Living Better Together

Gerald Gaus has presented a vision of the liberal order that proposes to move liberalism from one position among many alternative sects within political philosophy to its rightful place as providing the framework for the public discourse over the “good society.” It is a welcome move, away from the various claims of specific visions of justice, toward one that focuses on the institutional structure and rules of discourse that permit an ongoing and uncoercive conversation in the polity over substantive claims of justice. But Gaus’s vision of a liberal order is not limited to merely a sophisticated argument for “live and let live” or “agree to disagree” common-sense rules of discourse in a world of diverse value systems.

F. A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom argued that there are severe limits to agreement in democratic order. We can only forge an agreement over general rules, not specific values. When we press for democratic action on specific values, we invite social conflict rather than social cooperation. Part of Hayek’s argument as to why socialism would disappoint and would be inconsistent with democratic society was that it required the democratic process to produce an agreement on specific values that it is constitutionally unable to produce.

Liberalism, Hayek often stressed, is a political-legal philosophy on what the law should be, while democracy is a mechanism for the determination of law. The rule of law is a question of the procedural rules that apply generally, not about substantive outcomes of any particular case. Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty attempted to develop this “generality norm” consistently through a variety of public policy applications. Law is to be contrasted with privileges. James Buchanan has developed this argument further in Politics By Principle, Not Interest. The result is a political philosophy that is non-discriminatory. It is about rules of the game and their enforcement in a fair and impartial manner.

I read Gaus’s argument for public reason liberalism as in this same spirit as the work of Hayek and Buchanan, but directed more concretely to the literature in modern liberalism. Both Hayek and Buchanan found great promise in the early work of Rawls on rules and the idea of justice being limited to the general rules precisely because we could never agree on social justice as resource distribution. It is important to distinguish between resource egalitarianism and analytical egalitarianism. Hayek and Buchanan are analytical egalitarians and want to find a framework of rules that is consistent with a non-discriminatory view of politics. The Rawlsians moved away from this general framework and argued for resource egalitarianism as necessary for social justice.

Gaus’s puzzle is how we can live better together in a world of diverse opinions and beliefs. The probability that an agreement can be reached over issues of religious belief, distributive justice, and the uses of property is highly unlikely. Mature and reasonable actors must engage in a public discussion on the nature of a society of equal individuals that tolerates difference yet secures stability.

The question that I have is whether we can get a workable social order based on toleration that does not respect private property and the persistent and consistent application of that principle. In other words, we have to determine which questions are part of the general framework, and which questions represent the diversity of opinion that can exist within the framework. This is important to sort out in advance, because the sort of public reason liberalism that Gaus envisions requires a distinction between agreement and acceptance of practices. And if that is the case, then don’t we need a robust theory of liberalism to help determine the rules that govern the general framework? Don’t we need to sort out questions of the scale and scope of government prior to its establishment, so that we can establish that general framework?

The rules that govern property are foundational institutions in the “good society.” Property rules provide the institutional basis for toleration. Democratic discourse must exist inside of a liberal framework of rules. In order to live better together, the general framework must not only support, but encourage, that the gains from social cooperation under the division of labor be realized. From this perspective, the greater productivity of social cooperation makes possible peaceful coexistence among diverse peoples. Without the mechanisms of wealth creation, the social order would break down into a struggle for resources.

Resource egalitarianism results in conflicts, whereas analytical egalitarianism provides the framework for the reconciliation of those conflicts. Treating people as equals provides a useful starting point for social philosophy, but following Buchanan, any discussion of the rules of the game must also include an examination of the strategies that the various players will play given those rules. In other words, abstract discussions of the “good society” must be made more concrete by an examination of the interaction between rules and strategies within rules. The rules that constitute the framework must be general and equally applicable so that strategic opportunism is minimized. My sense is that the persistent and consistent application of this perspective would give more economic content to Gaus’s public reason liberalism. Economic liberalism is not a sect within the range of possible economic policy views; it is instead a framework for economic interaction within the “good society.”

There may be many ways for people to live, but there are many fewer ways for people to live peacefully and prosperously. Wishing doesn’t make it so when it comes to economic reality. Utopia is not an option, even if philosophers develop sophisticated arguments for utopian systems. This message is harder to get across than it should be. Gaus’s straightforward argument for limiting the claims of justice to the procedural rules that constitute the framework for society is welcomed. As I read his work, he is continuing the argument laid out by Hayek and Buchanan and in contrast to the Rawlsians (though not necessarily Rawls). But if you take the idea of non-discriminatory politics (and law) seriously, then the scope of economic policy will be far more restricted than is currently imagined. Liberalism as the framework for the “good society” does result in an economic liberalism that can only be violated at the expense of the framework itself.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In his lead essay, Gerald Gaus argues that today’s political philosophy is a confused jumble of opposing factions with little prospect of consensus. He then proposes a way out of this “crisis of credibility”: We should recognize that there may be a range of institutions, each of which suffices to win our assent given the benefits that accrue from agreeing to any of them. Just as liberalism is a response to religious sectarianism, it can also be a response to philosophical sectarianism.

Response Essays

  • Richard Arneson rejects the analogy between religious and political toleration. In the latter, we are called to exercise reason, and we may well be justified in excluding from consideration those who hold unreasonable views. Indeed, given fully rational and fully informed interlocutors, agreement is inevitable, and there is no need for toleration at all. Gaus’s argument, while clever, is flawed. Arneson founds toleration on consequentialism: We tolerate even unreasonable beliefs because persecuting them has obviously bad results.

  • Eric Mack argues that while classical liberalism seems to be a part of Gaus’s “range of justice,” its focus on prohibiting certain methods of attaining one’s goals will always render it unacceptable to some members of society. For all that, the prohibition of certain means, with very few restrictions on individuals’ chosen ends, makes the classical liberal position distinct from many other mere political sects. As a further problem, focusing on a range of justice whose member theories can potentially be found agreeable by free and equal moral persons may simply push the whole question back to a deeper level: Who then gets a place at the public reason table with the grownups? Are those agents who don’t come to the public reason table subject to any of the principles of justice?

  • Peter J. Boettke likens Gaus’s argument to the work of Friedrich Hayek and James Buchanan in political economy and public choice. He argues that property rights are integral to any generalized liberal system; without them, and without the means of increasing economic wealth through the market process, society will devolve into a fight over resources. Private property is thus a part of the basic framework of any liberal society.