Jacob T. Levy, Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2015. 322 pages.

In Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, McGill Professor Jacob Levy has made a major contribution to political theory by identifying and elaborating on a deep and enduring split within liberalism that unlocks much that is otherwise mysterious about its past disputes and future prospects. All liberals want to protect freedom and equality but, from the beginning, they have disagreed about the main source of threat.

For some liberals (whom Levy dubs “rationalists”), the main dangers are from traditionalist communities, whether local, sectarian or familial. For rationalist liberals, these traditional loyalties are the source of sexism, superstition and repression. They see centralized, impersonal nation-states – or, even better, supranational statelike organizations from the European Union to the United Nations – are at least potentially open to reform based on a reasoned understanding of the rights of all. In contrast, other liberals (Levy’s “pluralists”) see the bureaucratic state itself as the main enemy of freedom, constantly encroaching on voluntary and decentralized sources of social meaning. This has led pluralists to be suspicious of state-centred narratives of progress and often to form alliances with the modern state’s illiberal enemies.

Levy considers the consequences of this split for concrete contemporary disputes, for the intellectual history of the Western liberal tradition and for the larger future of liberal polities undergoing rapid cultural change and polarization. In all three areas, he develops complex variations on his simple theme of two liberalisms. After reading Levy’s book, it is hard to read a newspaper without seeing his dilemma play out. Is banning polygamy or the niqab liberation of women or oppression of religious minorities? Must evangelical colleges abandon their condemnation of sex outside heterosexual marriage if they want to train lawyers? Can European judiciaries require member states to accept unwanted demographic change in the name of common refugee protection obligations? How can indigenous systems of hereditary government be given formal, legal power in a modern state? In each case, both sides claim the mantle of freedom, choice and equal treatment. In each case, the issue is whether the main enemy of these values is traditional mores or rationalistic bureaucracies. These dilemmas cut across traditional left/right divides.

In the first part of his book, Levy considers the problem “intermediate groups” pose for liberal political theory. In its simplest form, liberalism focuses on the dyad of the state and the individual. For liberals, the equal autonomy of individuals is the source of both the state’s legitimate powers and the appropriate limits on those powers. Liberal states ought to maximize the freedom of everyone and can only establish limits on that freedom on impersonally justified grounds. Liberal documents from the American Declaration of Independence to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms follow this structure, deeply embedded in liberal theory.

The trouble, as conservative and radical critics of liberalism have long delighted in pointing out, is that societies are characterized by more than the individual/state dyad. People are embedded in all sorts of local and voluntary loyalties, institutions and organizations. The most benign might be defined by a common interest or hobby. More troublesome are those defined by common descent: from family and clans to ethnic and racial groups. Others are defined by adherence to a religion or other comprehensive ideology. Additional problematic intermediate groups include subnational governments and economic organizations like corporations and unions (although Levy excludes this last type of intermediate group from his discussion for reasons of scope).

Central liberal values such as freedom of association and of religion, privacy and local self-government get their meaning from human beings’ need to participate in these intermediate groups. But even at their best, these groups divide the world between insiders and outsiders, a division that any liberal must view with suspicion; at worst, intermediate groups are explicitly inegalitarian and hostile to individual autonomy.

Levy discusses, and rejects, two liberal theories of intermediate groups. The “pure” theory sees group existence as the simple product of individual choice, and concludes that the state should not interfere with groups so long as there is no explicit coercion to prevent individuals from leaving. On the pure theory, only a central state can violate autonomy: if a religion or an ethnic group is restrictive or sexist, then the individual affected always has the option to leave.

As Levy points out, there are two implicit assumptions in the pure theory: first that exit is realistic, and second that its possibility normatively justifies all internal restrictions on liberty and equality. The problem with the first assumption is that it holds only if the central state is in fact strong enough to guarantee exit, but provides no mechanism by which this strength can be maintained. As for the normative assumption that violations of autonomy and equality are fine so long as there is a possibility of exit, the pure theorists are inconsistent: they would not excuse the state, as such, from any violations of liberty and equality, as long as the affected individual could emigrate. The possibility of exit may diminish liberal unease, but should not eliminate it.

The opposite approach would be to require that every civil society group have the same relationship to its members that the liberal state has to its citizens. Levy calls this the “convergence” view. In some cases, this makes sense. Local governments and incorporated societies are required to have elections for leaders, articulate statelike impersonal justification of their strictures and provide procedural rights to those accused of violating them.

But when it comes to the intermediate groups centrally involved in creating meaning for people, the convergence view would require massive impersonal state involvement in our intimate lives. Descent-based groups do not have formal-bureaucratic organizational structures amenable to legalistic rights talk, and trying to enforce such a structure suggests an almost totalitarian project of atomizing and deracinating people. Religious organizations may or may not have formal structures, but when they do, it seems the most successful (think the Roman Catholic and Mormon churches) are precisely those that are most illiberal.

