Of the Plural and the Rational

There is an interesting meta-discussion a post or so down regarding the increasingly relevant distinction among liberals of being pluralist or rationalist, specifically in the case of whether a pluralist stance is compatible with a pro-war/anti-sovereignty position in general, towards the Iraq war in particular.

As usual, the question is posed & discussion started by our favorite interlocutor Joe Miller, whose comment I shall reproduce in its entirety:

How is the sovereignty argument not just pluralism writ large? The objection that rationalists have to pluralism is that non-state entities can be just as coercive as states can. Yet many libertarians seem happy enough to endorse pluralism even when that means that, say, families or churches or communities oppress individuals.
The sovereignty argument really is nothing more than pluralism applied to large groups. The position, as I understand it, is that groups of people are entitled to arrange their lives as they see fit. To the extent that a people dislikes the fit between their society and themselves, they are free to change that society. Unless and until they do make internal reform, outsiders have to respect their particular sort of community. That sounds very much like arguments for pluralism that I’ve seen advanced here. Why is the argument so terribly different when applied to really big groups?
Admittedly, you might just reject pluralism. I’d be inclined to agree with you there. But I think that it’s just false to say that the sovereignty argument is essentially a statist one. It’s far more accurate to say that the sovereignty argument is essentially a pluralist one. That’s why, say, Rand and I are on the same page on the question of intervention as are, for instance, Walzer and Rothbard. The relevant distinction isn’t statist/non-statist at all.

The final para contains a good point, that the question of state sovereignty cuts across ideological lines (at least the ideology of statism/anti-statism). But I think that Joe is, to an extent, arguing against an extreme position of pluralism that most libertarians don't necessarily embrace. To explain, I must digress, then digress again before coming back to the specific point.

What's all this about pluralism v. rationalism, then?

The pluralist/rationalist axis is best explained in this paper by Jacob Levy,[1] neatly summed up as:

In general, Montesquieu, Burke, Tocqueville, and Acton saw freedom as aided or instantiated by that which is local, customary, unplanned, diverse, and decentralized, while Voltaire, Paine, Kant, and Mill saw freedom as promoted by that which is equal, rational, planned, enlightened, and principled.

The former being pluralists, the latter being rationalists. Obviously most American libertarians have been mostly pluralist in disposition- I think that between the two axes that separate four quadrants of liberalism, libertarians are best described as falling mainly in the market pluralist quadrant vs. welfare rationalists. Given the revealed and empirical nature of socialism as experienced in the 20th century (both totalitarian and democratic variants), there seems to be very little room left to welfare rationalists in which to work while remaining in the liberal camp. But I digress again.

In the description above, the pluralists don't reject rationalism root and branch, nor do the rationalists reject pluralism by and large. They're just further along the spectrum. Imagine a scale of 0-100, with 0 being pure pluralism (the local and customary uber alles) and 100 being pure rationalism (everything boiled down to principles, period). I don't think it takes much time to recognize that both 0 and 100 fall outside of the realm of liberal thought; a pure pluralist is at best a hyper burkean conservative, more likely a social hyperconservative that pines for the days of serfdom & a place for everyone and everyone in their place. A pure rationalist is a beast we got to know far too well in the 20th century, the totalizing zealot who believed that human society can be rationally remade due to infinite malleability of institutions. That idea, as Will Wilkinson[2] said, is the most deadly idea of the modern age, killing over 100 million people. Nobody confuses the totalitarians with liberalism.

So it would seem that even amongst the hardest core libertarians there is more than a little rationalism mixing about in the pot (indeed, I think libertarians run through a wide range of plural to rational, with perhaps Hoppeian liberals on the extreme edge of pluralism that is still liberal, and Objectivists on the extreme edge of rationalism that is still liberal; both camps being generally libertarian).

Back to the point

To bring the point closer to Joe's objection, it would seem that an intellectual commitment to pluralism more so than rationalism does not necessarily mean that you reject all attempts to rationalize the particular, and it shouldn't imply that when confronted by a grossly illiberal regime one must do nothing about them or, worse yet, tolerate it as an acceptable end state (no pun intended) in order to remain intellectually consistent. I think it is consistent with liberal tolerance to say that up to a point, individual and small-scale social groupings should be allowed a measure of autonomy/non-interference up to and including some illiberal behaviors, but beyond that point direct action should/could be taken to remove some illiberalism (beyond the continual assumption of liberal proselytizing of the illiberal to change their ways).

Thus the argument for pluralism on the small scale does not necessaily or unproblematically scale to large groups. Reinforcing effects may come into place that lock in oppression and prevent exit (by constraining worldview, opportunities, etc.) that in small groups are nonexistent. (For example, if everyone in the state is a hyperconservative religious and you're atheist, its much harder to get away from religious/theocratic culture & control of your circumstances than if it were limited to just a small town.) Just because I may tolerate a small commune of very strict islamic adherents who believe in brutal punishment of offenders within the community does not mean I must tolerate a state that imposes brutal oppression on millions of islamic adherents.

