Meelis Kitsing – Pluralist v. Rationalist Liberalism

This blog post is a summary of my talk at the Mises Circle Tallinn and is based on the term paper that I wrote for liberalism course at Harvard University in 2004, which is available here.

Often, there is a tendency to divide liberal thinkers into two categories: social or welfare liberals (e.g. Rawls, Mill) and market or classical liberals or libertarians (e.g. Hayek or Nozick). However, this distinction may be overemphasized and not as fundamental as it seems. In the end, they all support private property, free enterprise and many other liberties. The real question asks to what extent people should be free to pursue their goals and to what extent their actions should be limited by the state. For instance, while Mill supported a high tax on luxury goods and inheritance, he was for proportional income tax.

A more crucial distinction of liberal thinkers is whether they are pluralists or rationalists. Jacob Levy argues that this divide of liberalism is much older than the welfarist and market-orientated divide.

Pluralist liberalism is hostile toward central state authorities and supportive of local and voluntary communities and associations. Rationalist liberalism is supportive of state-centralized power to impose unified law, emphasizes equality before law, does not want to make exceptions for local communities nor weigh in their distinctions in implementing the law. It rests on the assumptions of progressive individuals and the universality of its doctrine.

A typical representative of pluralist liberalism is F.A. Hayek. Hayek talks of liberal society as a Great Society in which various other partial societies and groups exist.Each individual may be simultaneously a member of the Great Society and the groups within the Great Society. Government has a special position in the Great Society, bearing a function which “is somewhat like that of a maintenance squad of factory, its object is not to produce any particular services or products to be consumed by citizens but rather to see that the mechanism which regulates the production of those goods and services is kept in working order.” Hayek stresses that this function of government provides an essential condition for the preservation of that overall order. Hayek is critical of government’s efforts in trying to create laws that cover every particular situation and interest of every particular group within society.In many ways, Hayekian liberalism, with its emphasis on pluralism and the importance of localized dispersed knowledge that enables a price mechanism to work smoothly by giving proper signals to all actors, is closer to Burkian conservatism than to radical utilitarian liberalism of Mill and that of Bentham.

On the opposite side, the liberal views of John Stuart Mill are certainly rationalist. Mill’s hostility toward religion, purely religious education and tradition, and the tyranny that might exist within a family in regard to treatment of women clearly points in thisdirection. Mill brings out specific dangers that illiberal groups in society may pose by limiting the liberties of other individuals. Of course, tyranny of the majority in a liberal society can be protected by a constitution that gives equal rights to all citizens. However, maintaining the liberal framework, including these constitutional rights, requires political support. Mill’s approach in creating a coherent liberal society is to educate its citizens and encourage all individuals to become liberal. In this sense Mill offers a more proactive agenda than Hayek and other pluralists, because moderate social engineering helps to maintain the liberal society.

Mill´s rationalism and critique of illiberal ways of life are strongly founded in the concept of individuality. For Mill, free development of individuality is one of the essential elements of well-being. However, according to Mill, the difficulty of each individual developing personal individuality arises in the inability of the majority of people to recognize its importance. “The majority, being satisfied with the ways of mankind as they now are…, cannot comprehend why those ways should not be good enough for everybody…,” writes Mill.

Particularly, following customs and traditions made the realization of full potential of individuality impossible. From this perspective, there is a trade-off between having a society based on customs and traditions and a society thatallows full realization of individuality. Illiberal groups that impose their customs and traditions on society block the realization of individuality of other individuals. In the context of discussing limits of society’s authority over the individual, Mill gives the example of religious groups who could gain the majority in government and by doing so becoming a potential threat to the liberties of other individuals.

This is a fundamental question because a crucial element of liberal society based on individuality is the possibility of exercising choice. Illiberal groups who impose their views on the rest of society or practice their customs within their group limit an individual’s choice, thereby keeping individuals from developing their own individuality and, on aggregate, undermining the whole liberal society. “Human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice.” Hence, the Millian solution to the problem is to liberalize parts of society that do not follow liberal principles by using liberal state paternalism.

Rawls makes a distinction between comprehensive liberalism and political liberalism. He acknowledges that liberalism as a comprehensive doctrine favors individuality and autonomy over community and associations. He argues that his concept of political liberalism is neutral toward the aims of different comprehensive views in society. However, his view does not imply procedural neutrality, because the public policies of society are based on the framework of political liberalism. Rawlsian political liberalism has clear advantages over comprehensive liberalism, because “As a political conception it aims to be the focus of an overlapping consensus….It seeks common ground – or if one prefers, neutral ground – given the fact of pluralism.” Rawls points out that his concept allows those who would like to withdraw from modern life to do so as long as they honor the political arrangement of liberal society.

For example, he discusses the example of children’s education and the requirements imposed by the state. Comprehensive liberalism as followed by Mill will lead to a state requirement to teach values that foster autonomy and individuality. Rawlsian liberalism requires only that children know their political rights that allow them to “be fully cooperating members of society.”

John Gray argues that the Rawlsian contractarian framework of liberal society, which is “authentically individualist”, is closer to classical liberalism than the “moral collectivism of Mill’s utilitarianism.” Gray points out that the Rawlsian approach “despite its egalitarian orientation, had many links with classical concerns for the priority of individual liberty within a rule-governed constitutional order.” Hence, on this pluralists vs. rationalists divide in liberal doctrine, the Rawlsian approach is in many ways closer to the ideas of Hayek than those of Mill. Certainly, Rawlsian social contract is much more extensive than the Hayekian minimal government. But in essence, the degree of pluralism afforded by the Rawlsian approach is much higher than in the Millian approach. Rawls could be seen as a middle-way between hyper-pluralism and rationalism.