Freedom of Religion Secures Other Rights As Well

Ethan’s post on “The Why of Religious Freedom” inspired me to add one more to his list of reasons why freedom of religion deserves special treatment and protection. The freedom of religion preserves other freedoms we hold dear. Even those who do not wish to belong to an organized religion or to hold strong religious opinions have their freedoms secured because of the protection granted to religious freedom.

Freedom of religion, the first freedom protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment, is part of having freedom of speech. Imagine a country where you could say anything you wanted, except those ideas and principles you hold most dear to your heart. How free would you feel your speech actually is? If you have freedom of the press and can print any opinion or argument you care to, unless it is about your conscience, how free is your press? To say that you may express your political opinion and vote unless you have religious reasons for that opinion similarly denies the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

Freedom of religion is also a guarantor of freedom of assembly. This last weekend while in Atlanta for the Teaching Professor Conference in Atlanta, my colleagues and I toured Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church and neighborhood. The civil rights movement for many years worked through the churches because it was the only place African Americans were freely allowed to assemble together in many areas. As they assembled, they had the freedom to speak out against the injustices and oppressions they faced and work together to overcome them.​

As Rev. King put it, “Freedom is like life. It cannot be had in installments. Freedom is indivisible – we have it all, or we are not free” (The Case Against “Tokenism”). To extend that argument, when we say ‘freedom of religion’ it is the people who are free, free to believe how they will, to speak and gather and act according to their beliefs freely. In “The Ethical Demands For Integration,” Rev. King argued:

“A denial of freedom to an individual is a denial of life itself. The very character of the life of man demands freedom. In speaking of freedom … I am not talking of the freedom of a thing called the will [or in our case, religion]. The very phrase, freedom of the will [religion], abstracts freedom from the person to make it an object; and an object almost by definition is not free. But freedom cannot thus be abstracted from the person … . So I am speaking of the freedom of man, the whole man.”

If we cannot be free in our religious thoughts and exercise – whether connected with an organized religion or not – we cannot be a free people.

Jordan Peterson’s Ignorance of Postmodern Philosophy

Up until this point, I’ve avoided talking about Jordan Peterson in any serious manner. In part because I thought (and continue to hope) that he’s the intellectual version of a fad diet who will shortly become irrelevant. My general impression of him is that when he’s right, he’s saying rather banal, cliché truisms with an undeserved bombastic air of profundity, such as his assertions that there are biological differences between men and women, that many religious myths share some similar features, or that taking personal responsibility is good. When he’s wrong, he’s talking way out of the depth of his understanding in his field (like the infamous lobster comment or this bizarre nonsense). Either way, it doesn’t make for a rather good use of time or opportunity for interesting, productive discussion—especially when his galaxy-brained cult-like fanboys are ready to pounce on anyone who criticizes their dear leader.

However, since everyone seems to be as obsessed with Jordan Peterson as he is with himself, I guess it’s finally time to talk about one example of him ignorantly bloviating that particularly annoys me as a philosophy student: his comments on postmodernism. There’s a lot one can talk about with Jordan Peterson because he says almost anything that comes to his mind about any topic, but for the present purposes you can pretend that I think everything he’s ever said that isn’t about postmodern is the deepest, most insightful thing ever said by any thinker in the history of western thought. I’m not interested in defending any overarching claims about him as a thinker. At the very least, his work on personality psychology does seem rather well respected and he surely got to his prestigious academic position with some merit, though I am not qualified to really appraise it. I am, however, more prepared to talk about his rather confused comments on philosophy which might shed light on why people are generally frustrated with his overly self-confident presence as a public intellectual.

Postmodernism, According to Peterson

Peterson often makes comments about “postmodern neo-Marxism,” which he calls a “rejection of the western tradition.” Now the very phrase “postmodern neo-Marxism” strikes anyone remotely familiar with the academic literature on postmodernism and Marxism as bizarre and confused. Postmodernism is usually characterized as skepticism towards grand general theories. Marxism is a grand general theory about how class struggle and economic conditions shape the trajectory of history. Clearly, those two views are not at all compatible. As such, much of the history of twentieth century academia is a history of Marxists and postmodernists fighting and butting heads.

Many commentators have pointed out this error, but Jordan Peterson now has a response. In it he tries to offer a more refined definition of postmodernism as two primary claims and a secondary claim:

Postmodernism is essentially the claim that (1) since there are an innumerable number of ways in which the world can be interpreted and perceived (and those are tightly associated) then (2) no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived.

That’s the fundamental claim. An immediate secondary claim (and this is where the Marxism emerges) is something like “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.”

