Sheldon Richman has just given readers of The American Conservative a superb review of McGill University Professor Jacob T. Levy’s very important new book Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom—but both are so good they require further elaboration.

Richman provides an insightful presentation of Levy’s argument that two seemingly opposed “strains” within liberalism, which he calls rationalism and pluralism, are actually both necessary to achieve freedom. Rationalism uses expertise to develop centralized laws that promote justice and positive freedom for society. Pluralism prefers free associations that develop multiple choices for their members, promote their various group interests, and act between the individual and state as barriers against government control of their freedoms.

Pluralism developed first in the Middle Ages but was eventually overwhelmed by the 14th-century divine right of kings. These state claims to total power were confronted by appeals to ancient constitutionalism to restore past group rights, culminating in the powerful writings of Montesquieu, who Levy sets as the first true pluralist. His opposite founding rationalist is Voltaire, who viewed these intermediate associations as the source of the ignorance and superstition that frustrated the social progress and freedoms implemented by the rational “enlightened absolutism” of Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, and Henry VIII.

This progress was thwarted by the French Revolution and Napoleon, but ultimately was superseded by the rise of the modern liberal state under the two “unarguably” modern liberal theorists, John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville. The former is set as the archetypical rationalist liberal and the latter the ideal pluralist. By the latter 19th and 20th centuries Mill’s rationalist view had won the day with nation-states dominating their parochial associations to produce the rationality, law, rights, and freedoms of the modern world.

Levy writes that his “personal preference” was for the pluralist side but concedes these same groups can limit their members’ freedom through their internal rules and can lobby outside to have them inculcated as state policy. Therefore, rationalists like Voltaire had good reason to fear powerful plural associations like the church being allowed to provide education, for example. Indeed, both modern secular France and religious India have justified state control of education as a means to preserve a liberal order. The state likewise had reason to fear the family inculcating non-liberal ideas (about women for example). On the other hand, it is clear centralized state rationalism can go too far in restricting these freedoms.

After a scrupulously detailed history of both strains, Levy concludes that while the two advance freedom, both the central state of modern rationalism and the intermediate associations of classical pluralism have internal dynamics that “are more likely to threaten freedom than to protect it.” While the two are logically irreconcilable, they each need the insights of the other. Neither “complete congruence” with general state norms nor full group autonomy work. A “more nuanced” position is required.

Levy’s solution was to set associational freedom as the norm within general rational state oversight but to allow certain exceptions to group autonomy: first for size and extent, such as in a company town, the Mormons in Utah, or Catholic and Orthodox Christianity in certain places; and also for group actions that could undermine the “basic structure of society,” such as families perpetuating inequality, public accommodations denying access to outsiders, and private schools and housing covenants frustrating justice (as in the South to escape desegregation).

Richman was even more favorable toward the pluralist strain but conceded Levy made a powerful case for the necessity of both. As important as pluralist freedom is, it sometimes needs to be restricted by higher authority. He decided that if both are essential, the only solution can be “eternal vigilance”—especially against the much greater power of the centralized state. But he mischievously concluded by adding, “But how feasible is that?”

Richman wisely leaves it there, but there is more that needs to be said.

Strains of What?

Levy spends his final chapters arguing the impossibility of synthesizing the “genuine tension” between plural freedom of association and the rationalized freedom that requires the “possibility of freedom being enhanced by outside intervention.” The only solution is “living with a degree of disharmony in our social lives.” Yet, Levy implicitly accepts that some type of synthesis exists by assuming both strains exist within the whole he labels “liberalism.”

One can agree with him that Hegel’s synthesis—in the sense of absorption of competing theses into something fully new and rational—can only be achieved by defining the distinctions away. But this is only one understanding of synthesis, which can also be understood as a tension between certain values that are only reconcilable when one is forced to make a choice in concrete situations demanding a decision, rather than in Hegelian absorption. But does even this degree of cohesion exist between the presumed two strains of liberalism?

Consider Levy’s argument against pluralism’s claim that possible abuses of power by leaders over members are tenable as long as “exit” is available from such restrictions on freedom. However, not only do large size and geographical extent restrict exit, but decisions originally free can accumulate to allow “no place to go to exit the groups into which they are born.” One generation can freely choose, but its children may be trapped if the cult becomes very popular over extensive territorial ground. His main example is the medieval Catholic Church, although in another place he also pictured the Church as a complex institution with some means of exit.

Or consider the family, which presents an even greater restriction on exit since young children are unable to leave at all or to escape the benefits or disadvantages transferred from generation to generation by its strengths and weaknesses. Education or its lack has the same consequence. The poor, biologically limited, marginalized, or broken child has little “exit” across generations. The same applies to many other areas of life.