It seems ultimately to be a case of both Sorites and one's personal commitment to pluralism v. rationalism. For myself, I think the positive consequences of liberal tolerance outweigh the negative outcomes of small pockets of illiberalism; other's mileage may vary, but in any case it would seem that it is not as clear cut as all one or the other.


1. Yes, I am total pimp for this paper. This is like the eleventy-first time I've linked to it.

2. Updated to bleg for the link to the Wilkinson post in particular; I believe it was in reference to North Korea, but at the time it was late and the Fly Bottle archive search wasn't working, and Google was of no help.

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I think that to their

I think that to their overwhelming detriment, American libertarians are hyper-rationalists.

As to the point of the

As to the point of the ability to exit, what is a rationalist to do when it is apparent that a member of an intensely religious (or Maoist for that matter) community is not being allowed to exit? Any discussion of how to help that person escape has to take into account the effect upon innocents of an "escape plan", using force most likely; especially if this product-of-pluralism community has used its autonomy to build itself a veritable fortress.
But to counter this scenario one must submit a rationalist argument for world government, in which it is guaranteed that all will have the "right to exit", by a single authority of course, that by definition one will not have the right to escape from...
I cast my vote for pluralism and decentralization, wherein rational human beings still have the ability to move from place to place (and if not, everyone else will know not to go there) and avoid the despotic temptations of a single authority, no matter how "rationalist" it claims to be.

The relevent thing here is

The relevent thing here is exit, which is what Brian touches on when he says that "pluralism on the small scale does not necessaily or unproblematically scale to large groups." I am firmly in the Hayekian region when it comes to this sort of "pluralism," but not when people aren't permitted any exit from oppression. That makes all the difference.

Not a bad paper to be a pimp

Not a bad paper to be a pimp for!

Given that local and customary agents are generally less mercenary about property values, I wonder how that fits into the worldwide free trade zone that is espoused by libertarians. I may be willing to pay an extra 20% to purchase my neighbor's work product, but not for child labor output from the Third World. There is no feedback from my decision to buy the child labor output in a global free market.

I agree with you that scale is important to the decision to act against an oppressive agent. The result afterwards has to mean something, however. The Iraqi people are arguably less safe now than they were before. Going into a war unprepared for the insurgency aftermath is a failure of common sense.

>In general, Montesquieu,

>In general, Montesquieu, Burke, Tocqueville, and Acton saw freedom as
>aided or instantiated by that which is local, customary, unplanned,
>diverse, and decentralized, while Voltaire, Paine, Kant, and Mill saw
>freedom as promoted by that which is equal, rational, planned,
>enlightened, and principled.

Hmmm .... I just don't get it, at least not within the libertarian subspace.

I guess I'd be a "pluralist" in this scheme: all for local,customary,unplanned,diverse and decentralized. although I hate the sound of the word "pluralist", sounds like "majoritarian" except I've got an even lower threshold for OK'ng use of force. [I don't think that is what you are trying to get across ... I'm just griping about the label choice]

to me these traits are obviously libertarian, and the "rationalist" traits you've got here are the weasel-worded phantasms that you have to see through to be a libertarian.

equal? in application of the rules or results? can't have both.

rational? sure, and part of that rationality is a Hayekian humility and understanding that our puny little primate brains are _usually_ (not always) wrong when we try to "fix" systems which have evolved over thousands of years in ways which we can understand only in a general, superficial way.

planned? havta go Rothbard here. nobody is against planning. The question is who going to do the planning, and are they planning on implementing their plan with force or voluntary interaction?

enlightened? ummm ya. I also approve of apple pie and puppies.

principled? nawww.... I'm against them, just on principle. wait, I guess that means I am principled. Seriously, I'm not just being a pedantic doofus on this one; I don't see how this concept is useful in any kind of political spectral analysis.

Or is this whole thing just a more elaborate "defintion of freedom" debate?

Brian, Yeah, I think that I


Yeah, I think that I probably overstated my point a bit. I really wasn't trying to imply that all pluralists had to endorese state sovereignty or that no pluralist could ever reject horrifically illiberal societies.

My point, really, was just supposed to be that at the end of the day, the argument for state sovereignty really is a pluralist argument. We might very well disagree about whether it's a particularly good pluralist argument, or to what extent state pluralism ought to be respected. Still, it's an instance of pluralism that we're talking about.

I'm not sure how much you might have followed of the debate between Michael Walzer and a number of his critics on this issue. Walzer's arguments for state sovereignty make a case for what amounts to a pretty strong pluralism. It's actually Walzer (who thinks, wrongly, that he's following Mill) who I had in mind in describing the argument for sovereignty. A lot of his critics reject Walzer's arguments on rationalist grounds. The debate would, I think, make a lot more sense if put into those terms.

If you're interested, much of that debate is reprinted in _International Ethics_ (eds., Charles Beitz, et al, Princeton UP).

I suppose that I can't let your post pass without saying that I tend to think that communities actually have much more clout in doing things like locking in a worldview. People are far more influenced locally than they are nationally. But this is just another way of saying that I find myself between you and 100 on your scale.