He then goes on to concede to the criticism that Marxism and postmodernism can’t be described as theoretically aligned, but moves the goal posts to say that they are practically aligned in politics. Further, he contends postmodernisms’ commitment to analyze power structures is just “a rehashing of the Marxist claim of eternal and primary class warfare.”

It is worth noting that this attempt at nuance is surely an improvement at Peterson’s previous comments that postmodern a Marxism are a coherent “doctrine” that just hated logic and western values. But his attempt at a “definition” is unsatisfactorily way too restrictive for every thinker who gets called “postmodern,” and the attempt to link the politics of postmodernism up with the politics of Marxism is a complete mischaracterization. Further, his attempt to “critique” this position, whatever one wants to call it, is either (at best) vague and imprecise or (at worst) utterly fails. Finally, there really is no alliance between postmodernists and Marxists. Whether or not a thinker is called a “postmodernist” or not is not a very good predictor of their political views.

Why Peterson’s Definition isn’t what Postmodernists Believe and his Critique Fails

First of all, I am really not interested in dying on the hill of offering a better “definition” of postmodernism. Like any good Wittgensteinian, I tend to think you can’t really give a good list of necessary and sufficient conditions that perfectly captures all the subtle ways we use a word. The meaning of the word is the way it is used. Even within academia postmodernism has such broad, varied usage that I’m not sure it has a coherent meaning. Indeed, Foucault once remarked in a 1983 interview when asked about postmodernism, “What are we calling postmodernity? I’m not up to date.” The best I can give is Lyotard’s classic “incredulity toward metanarratives,” which is rather vague and oversimplified. Because this is the best I think one can do given how wildly unpredictable the usage of postmodernism is, we’re probably better off just not putting too much stock in it either as one’s own philosophical position or as the biggest existential threat to western civilization and we should talk about more substantive philosophical disagreements.

That said, Jordan Peterson’s definition is unsatisfactory and shows a poor understanding of postmodernism. While the first half of the fundamental claim is a pretty good stab at generalizing a view most philosophers who get labeled as postmodern agree with, the second half is rather unclear since it’s uncertain what Peterson means by “canonical.” If he takes this to mean that we have no determinate way of determining which interpretations are valid, then that would be a good summary of most postmodernists and an implication of Peterson’s own professed Jamesian pragmatism. If what he thinks it means is that all perspectives are as valid as any other and we have no way of deciphering which ones are better than the other, then nobody relevant believes that.

Peterson objects to is the implication “that there are an unspecifiable number of VALID interpretations.” He tries to refute this by citing Charles Pierce (who actually did not at all hold this view) and William James on the pragmatic criterion of truth to give meaning to “valid interpretations.” He says valid means “when the proposition or interpretation is acted out in the world, the desired outcome within the specific timeframe ensues.” However, it doesn’t follow from this view that you can specify the number of valid interpretations. It just begs the question of how we should understand what “the desired outcome” means, which just puts the perspectivism back a level. Even if we did agree on a determinate “desired outcome,” there are still multiple beliefs one could have to achieve a desired outcome. To put it in a pragmatically-minded cliché, there is more than one way to skin a cat. This is why, in fact, William James was a pluralist.

Perhaps by “specifiable,” he doesn’t mean we can readily quantify the number of valid interpretations, just that the number is not infinite. However, nobody believes there are an infinite number of valid perspectives we should consider. The assertion that a priori we cannot quantify the number of valid perspectives does not mean that all perspectives are equally valid or that there are an infinite number of valid perspectives. Peterson’s argument that we have limited cognitive capacities to consider all possible perspectives is true, it’s just not a refutation of anything postmodernists believe. On this point, it is worth quoting Richard Rorty—one who was both a Jamesian pragmatist and usually gets called postmodern—from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature:

When it is said, for example, that coherentist or pragmatic “theories of truth” allow for the possibility that many incompatible theories would satisfy the conditions set for “the truth,” the coherentist or pragmatist usually replies this merely shows that we have no grounds for choice among thse candidates for “the truth.” The moral to draw is not to say they have offered inadequate analyses of “true,” but that there are some terms—for example, “the true theory,” “the right thing to do”—which are, intuitively and grammatically singular, but for which no set of necessary and sufficient conditions can be given which will pick out a unique referent. This fact, they say, should not be surprising. Nobody thinks that there are necessary and sufficient conditions which will pick out, for example, the unique referent of “the best thing for her to have done on finding herself in that rather embarrassing situation,” though plausible conditions can be given as to which will shorten a list of competing incompatible candidates. Why should it be any different for the referents of “what she should have done in that ghastly moral dilemma” or “the Good Life for man” or “what the world is really made of?” [Emphasis mine]

The fact that we cannot readily quantify a limited number of candidates for interpretations or decide between them algorithmically does not that we have absolutely no ways to tell which interpretation is valid, that all interpretations are equally valid, nor does it mean there are an infinite number of potentially valid interpretations. Really, the view that many (though not all) postmodernists actually hold under this “primary claim” is not all that substantially different from Peterson’s own Jamesian pragmatism.

