tendency; and a troubling one.

A second reason is that the longing for social unity that is so little questioned an ideal has, at its worst, led to the most horrifying outcomes, and most notably in the twentieth century.