Freedom, Progress and History
Freedom, Progress and History

Freedom, Progress and History

July 1 st 2001

Writing in the decade following World War II, social philosopher Robert A. Nisbet began to raise serious questions about the North American liberal ideals of human autonomy and inevitable human progress.

From a standpoint in the early twenty-first century, many may be inclined to look back to the 1950s with nostalgia as a time of peace, prosperity, and happiness. But Nisbet was aware already then of a deeper current of doubt and pessimism running through Western societies. After all, two world wars and at least two versions of ideological fanaticism had produced unprecedented human destruction in a supposedly enlightened Europe during the first half of the twentieth century.

Western liberalism, Nisbet concluded, with its confident assumption "that history is a more or less continuous emancipation of men from despotism and evil," could offer no satisfactory account of evil on such a grand scale. Belief in the inevitable progress of history is a mythical faith—a new faith emerging from the Enlightenment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The Enlightenment myth of the progress of freedom, according to Nisbet, holds that as individuals become liberated from the past constraints of aristocratic and ecclesiastical bondage, they will become ever more independent, happy, and self-determining.

This faith leads its adherents to reject much of what is good about traditional associations and community life. A chief consequence is that these supposedly liberated individuals fall prey to bureaucratic and even totalitarian states which make them less free in many cases than their ancestors had been. "The conception of society as an aggregate of morally autonomous, psychologically free, individuals, rather than as a collection of groups, is, in sum, closely related to a conception of society in which all legitimate authority has been abstracted from the primary communities and vested in the single sphere of the State."

The actual consequence of the Enlightenment conception of liberated individuals has not, in fact, been the realization of full autonomy for everyone, but rather a new enslavement—a new kind of powerlessness, insecurity, and loss of social meaning on a mass scale.

"The inadequacy of individualism as a theory of freedom," Nisbet wrote in 1953, "lies plainly written in the conditions we see spreading in the Western world today: on the one hand, enlarging masses of socially 'free,' insecure, individuals; on the other, the constant increase in the custodial powers of a State that looms ever larger as the only significant refuge for individuals who insist upon escaping from the moral consequences of individualism."

If one consequence of individualistic idealism is the emergence of a massive custodial state, then a consequence of the growing custodial state, as it has emerged in the United States, is the nearly overwhelming influence of interest-group politics.

Theodore J. Lowi analyzes this problem in his book The End of Liberalism. American citizens, he says, have turned increasingly to the state to secure the protection and benefits of their freedom. In the process, they have become organized more and more as political interest groups. Yet they hide from or deny the expansion of government which this movement helps to create. They try to maintain the conviction that government is simply an extension of their own freedom and self governance.

But that is an illusion.

According to Lowi, interest group liberalism in America

helps create the sense that power need not be power at all, control need not be control, and government need not be coercive. If sovereignty is parcelled out among groups, then who is out anything? As a major Fortune editor enthusiastically put it, government power, group power, and individual power may go up simultaneously. If the groups to be controlled control the controls, then "to administer does not always mean to rule."

What was set in motion beginning around the time of the Great Depression was an expanding process of interest-group competition. Under the pressure of that interest group scramble for power and influence, government's authority to decide what is just and unjust—what is good policy and bad—has seriously declined.

Interest group liberalism, according to Lowi, seeks a form of government "in which there is no formal specification of means or of ends." In a government so divided, "there is, therefore, no substance. Neither is there procedure. There is only process."

The epitome of interest group liberalism's achievements, in Lowi's view, was American federal legislation produced by the War on Poverty initiated in 1964 with the omnibus Economic Opportunity Act. "Delegation of power is the order of the day in this statute. Operative standards are almost impossible to find anywhere in it." In place of firm standards and clear procedures stand mere sentiments and goals, according to Lowi.

The act is, especially in its most important and most novel titles, completely process oriented non-law. It speaks of reaching the causes of poverty, but this is almost entirely rhetorical, for there is nothing in these clauses of the statute and official records that even the most legal minded bureaucrat had to feel guided by. There is no guidance because all the apparent guidance is suggestive and permissive.

The more ubiquitous and intrusive government has become, the more undefined and lacking in authority it becomes. Interest group politics corrupts democratic government because it gives the impression that people are represented in government merely because they have been given access to the interest group process. This kind of liberalism actually helps to render government impotent, because the latter's power is delegated out to a process without standards or limits. Both citizens and government officials become demoralized even as they become increasingly entrapped, because this kind of government cannot achieve justice.

According to Lowi,

No matter what definition of justice is used, liberal governments cannot achieve justice because their policies lack the sine qua non of justice—that quality without which a consideration of justice cannot even be initiated. Considerations of justice in, or achieved by, an action cannot be made unless a deliberate and conscious attempt was made to derive the action from a preexisting general rule or moral principle governing a class of actions. Therefore, any governing regime that makes a virtue of avoiding such rules puts itself outside the context of justice.

By the 1970s, not only was it evident that the War on Poverty had not been won, but other critical problems in the American liberal tradition were becoming more and more evident. Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, among others, turned against the ideal of autonomous individuals pursuing self government outside a context of acknowledged social boundaries and moral standards. They faulted government welfare programs for ignoring the "mediating structures" of society where genuine and original community exists. They sought to redirect policy making back toward the empowerment of families, churches, neighbourhoods, and voluntary associations and away from government programs that spawned new bureaucracies founded on the delegation of power to interest groups. This neo conservatism angered many liberals who were still seeking by every means possible to put government on the side of individual freedom and society wide equality.