As for the secondary claim, which he thinks is Marxist, that “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.” This view is basically just one just Foucault might have held depending on how you read him. Some would argue this isn’t even a good reading of Foucault because such sweeping generalizations about “all interpretations” is rather uncharacteristic of a philosopher who’s skeptical of sweeping generalizations. However, you read Foucault (and I’m not really prepared to take a strong stand either way), it certainly isn’t the view of all postmodernists.  Rorty criticized this habit of Foucault (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 63), and thought that even if power does shape modern subjectivity it’s worth the tradeoff in the gains to freedom that modern liberalism has brought and thus is not the best way to view. It’s also telling that Peterson doesn’t even try to critique this claim and just dogmatically dismisses it.

Postmodernism’s Alleged Alliance with Marxism

So much for his vague, weak argument against a straw man. Now let’s see if there’s any merit to Peterson’s thought that Marxism and postmodernism have some important resemblance or philosophical alliance. Peterson says that the secondary claim of postmodernism is where the similarity to Marxism comes. However, Marx simply did not think that all theories are just attempts to grab power in the Foucauldian sense: he didn’t think that dialectical materialism the labor theory of value were just power grabs, and predicted a day when there was no competition for power in the first place at the end of history since a communist society would be classless. If anything, it’s the influence of Nietzsche’s Will to Power on Foucault, and oddly enough Peterson thinks rather highly of Nietzsche (even though Nietzsche anticipated postmodernism in rather important ways).

The only feature that they share is a narrative of one group trying to dominate another group. But if any attempt to describe oppression in society is somehow “Marxist,” that means right libertarians who talk about how the state and crony capitalist are oppressing and coercing the general public are “Marxist,” evangelicals who say Christians are oppressed by powerful liberal elites are “Marxist,” even Jordan Peterson himself is a “Marxist” when he whines about these postmodern Marxist boogeymen are trying to silence his free speech. He both defines “postmodernism” too narrowly, and then uses “Marxism” in such a loose manner that it basically means nothing.

Further, there’s Peterson’s claim that due to identity politics, postmodernists and Marxists now just have a practical political alliance even if it’s theoretically illogical. The only evidence he really gives of this alleged “alliance” is that Derrida and Foucault were Marxists when they were younger who “barely repented” from Marxism and that courses like critical theory and gender studies read Marxists and postmodernists. That they barely repented is simply a lie, Foucault left all his associations with Marxist parties and expunged his earlier works of Marxist themes. But the mere fact that someone once was a Marxist and then criticized Marxism later in their life doesn’t mean there was a continuing alliance between believers in their thought and Marxism. Alasdair MacIntyre was influenced by Marx when he was young and became a Catholic neo-Aristotelian, nobody thinks that he “barely repented” and there’s some overarching alliance between traditionalist Aristotelians and Marxists.

As for the claim that postmodernists and Marxists are read in gender studies, it’s just absurd to think that’s evidence of some menacing “practical alliance.” The reason they’re read in those is mostly courses is to provide contrast for the students of opposing perspectives. This is like saying that because Rawlsian libertarians are taken seriously by academic political philosophers there’s some massive political alliance between libertarians and progressive liberals.

Really, trying to connect postmodernism to any political ideology shows a laughably weak understanding of both postmodernism and political theory. You have postmodernists identifying as everything from far leftists (Foucault), to progressive liberals (Richard Rorty), to classical liberals (Deirdre McClosky), to anarchists (Saul Newman), to religious conservatives (like Peter Blum and James K.A. Smith). They don’t all buy identity politics uniformly, Richard Rorty criticized the left for focusing on identity issues over economic politics and was skeptical of the usefulness of a lot of critical theory. There really is no necessary connection between one’s highly theoretical views on epistemic justification, truth, and the usefulness of metaphysics or other metanarratives and one’s more concrete views on culture or politics.

Now Peterson can claim all the people I’ve listed aren’t “really” postmodern and double down on his much narrower, idiosyncratic definition of postmodernism which has very little relation to the way anyone who knows philosophy uses it. Fine, that’s a trivial semantic debate I’m not really interested in having. But it does create a problem for him: he wants to claim that postmodernism is this pernicious, all-encompassing threat that has consumed all of the humanities and social sciences which hates western civilization. He then wants to define postmodernism so narrowly that it merely describes the views of basically just Foucault. He wants to have his cake and eat it too: define postmodernism narrowly to evade criticism that he’s using it loosely, and use it as a scare term for the entire modern left.

