Posts tagged: Rawls

Are Liberal Regimes as Coercive as Integralist Regimes?

A week or so ago, Dave Atenasio published a nice reply to my post arguing that integralist regimes will have a hard time generating requisite levels of stability without lots of coercion. The piece is well-done, so check it out, but I’d like to jump right to the heart of the matter. I concede freely what integralists often say, which is that liberal regimes are coercive. My claim is that liberal regimes are less coercive in allowing a wider range of opinion to flourish. And if there is a natural tendency in the free use of practical reason for people to disagree, integralist regimes will therefore have to employ more coercion to achieve coordination around their comprehensive doctrine than liberal regimes, which are at least somewhat neutral on these matters, and much more than integralist regimes.

Atenasio argues that it’s just not clear whether integralist regimes are more coercive than liberal regimes, and then he proceeds to outline various ways in which liberal regimes are coercive and points out that the coerciveness of both liberal and integralist regimes, even construed as ideal types, come in degrees, and are based on a range of factors, the variety and magnitude of which will make it difficult to show definitively that liberal regimes are less coercive.

I’m pretty sympathetic to the idea that it is hard to determine which regimes and policies are more coercive than others. That’s a big point in my forthcoming book, A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times, in Chapter 5. However, I don’t think we’re should be as skeptical as Atenasio believes. My argument begins with a ceteris paribus comparison between the two regime types following three restrictions on how the comparison should proceed.

First condition: I’m going to assume that liberal regimes and integralist regimes can have the same foreign policy and economic policy, within broad limits. So in comparing the two regimes, we can hold these policy classes constant. I know that integralist regimes will, on average, have a narrower band of economic policies, since liberal regimes can vary a lot in this regard, but let’s set that aside for the sake of argument.

So this means that the main comparison between the two regimes will be on social policy.

Second condition: we can hold lots of social policy constant because the degree of coerciveness of these policies are somewhat independent to what is essentially different between integralist and liberal regimes. First,  and most controversially, I think we can hold abortion policy constant because, while liberal regimes tend to permit abortion, and while integralist regimes would seek to end it, nothing about a liberal regime forbids it from adopting pro-life legislation (here I disagree with Rawls that reasonable people have to be at least somewhat pro-choice). There is no inherent instability in a pro-life liberal constitutional order, as long as it is not suffused with a pro-choice ethos. But I admit that if you’re pro-life, there’s a way in which integralist regimes will tend to be less coercive, because they almost always will forbid people from coercing the unborn into an early grave. So if liberal regimes must be pro-choice, then that is a point in the integralist’s favor.

But there are other forms of coercion that go in the other direction, since integralist regimes will embrace far more legal moralism and paternalism, and liberal orders will tend to eschew those practices, so that’s a clear way in which liberalism will be less coercive.

Third restriction: I’m going to hold the degree of pluralism in the populace constant as well. Perhaps integralist regimes will create more Catholics (though they may generate a backlash (which is how integralist regimes created the Reformation, imo: they were too violent and repressed too much disagreement). If so, then integralist regimes will become less coercive because the populace will agree with the policies of the integralist state. But liberal regimes will also not be very coercive if everyone is Catholic. But if everyone is not Catholic, then integralism will be much more coercive than liberalism, and that seems to me pretty clear.

That’s because of the big essential constitutional difference between an integralist regime and a liberal regime: the integralist regime basically has no first amendment. There is no robust right to freedom of speech, press, or religion in an integralist regime. Speech that promulgates heresy and apostasy must be restricted. Publications that promulgate heresy and apostasy must be restricted. And, obviously, the state will use coercion to promote adherence to Catholic belief and practice, even against Protestants and, maybe, Orthodox Christians, not to mention Jews, Muslims, and atheists. There are limits on such coercion, as people cannot be forced to become Catholics against their will. But, if you have been validly baptized, even as an infant, and you decide to speak what you know to be heresy or you apostasize, you’re to be held criminal liable in accord with your level of guilt. So an integralist state can imprison and perhaps even execute recalcitrant heretics.

I recognize that some will want to reject one or more of the three restrictions. But they all seem fair to me. And if they are, it seems clear that integralist regimes will be much more coercive than a regime with first amendment-like protections. Perhaps with enough time and force, the transition to integralism will produce such resolute Catholics that most people won’t even want first amendment rights. But that claim seems in tension with what we see even in heavily Catholic countries. You see lots of disagreement about all kinds of things.