In 1983, Michael Walzer entered the growing debate over the purpose and limits of government in America with his book Spheres of Justice. Equality, he argues, is a legitimate standard pointing toward "a society free from domination." But liberty and equality do not have simple, singular meanings in a complex, differentiated society. Subtly, Walzer develops an argument from history to the effect that government in a complex society should not try to become the sole distributor of all social goods, and it certainly should not try to do so simply by means of interest group politics. If a central authority seeks to make all individuals free and equal in all respects, it will inevitably become tyrannical by invading other spheres of social life in which different kinds of goods ought to be distributed according to other legitimate principles.

Echoing some of the critical judgments of Nisbet, Berger, Neuhaus, and Lowi, Walzer contends that distributive justice must take into account a diversity of social spheres. To overcome the inadequacies of both individualist and collectivist logic, Walzer argues for the recognition of "complex equality."

The regime of complex equality is the opposite of tyranny. It establishes a set of relationships such that domination is impossible. In formal terms, complex equality means that no citizen's standing in one sphere or with regard to one social good can be undercut by his standing in some other sphere, with regard to some other good. Thus, citizen X may be chosen over citizen Y for political office, and then the two of them will be unequal in the sphere of politics. But they will not be unequal generally so long as X's office gives him no advantages over Y in any other sphere—superior medical care, access to better schools for his children, entrepreneurial opportunities, and so on.

Walzer, in effect, accepts society's historical differentiation into multiple spheres as one of the essential protections against tyranny—whether that be the tyranny of a totalitarian dictator or of an indiscriminate majority that tries to level all social boundaries in an attempt to secure a simple kind of equality for every individual.

Tyranny is always specific in character: a particular boundary crossing, a particular violation of social meaning. Complex equality requires the defence of boundaries; it works by differentiating goods just as hierarchy works by differentiating people. But we can only talk of a régime of complex equality when there are many boundaries to defend; and what the right number is cannot be specified.

In different ways, what Nisbet, Lowi, Walzer, and others have done over the past five decades is to call into question the simplistic ideals of individual autonomy, liberation from all traditional authorities, and an egalitarian society of individuals maintained through a process of interest group politics. They point, in essence, to the emptiness of a freedom ideal that promises to liberate individuals from all social obligations except the universal and ubiquitous democratic ones. They affirm the importance of a limited state that is constrained in part by its recognition of the boundaries of other social spheres and by clear standards of justice. Furthermore, they are suspicious of faith in perpetual historical progress.

But what is the source of the norms or standards that these thinkers use? By what authority do they argue for complex equality, or for the recovery of genuine community, or for a just government that will not succumb to interest group politics? For the most part, Nisbet, Lowi, and Walzer appeal to history and historical experience for the legitimacy of what they judge to be right.

As Walzer says in defence of a differentiated society whose spheres are marked off with proper fences:

We never know exactly where to put the fences; they have no natural location. The goods they distinguish are artifacts; as they were made, so they can be remade. Boundaries, then, are vulnerable to shifts in social meaning, and we have no choice but to live with the continual probes and incursions through which these shifts are worked out. . . . The social world will one day look different from the way it does today, and distributive justice will take on a different character than it has for us.

Walzer does not look for principles that transcend history, though he expects "distributive justice" to remain a fixed norm over time even as its character changes. But whence comes distributive justice? If it is not natural or divine, then what kind of standard is it? If all social spheres are merely human artifacts, then what are the boundaries and limits of human artifice and of distributive justice? Or are there none? May social meanings shift without limits and still remain good for human beings?

If individualism and collectivism are inadequate ideologies, is there any principled basis (in contrast to a merely reactionary one) for accepting a pluralist view of society? If social systems and spheres arise entirely from historical artifice, why should we accept what Nisbet, or Lowi, or Walzer finds valuable in history rather than what Rousseau, or Marx, or Hitler, or Stalin tried to create in history? Why should we oppose tyranny? Is there a non individualist view of human nature that can justify that stance? Do the multiple spheres of human association in society have any deeper grounding in natural or divine order than is suggested by Nisbet, Lowi, and Walzer? Have these political thinkers really gone beyond Enlightenment humanism, or are they merely looking for ways to hold on to its original aims?


Collectivism—An understanding of human society in which every person and institution is considered to be a functional part of a larger whole or collective. This collective could be—for example—the state (fascism and socialism) or the nation/ethnic community (nationalism). Collectivists define justice as that which is good for the whole.

Individualism—An understanding of human society in which the individual person is the only basic reality. Society and societal institutions are only collections of individuals. Individualists define justice as the protection of the rights of individuals and of the contracts into which autonomous individuals enter. (This is the most common understanding of society in North America and is shared by most liberals and conservatives in Canada and the United States.)

Pluralism—An understanding of human society that attempts not to reduce social life completely to either the individual or some collective. One variety of pluralism is that of the English pluralists inspired by the German historian and legal scholar Otto von Gierke. This group included John Neville Figgis and the young Harold Laski. For the English pluralists, groups have their own identity that is not derived either from the state or from their individual members. They would define justice as the recognition of both group and individual rights.

Another, very different variety is the pluralism of American behaviourists like Robert Dahl. For the behaviourist pluralists, groups are collections of individuals with shared political interests. For these pluralists, "justice" has no meaning, since politics is essentially an amoral struggle among contending assortments of individuals acting out of self-interest.

Jim Skillen
Jim Skillen

Jim Skillen directs the Center for Public Justice in Washington D.C., where his job is essentially to read, write, and argue with people about government and politics. He is the author most recently of With or Against the World?: America's Role among the Nations (2005) and earlier of A Covenant to Keep: Meditations on the Biblical Theme of Justice (2000). He and his wife Doreen have achieved sufficient maturity to become grandparents. He would play more golf if he had more time and money and if Doreen didn't mock it as a silly little game.


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