Peterson’s Other Miscellaneous Dismissals of Postmodernism

The rest of what he has to say about postmodernism is all absurd straw men with absolutely no basis in anything anyone has ever argued. He thinks postmodernists “don’t believe in logic” when, for example, Richard Rorty was an analytic philosopher who spent the early parts of his career obsessed with the logic of language. He thinks they “don’t believe in dialogue” when Rorty’s whole aspiration was to turn all of society into one continuous dialogue and reimagine philosophy as the “conversation of culture). Or that they believe “you don’t have an individual identity” when K. Anthony Appiah, who encourages “banal ‘postmodernism’” about race, believes that the individual dimensions of identity are problematically superseded by the collective dimensions. This whole “definition and critique” of postmodernism is clearly just a post-hoc rationalization for him to continue to dishonestly straw man all leftists with an absurd monolithic conspiracy theory. The only people who are playing “crooked games” or are “neck-deep in deceit” are ignorant hucksters like Peterson bloviating about topics they clearly know nothing about with absurd levels of unmerited confidence.

Really, it’s ironic that Peterson has such irrational antipathy towards postmodernism. A ton of the views he champions (a pragmatic theory of truth, a respect for Nietzsche’s use of genealogy, a naturalist emphasis on the continuity between animals and humans, etc.) are all views that are often called “postmodern” depending on how broadly one understands “incredulity towards metanarratives,” and at the very least were extremely influential over most postmodern philosophers and echoed in their work. Maybe if Peterson showed a fraction of the openness to dialogue and debate he dishonestly pretends to have and actually read postmodernists outside of a secondary source, he’d discover a lot to agree with.

[Editors note: The last line has been changed from an earlier version with an incorrect statement about Peterson’s source Explaining Postmodernism.]

The State in education – Part I: A History

In Beyond Good and Evil, written after breaking with composer Richard Wagner and subsequently rejecting hyper-nationalism, Friedrich Nietzsche proposed the existence of a group of people who cannot abide to see others successful or happy. Appropriately, he dubbed these people and their attitude “ressentiment,” or “resentment” in French. His profile of the resentful is most unkind, bordering on the snobbish – though Nietzsche had very little personal cause to feel superior (he was part of the minor nobility but always insisted that, due to his father’s premature death and his mother’s lack of connections, his legal rank was never of much benefit to him). Insanely proud of his classical education and remarkable, even for that time, fluency in Ancient Greek and Latin, the philosopher latched onto these languages as symbolic variables in his descriptions of society and its woes.

Much like the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir who, a century later, attempted to prove that history was made by socio-cultural gender dynamics (Le deuxième sexe), Nietzsche proposed that all of (European) history since the fall of the Roman Empire was a battle between the cosmopolitan, classically-educated aristocracy and the technician, parochial lower classes. Unlike de Beauvoir who saw the world as oppressor-oppressed, the German believed that the lower orders, motivated by jealousy and feelings of exclusion, tried to pull their superiors down, creating a peculiar situation in which those who believed themselves the oppressed engaged in oppressive behavior.

As evidence of his theory, Nietzsche suggested in The Genealogy of Morals that the Protestant Reformation was the ultimate achievement of the resentful classes; functionaries, unable to understand the Latin of the Roman liturgy, read the writings of the ancient and medieval philosophers, or participate meaningfully in the conversations and society of the Renaissance, responded by turning the Church into the personification of all they hated – not unlike a voodoo doll – and then ousted it from their lives and countries. At least, this is what Nietzsche thought had occurred, adding that the cloddish nationalism that he had rejected would not have been possible without first banishing the Catholic Church and the refinement it introduced through fostering Latin, Greek, and Classical literature and philosophy.

On the practical plane, Nietzsche’s primary concern, post-Wagner, was the advent of Prussian hegemony and the loss of autonomy among the German member states. Before his friendship with Wagner, Nietzsche gave a lecture series on education which he intended to collect and publish as a book. The book never materialized [until 2016, when the Paul Reitter compiled the notes and lecture transcripts into book form under the title Anti-Education], but the philosopher did write a preface that he gifted to Cosima Wagner under the title “Five Prefaces to Five Unwritten Books,” which helped precipitate the quarrel since Nietzsche signaled clearly that he rejected the Wagnerian philosophy of the innate nobility of the (German) savage.