What is left of associational freedom when the exceptions are to religion, family, education, property, housing, and public accommodations? Using these examples to legitimize state control of group freedom simply reprises Plato’s Republic.

There is much positive about Levy’s insights into freedom. But at bottom his insistence on two strains does not work.

Consider Levy’s term, “rationalism.” Richman basically treats it as a synonym for rationalist centralization, as opposed to plural decentralization, both ranging along that one-dimensional orientation. It is easy to overlook, but Levy emphasizes at the very beginning that he uses the term rational as Max Weber did, in the sense of “bureaucratic rationalization.” He even warns the reader to keep this meaning in mind while reading the book. But why not use the term rationalization rather than rationalism, which to some extent misleads even Richman?

Even more confusing is the concept that holds his whole project together, the term “liberalism.” He concedes that even using the word liberalism is disputed until the time of Mill and de Tocqueville—but then he traces the proper use of the term back to Montesquieu’s pluralism and Voltaire’s rationalism anyway. Startlingly, he even says that “rationalism” and “pluralism” exist within conservatism and socialism too. So what makes these liberal conceptions?

Although he modifies this somewhat, Levy concludes that terms like liberalism, conservatism and socialism are “nothing but a party platform.” The “political program of liberalism is one about how to direct and limit the power of the modern state in ways that are only comprehensible after the state has taken form, the wars of religion have ended and the attractions of commerce came into focus.” Therefore he does not “think it makes sense to talk about liberalism before about 1700,” which he identifies with “the early modern Weberian state,” “all of which makes sense only in a world of strong executive and security capacity.”

Two Incompatible Views

So “liberalism” is associated with the rise of the Weberian nation-state. But Levy does not leave that impression unqualified. Therefore, he prefaces this discussion with a “prehistory of liberalism” and its “tremendous proliferation” of independent organizations such as universities, cities, the papacy, bishops,  regional churches, monasteries, and other independent organizations such as guilds and feudal institutions and independent military orders, starting with the Cluniac reforms and blooming after 1050. On the other hand, he concedes this is the prehistory of conservatism too. So why is this pluralism considered a strain of liberalism at all?

Levy’s personification of rationalism, J.S. Mill, describes in On Liberty “regularly” allowing his “permanent interests as a progressive being” to “trump his commitments to individual freedom.” He found small group loyalties and customs stultifying to the interests of man’s development as a moral and cognitive person. Commenting on de Tocqueville’s pluralism, after offering vaguely positive statements on decentralization, Mill’s Representative Government made it the “principal business of the central authority” to instruct and “the local authority to apply it.” Does this not suggest more than “a degree” of disharmony?

The reference to the great sociologist Max Weber is the key. He is the father of American scientific administration, one of the “eminent German writers” Woodrow Wilson gave credit for his new rationalized liberalism. The word rationalization is critical. This term is easily associated by Americans (and Mill) with progressivism. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is an attempt by Levy to introduce pluralism into the dominant ideology of modern rationalistic Weberian progressivism, a fine project but confusing nonetheless.

Is Montesquieu chosen as a founder of pluralist liberalism to force his opposite to be the less attractive rationalist Voltaire, rather than de Tocqueville contrasted against the more attractive Mill? Voltaire in his stress on expertise and centralization is clearly the antecedent to Mill, Weber, and Wilson, but extolling “enlightened absolutism” is not really the best way to the modern progressive heart. Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Henry VIII, and the other predecessors of the modern progressive welfare state are all pretty tough to defend these days.

As laudable as is Levy’s noble fiction, considering the two “strains” as related ultimately fails. That both use the term “freedom” is not sufficient. As George Orwell showed, its meaning is infinitely malleable. Levy mentions the great theorist F.A. Hayek as an inspiration in writing his book but he criticizes Hayek (referencing his Constitution of Liberty but not his more sophisticated “Kinds of Rationalism”) for insisting upon an absolute distinction between the two concepts.

Hayek has the better argument. Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and the other pluralists did not lack a central government to sometimes restrict subsidiary institutions (as Richman conceded), but they rejected the all-controlling, expert bureaucratic rationalization of Voltaire and Weber. The latter is a specific form of control requiring full convergence with a state definition of freedom that uniformly restricts all subgroups as the norm. Pluralism concedes a role for central authority but it is limited, requiring a plurality of independent institutions freely to do the rest.

Simply, one can find a central government compatible with freedom without having to concede the necessity for a Weberian bureaucratic state to rationalize all under a unitary conception of progressive freedom.

Donald Devine, senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, and the author of America’s Way Back: Reconciling Freedom, Tradition and Constitution, was director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during Ronald Reagan’s first term.