Levy thinks this is no accident, since religious institutions like those of mainline Protestantism or Reform Judaism that have most converged with liberal, secular values offer little that is distinctive to people who cannot get meaning in mainstream society. If this observation is correct, there will be strong selective pressures in a society globally committed to liberalism for robust intermediate groups to diverge from liberal values. For this reason, Levy does not think convergence is likely as a descriptive matter, and he rejects it, on liberal grounds, as a normative project.

If abstract, universalizing theories of intermediate groups do not work, it is still possible to look to traditions of relative suspicion. In Levy’s account the rationalist/pluralist views need not have the (implausible) deductive clarity of the pure/convergent theories. In the book’s second – and longest – part, Levy retells the intellectual history of liberalism in light of the tension between those who look at intermediate groups primarily as a source of liberal freedom and those who see such groups as a threat to it.

Levy combines a strong historical sense with close attention to theoretical distinctions historians often ignore. His story involves comparisons between familiar characters in succeeding eras, paired along rationalist/pluralist lines: from John Locke and more historically minded Whigs in the 17th century; through Voltaire as despiser of religion and admirer of enlightened despots and Montesquieu as opponent of royal absolutism and admirer of the estates in mid-18th-century France; to Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke during the era of the American and French revolutions; and culminating in the subtler 19th-century contrast of John Stuart Mill, for the rationalists, with his friend Alexis de Tocqueville, for pluralism.

Along the way, Levy introduces and situates a number of lesser-known figures, especially on the pluralist liberal side. Liberal theory developed during an era in which there was a real conflict between the emerging royal/democratic nation-state and the decentralized institutions of feudalism, and Levy shows that liberals were not always on the side of universal law and against feudal privilege. From the English Whigs through some of the French liberal critics of the Revolution to the pluralist new liberals in the 20th century, Levy reminds of us of the ways in which liberals invoked the “ancient liberties” of medieval Europe against absolutist monarchies and then against the ideological nation-state. There is a line, running especially through Catholic thought, from these pro-medieval antistatist versions of liberalism to more recent decentralist and federalist theories. This line has special importance for Canada because it explains some deep resonances between the thinking of British new liberals like Viscount Haldane and Quebec thinkers influenced by post–Vatican II Catholic social thought: behind both looms the 19th-century figure of Lord Acton.

Levy is least confident in his third part, in which he discusses the implications of the pluralist/rationalist dichotomy for our present and future predicament in the multicultural West. Levy obviously has sympathies for the pluralist side, but is willing neither to cast his lot entirely with it nor to try to broker a synthesis.

There is something to admire about this unwillingness to accept an easy resolution. On the other hand, from my perspective, the fact that the resolution between pluralism and rationalism more or less works in practice, at least for now, is itself in need of explanation. Levy seems to insist on a pessimistic or tragic conclusion that we cannot expect liberal values in a broad sense to suffuse civil society over the long run. But theoreticians should be interested in how a trick so difficult to pull off can be done at all. There must be some forces pulling toward equilibrium. In this respect, I think Levy is too dismissive of the forces of convergence, of how mutual accommodation in the political realm, at least sometimes, spills over into more tolerant and egalitarian approaches in the more intimate.

One possible conclusion from Levy’s discussion is that we should seek a golden mean: if either the bureaucratic state or particularistic identity groups get too powerful, then we are in trouble. A conception of political wisdom as requiring balance has a long tradition in the West, dating back to Aristotle and Cicero. It is also consistent with Francis Fukuyama’s observation that the historical basis of Western institutions lies in Western Europe’s uniquely strong-enough-but-not-too-strong central states.

Of course, as the investment advisers are required to say, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and Levy’s pessimism may be vindicated. The key issue is whether liberal societies are able to reproduce a core liberal culture: so long as that remains possible, pluralist concessions to illiberalism within voluntarily chosen intermediate groups probably strengthen liberalism. But there may be a tipping point beyond which the liberal nature of the central state could no longer be taken for granted. Canada has long benefited from a pragmatist streak in its liberal-rationalist ruling elite, but if that same elite loses an understanding of the historically contingent nature of this unstable arrangement along with the vocabulary to talk about how to preserve it, then the whole arrangement could be in danger.

Levy should be applauded for advancing a vital discussion within liberal theory, and doing so in a way that is informed by philosophical, historical and social-scientific perspectives. Political theorists should definitely read it, but so too should lawyers, policymakers, journalists and others interested in reconciling these dilemmas from a more practical perspective.