Much of Anti-Education is harsh and unyielding, moreover because there is much in it that is true. In it, one can see the early kernels of Nietzsche’s identification of ressentiment and the genesis of ideas concerning individuality and nobility that he returned to later in life. There is also much that is applicable today.

Nietzsche asked,

Why does the state need such a surplus of educational institutions and teachers? Why promote popular enlightenment on such scale? Because the genuine German spirit [that of the Renaissance princes] is so hated – because they fear the aristocratic nature of true education and culture – because they are determined to drive the few that are great into self-imposed exile, so that a pretension of culture can be implanted and cultivated in the many – because they want to avoid the hard and rigorous discipline of the great leader, and convince the masses that they can find the guiding path for themselves … under the guiding star of the state! Now that is something new: the state as the guiding star of culture!

Nietzsche wrote / spoke this on the takeover by the state of the education system, also known as the Prussian public school system, which “reformer” Horace Mann promptly imported to the United States. The false promise of public education, as Nietzsche saw it, was that state schools claimed the laurels and legitimacy of private gymnasia through deceit – speaking to a university audience, he expected everyone to know that pre-state control, there were two types of secondary schools: gymnasium, where the student received a classical education and prepared to enter university, and realschule, where the student learned the three Rs, along with some science, and entered the workforce immediately after graduation. Nietzsche claimed that while the gymnasium curriculum needed a significant overhaul, the only products of the realschule were conformity, obedience, and an inflated sense of achievement. Hence, he believed, when the government took over the education system, officials chose to model the public school on the old realschule, while claiming that graduates had the knowledge and skills of the gymnasium.

It is important to note at this juncture that Nietzsche bore a very visceral hatred of the Prussians in general and of Otto von Bismarck in particular. Viewing the former as unintelligent clods whose threat lay in their stupidity, the philosopher deemed the latter and his eponymous Bismarckian welfare state a greater threat to personal freedom. From 1888 until his nervous breakdown and descent into madness in 1899, Nietzsche called for the trial of Bismarck for treason, along with the removal of Kaiser Wilhelm II, in a sequence of letters and essays which his sister and executors suppressed, both to accommodate their own agendas and to avoid the attention of the censors.

The treason of Bismarck lay in his creation of a nation whose people were unwittingly dependent on the state. The state provided education during infancy and a pension in old age. As Nietzsche correctly saw, when the state controls the beginning of the pipeline and the end, everyone is in its employ. As he also foretold, the situation would end in violence (for Germany specifically; hence his interest in preempting war by removing its figurehead king) and heartbreak for those who placed their faith in the anti-individualistic state.

At a very fundamental level, Nietzsche believed that the public school system, with is inadequate education and contempt for classical learning and languages, was a conspiracy designed to drive a wedge among the social classes, enabling the state to increase control in the ensuing vacuum. The other aspect he identified was the use of public opinion to strip the individual of drive or thirst for a better life through a mixture of flattery and subversion of ambition. The outcome would be war and resentment, he predicted, for any country foolish enough to have faith in the Prussian system. Next week, we will examine whether Nietzsche’s predictions have come true in modern American education.

Law on the market: a debate

I’ve been reading through a great debate of sorts, first encountered in a C4SS anthology. I’m sharing it here, as it’s not everyday that one encounters a semi-live issue getting hashed out by giants in the field.

It starts with Robert Nozick. (Precious little starts with Nozick — we have Randians, Hayekians, Rothbardians, but no Nozickians, and no Nozickian tradition. Although he energized libertarianism as a respectable political philosophy for academics, his narrow scope and silent response to critics seem to have killed his staying power.)

Nozick famously claimed in Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) that “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” A first reading of Anarchy in the context of institutionalized philosophy makes it seem like a defense of libertarianism from big government, socialistic ideology. But, when Nozick’s connection to the Austro-libertarian anarchists is uncovered, the first part of Anarchy looks much more like a defense of small government from the anarchists.

Nozick tries to deal with the problem of law and police on the marketplace. In Chapter 2 of Anarchy, State and Utopia, he envisions a market model of competing rights-enforcement agencies. Eventually, in the service of their customers, two or more protection agencies will clash. They will fight. This results in the destruction of one (to the immediate monopoly of the other) or the relocation of the customers of each (to the territorial monopoly of each in different jurisdictions). If they choose not to fight because of the high expense, even arbitration can’t prevent a legal monopoly: consolidating to the top through voluntary contracts, government emerges anyway above the agencies. Thus, concludes Nozick, a purely free-market society will evolve into a state through an invisible hand process.

Collected in Free Markets & Capitalism?, published by C4SS, Roderick Long makes an argument against Nozick’s conclusion on the basis of different models of a post-state society (“The Return of Leviathan: Can We Prevent It?” (2013)).