Rawls, Political Liberty, and Freedom of Exit

In Political Liberalism, John Rawls revises his theory of justice by adopting a stronger position on the priority of political liberty, which includes not merely the right to vote but the right to participate in the electoral process, to run for office, and so on. He writes,

… we must take an important further step and treat the equal political liberties in a special way. This is done by including in the first principle of justice the guarantee that the political liberties, and only these liberties (emphasis mine), are secured by what I have called their ‘fair value.’ (Rawls 2005, 327)

Rawls’s argument, in his own words, is that “unless the fair value of these liberties is approximately preserved, just background institutions are unlikely to be either established or maintained.” To figure out how to pull this off, we can’t say much in advance, but “must advance by trial and error.”

Rawls does suggest that “one guideline for guaranteeing fair value seems to be to keep political parties independent of large concentrations of private economic and social power …” (328). But he declines to say more.

Rawls rejects some reasons for prioritizing political liberty, such as the claim that it is the best way to secure autonomy, since he recognizes some reasonable people will deny this. Instead, political liberties are “essential in order to establish just legislation and also to make sure that the fair political process specified by the constitution is open to everyone on a basis of rough equality.” (330)

I want to raise a difficulty for Rawls’s argument. Jason Brennan has recently argued, I think correctly, that Rawls’s arguments for specific rights don’t work, in part because they treat liberties asymmetrically in ways that cannot be justified. Let’s suppose Rawls can answer this generic challenge and see if he can avoid a more targeted objection.

Here’s the objection: all of Rawls’s arguments for a right to influence government applies not merely to voice mechanisms – voting and the like – but to exit mechanisms as well, such as a right to emigrate and free movement, rights to legal exemptions, rights to federal arrangements, and rights of secession. Ilya Somin aptly calls rights of freedom of movement “foot voting” because people are exercising liberty to shape political institutions by withdrawing from them, rather than participating in them. Both voice and exit mechanisms can greatly influence government behavior when people pursue them in large numbers.

Both types of liberty can be “essential in order to establish just legislation” and to ensure that the political process is one of “rough equality.” In many cases, the threat of exit pressures governments to improve more than the threat of losing votes. And if people were freer to move between countries, that pressure would arguably increase.

So Rawls’s arguments seem to ground both democratic rights and exit rights. If so, the institutional implications of Rawls’s arguments in Political Liberalism change, even if we stick to ideal theory, and even if we restrict the range of reasonable pluralism to conceptions of the good (once you relax ideal theory assumptions somewhat, and extend reasonable pluralism more broadly, I think the case for exit rights grows even stronger). It will be important to decentralize government, and ease freedom of movement, perhaps even with subsidies.

Here are some potential replies.

  1. Exit and Voice Mechanisms Compete: as Hirschman pointed out long ago, the more people exit an institution, the less effective voice mechanisms become, at least some of the time. If people can leave, why should they invest in improving the institution rather than leave it? So perhaps we need to restrict exit rights in order to improve voice rights. In reply, I’d point out you can make a parallel argument in the other direction: if you restrict exit, you make exit less effective, so this isn’t a reason to prioritize voice over exit, and certainly not to prioritize it as much as Rawls does.
  2. Voice is More Effective than Exit: one might argue that democratic voting is a more effective means of communicating dissatisfaction and the general will of the people than exit mechanisms. I think Somin has shown this just isn’t so by drawing standard rational choice theory to explain political ignorance (following a long line of political scientists). Democratic voting isn’t as responsive to legislative changes as one might hope. Exit mechanisms, on the other hand, often convey more information (since it is odd to expressively exit rather than expressively vote) and deprive governments of more power.
  3. Exit Mechanisms are More Biased in Favor of the Rich Against the Poor:  it may seem that the rich have a relatively easier time exiting than the poor vis-a-vis voting than the poor. But Rawls knows that the rich can dominate democracy too, and so ideal regimes will restrict the influence of the rich. Why not think that ideal regimes can similarly restrict the influence of richer exiters? The government could also equalize opportunities for the poor and rich to exit with redistributive taxation, say granting the poor subsidies to move across the country, or to push for decentralization, or even to leave the country.

There are other potential replies, but these are enough for now to get my general point across.