Long points to another argument, this one from Tyler Cowen, that there is no way to save anarchy from collusion leading to monopoly (“Law as a Public Good: The Economics of Anarchy” (1992)).

David Friedman responded to Cowen’s argument the year afterward (“Law as a Private Good: A Response to Tyler Cowen on the Economics of Anarchy“), and Cowen responded back (“Rejoinder to David Friedman on the Economics of Anarchy“). Bryan Caplan, in an unpublished manuscript, critiqued Cowen’s position as well (“Outline of a Critique of Tyler Cowen’s ‘Law as a Public Good’“).

This is a showdown between Nozick and Tyler Cowen on the one hand, and Roderick Long, David Friedman and Bryan Caplan on the other. The whole extended debate is fascinating, but I’m not sure it has a conclusion. Was Nozick correct about the natural emergence of a state? Maybe it will take a NOL writer to finish it off…

 

Role of a Citizen in Hegemonic Authoritarianism

I want to begin a n-part series on Hannah Arendt. Why Arendt? Because I wrote a paper on her last semester and have been obsessed ever since. I will pick up one theme (or a sentence and sometimes just a phrase) from her work and try to either describe it in contemporary political terms or evaluate it against legal theories, political and moral. All this, I will do under the presumption that there are some political ideals like democracy, constitutionalism, liberalism that exist within the domain of possibility for polities irrespective of their legal culture. What I will also presume is that all political ideals function on a spectrum and it is difficult to accurately pin point exactly when something has turned from being tolerable to just plain rotten.

 

At various points in history, societies become obsessed over a political concept. Every once in a while, societies experience an onslaught of violations. Violations of their personal, maybe innate, sense of justice. I am not going to argue on the nature of this sense of justice. Instead, I will point towards our basest moral instincts. If you agree that there is such a thing as conscience that can not only exist but also develop outside of the legal system, you will see that it relates to how we think about what is wrong and what it right. Ergo, justice.

The violation of justice shakes things up enough for us to evaluate and figure out which political ideal, if protected, could have saved us. Against the Nazi regime it was the Rule of Law, for feminists it is Equality, against the Nanny State, it is liberty, and so on. In a bid to make amends, we compensate by institutionalizing it, giving it a place of honor in public discourse, and protesting all violations, big or small.  Every once in a while, the political concept finds a life of its own – growing differently in different parts of the world, becoming an essentially contested concept. After a point of time, the omnipresence of the principle starts to define the terms of the debate in matters unconnected with it.

Today, it is Authoritarianism. Not one where the ruler does not even wish to keep up the pretense of legality and justice but the kind which creeps up when no one is looking. Hannah Arendt was worried about the latter. She worried not just about the big bureaucratic state with its mechanical application of law and antipathy towards political moral ideals, but also about the citizen under such a regime who observed and obeyed and said not a word because the violations were too minor and too remote to care about.

The citizen who refuses to think is the power source of authoritarian regimes. One can ask if Arendt expects her model citizens to practice constant vigilance, continuously evaluating the judgements of their sovereign for potential violations of some sense of justice. After all, her theory of power is based on a conception of power working through communication and co-operation as opposed to the traditional understanding of power emanating from coercion and commands. ‘Power corresponds to the human not just to act, but to act in concert’, said Arendt. She challenges the notion of power having a mandatory connection with sovereignty.

We must take note of the existing political background to her writings. She, along with half the world, stood against the Soviet Union. Communism was not just a bad word, it was inherently evil. So strong was her position against Marx’s writings that she blamed ‘the social’ for the destruction of the political realm. The political realm was the place for public discourse. Deliberation helped in protecting freedom whereas the urge for leveling down of human life resulted in the destruction of democratic practices. However, what was most egregious was the tendency of communism to regularly violate the autonomy of the individuals.

The ‘social’ was not just a command of a sovereign, it was implicit in hegemonic structures through which obedience was guaranteed. Why is this relevant today? It is relevant for its implications on how we judge regimes. Are we to be satisfied with just a form of legality or do we want to prevent violations to whatever principle it is that we have chosen to hold dear, albeit for the century? If we choose the latter, then Arendt’s expectations from a model citizen do not seem too demanding. We must constantly sit in judgment, not just of the laws that govern us (plenty of people do that already) but of the tools of reasoning we use in our political discourse. It is our justifications and not just our positions in a political debate that catalyzes hegemonic authoritarianism.

Does the Bible teach Sola Scriptura?

This may not be the most anticipated topic for a blog like Notes on Liberty, but in the past I wrote about the Protestant Reformation and its influence in the modern world and received a comment that the Protestant Reformation was based largely on the principle of sola scriptura (scripture alone), but this principle is not in scripture. Well, I think it is worth talking about, even because I hold my view that the Protestant Reformation was a key event (if not the key event) for the development of the little freedom we still have in the modern world. What I am going to write here is quite summarized. Anyone interested in learning more can look up to numerous texts. One suggestion is Sinclair B. Ferguson’s excellent text “How Does the Bible Look at Itself.”

In the first place, yes, sola scriptura is one of the most important principles of the Protestant Reformation. Within a widely used nomenclature, sola scriptura is the formal principle of the Reformation. But what does sola scriptura mean?

Before we speak what sola scriptura means, let’s see what it does not mean. Sola Scriptura does not mean that the Bible is the only source of revelation about God. It does not mean that the Bible reveals all things. It does not mean that the Bible is equally clear in all its passages. It does not mean that we have a license to subjectivism or that the Bible has multiple meanings. It does not mean that the testimony of the church is irrelevant to the study of the Bible. I will not go into detail on each of these points, but I hope they are enough to avoid straw men on this subject.

So, what does sola scriptura mean then? It fundamentally means that the Bible has an authority that is its own. The Bible is sufficient, necessary, authoritative, and clear. The Westminster Confession of Faith sums up as follows:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressedly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.

An important point I want to highlight is that Sola Scriptura does not invalidate the authority of ecclesiastical tradition. It only subjects it to the authority of the Bible. Again, I quote the same confession of faith:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture.

However:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

And:

All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.

So, to be clear, Sola Scriptura does not invalidate tradition. It does not mean that any interpretation of the Bible is valid. And it certainly is not an invention of the Protestant Reformation. Sola Scriptura means that the Bible has an authority that is its own, that can not be compared to human authority, because the Bible is the Word of God. The Bible authors were well aware that they were writing something that went beyond their authority as human beings. And also, the human authors of the Bible did not leave this authority to their successors, even because this authority was not theirs so they could do it. That is why we see the Apostle Paul saying something like this:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!

Is there any contribution to this for liberty? I think so. It was from this civilizational source that classical liberalism emerged. We all need principles. We all need a place to start. The principle of the Protestant Reformation (and deriving from it, of classical liberalism) was the Bible.

The Impossible Trinity of Liberal Democracy

In the first part of my series on democracy published a few years ago, I made a distinction between four senses in which the term “democracy” is used. To briefly recap, I made they were: a) a term of empty political praise for policies which partisans like b) an institutional decision-making process emphasizing the primacy of majoritarian opinion c) a generic term for the type of procedures which have been prevalent in the west, and d) an overarching term for the ethical commitments of liberals. In that series, I focused on the tension b) and d), mostly ignoring a) and c). (For Present purposes, my highly speculative musings on anarchism are irrelevant.

In a recent podcast of the Ezra Klein show  (which I highly recommend) discussing his book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How To Save It, Harvard political theorist Yascha Mounk and Ezra Klein were debating how pessimistic we should be about the prospects for the future of American Democracy. I don’t really wish to comment on whether we should be pessimistic or not, but I want to make a further distinction that clarifies some of the disagreements and points towards a deeper issue in the workings of democratic institutions. I will argue that democracy consists of a liberal, majoritarian, and procedural dimension and these dimensions are not reconcilable for very long.

Mounk makes a similar distinction to the one I made between democratic majoritarianism and liberalism as a reason to be pessimistic. Klein tended to push back, focusing on the ways in which modern American political culture is far more ethically liberal than it has ever been, as seen through the decline in racism since the middle of the twentieth century and decline in homophobia since the 1990s. Mounk, however, emphasized how respect for procedure in the American political process has declined during the Trump Era, as evidenced by Trump’s disrespect for the political independence of courts and agencies like the Department of Justice.

However, throughout Klein’s and Mounk’s debate, it became clear that there was another distinction which needed to be made explicitly, and one which I have tended to heavily under-emphasize in my own thinking on the feasibility of democracy. It seems to me there are at least three dimensions by which to judge the functioning of democracies which are important to distinguish:

  1. Majoritarianism—the extent to which a democracy is sensitive to majority public opinion. Democracy, in this dimension, is simply the tendency to translate majority opinion to public policy, as Mounk puts it.
  2. Liberalism—this refers to the ethical content towards which democracies in the west try to strive. This is the extent to which citizens are justly treated as moral equals in society; whether minority religious freedoms are respected, racial and ethnic minorities are allowed equal participation in society (economically and politically), and the extent to which general principles of liberal justice (however they may be interpreted) are enacted.
  3. Legal proceduralism—the extent to which political leaders and citizens respect the political independence of certain procedures. This dimension heavily emphasizes the liberal belief in the rule of law and the primacy of process. This can include law enforcement agencies such as the Department of Justice or the FBI, courts, and respect for the outcomes of elections even when partisan opponents are victorious.

It seems that there are reasons why one would want a democracy to retain all three features. Majoritarianism could be desirable to ensure stability, avoiding populist revolutions and uprising, and perhaps because one thinks it is just for government to be accountable to citizens. Liberalism, clearly, is desirable to ensure the society is just. Proceduralism is desirable to maintain the stability of the society given that people have deep political and philosophical disagreements.

Klein and Mounk’s debate, considering this explicit triadic distinction, can be (crudely) seen as Mounk initially emphasizing the tension between majoritarianism and liberalism in modern democracies. Klein pushes back saying that we are more liberal today than we’ve ever been, and perhaps the current majoritarian populist turn towards Trump should be put in context of other far more illiberal majoritarian populist impulses in the past. Mounk’s response seems to be that there’s also been a decline in respect for legal procedure in modern American politics, opening a danger for the instability of American democracy and a possible rise of authoritarianism.

First, it seems to me that both Mounk and Klein overemphasize respect for procedure in the past. As Robert Hasnas has argued, it has never been the case that anyone treats the law as independent simply because “the law is not a body of determinate rules that can be objectively and impersonally applied by judges” and therefore “what the law prescribes is necessarily determined by the normative predispositions of the one who is interpreting it.” There is always an ethical, and even a partisan political dimension, to how one applies procedure. In American history, this can be seen in ways that courts have very clearly interpreted law in motivated ways to justify a partisan, often illiberal, political view, such as Bowers v. Hardwick. There has always been a tendency for procedures to be applied in partisan ways, from the McCarthyite House Unamerican Committee, to the FBI’s persecution of civil rights leaders. Indeed, has Hasnas argues, the idea that procedures and laws can be entirely normatively and politically independent is a myth.

It is true, however, that Mounk does present reason to believe that populism makes disrespect for these procedures explicit. Perhaps one can say that while procedural independence is, in a pure sense, a myth, it is a constructive myth to maintain stability. People believing that elections are not independent, Trump’s disrespect for the independence of courts and justice, allows for a disintegration of those institutions into nothing but a Carl Schmitt-style, zero-sum war for power that can undermine stability of political institutions.

On the other hand, it seems worth emphasizing that there is often a tension between respect for procedure and the ethics of liberalism. Klein points out how there was large respect for legal procedure throughout American history that heavily undermined ethical liberalism, such as southerners who filibustered anti-lynching laws. Indeed, the justification for things such as the fugitive slave law was respect for the political independence of the legal right to property in slaves. All the examples of procedure being applied in politically biased and illiberal ways given moments ago support this point There is nothing in the notion that legal and electoral procedures are respected that guarantees those procedures in place will respect liberal principles of justice.

I remain agnostic as to whether we should be more pessimistic about the prospects for democracy in America today than at any other point in American history. However, at the very least, this debate reveals an impossible trinity, akin to the impossible trinity in monetary policy, between these three dimensions of democracy. If you hold majority opinion as primary, that includes populist urges to undermine the rule of law. Further, enough ink has been spilled on the tensions between majoritarianism and liberalism or effective policy. If you hold respect for procedure as primary, that includes the continuation procedures which are discriminatory and unjust, as well as procedures which restrict and undermine majority opinion. If you hold the justice of liberalism as primary, that will generate a tendency for morally virtuous liberals to want to undermine inequitable, unjust procedures and electoral outcomes and to want to restrict the ability of majorities to undermine minority rights.

The best a conventional democrat can do, it seems to me, is to pick two. A heavily majoritarian democracy where procedures are respected, which seems to be the dominant practice in American political history, is unlikely to be very ethically liberal. An ethically liberal and highly procedural government, something like a theoretically possible but practically unfeasible liberal dictator or perhaps a technocratic epistocracy (for which Jason Brennan argues), is a possible option but might be unstable if majorities see it as illegitimate or ethically unpalatable to procedural democrats. An ethically liberal but majoritarian democracy seems unworkable, given the dangers of populism to undermine minority rights and the rational ignorance and irrationality of voters. This option also seems to be what most western democracies are currently trending towards, which rightly worries Mounk since it is also likely to be extremely unstable. But if there’s a lesson to be learned from the injustice of American history and the rise of populism in the west it’s that choosing all three is not likely to be feasible over the long term.