Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice
By William A. Galston. Cambridge University Press, 152 pages, $19.00
No living American political theorist has come closer than Bill Galston to serving in the classical role of philosopher to princes. A prolific and influential scholar and a founder of the New Democrats, he was one of Bill Clinton's top White House counselors and advised John Anderson, Walter Mondale and, most recently, Al Gore in their presidential campaigns. I know of no one who travels between the realms of political theory and practice as thoughtfully and productively.
Liberal Pluralism weds Galston's insights into current policy and politics with his decades of reflection on political theory. In the mighty clash between collective purposes and various forms of cultural pluralism and multiculturalism, Galston charges that liberals too often fail to give "diversity its due." We need a new liberalism, he says, founded on "public principles, institutions, and practices that afford maximum feasible space for the enactment of individual and group differences, constrained only by the ineliminable requirements of liberal social unity."
Galston wraps himself in the mantle of the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, best known for his stirring defense of "negative liberty," the freedom of individuals from restraint. An ardent defender of the diversity of cultures, Berlin built much of his thought around his master idea of "value pluralism," the claim that basic values are not only multiple but often in conflict.
Unlike Berlin, who wrote about grand historical movements and ideologies, Galston wants to bring the philosophy of value pluralism to bear on contentious policy choices. He condemns the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, for striking down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which instructed courts to look skeptically on laws found to impose a burden, even incidentally, on particular religious groups. RFRA stands for the principle that public policy should give way to religious groups seeking anything from special exemptions from narcotics laws (for the sacramental use of drugs) to variances on local zoning ordinances (for church construction or expansion). RFRA's very expansiveness makes its implications hard to gauge, and the Supreme Court quickly overturned it. But by using RFRA as a keystone of a new "pluralist constitutionalism," Galston would extend its protections to nonreligious forms of diversity, making it even more expansive.
Galston insists, for example, that the legal system should exercise a strong presumption in favor of parents who clash with public authorities over their children's education. The "maximum feasible accommodation of diversity" would seem to raise a principled objection to public education and favor voucher programs to enable more parents to pay for private secular and religious schools. Indeed, the diversity principle suggests a presumption in favor of vouchers as a means not of improving education for all but of respecting individual and group differences.
But Galston is often vague about the meaning and implications of his principles, making this book's central argument hard to interpret. In its discussion of education, Liberal Pluralism does not actually take a stand on voucher programs; it argues only that parents should have a right to choose private schools at their own expense, a long-settled feature of education policy. Galston may intend "maximum feasible accommodation of diversity" as a very weak claim. I am going to interpret it, however, as the robust and revisionist principle it often seems to be -- and that it must be if we understand it as a broader version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Real dangers lurk within the principles that Galston proposes we adopt.
There is a lot at stake here. General public policies and programs never impose uniform costs on every group in society; some groups can always claim to bear a burden on account of a particular policy or a generally applicable rule. Religious and cultural groups object, for example, to children learning about the theory of evolution or to a general public curriculum that emphasizes scientific reasoning and critical thinking. Should they have the right to insist that they be accommodated, perhaps by having all but minimal curricular requirements overturned by a court? Or should democratically accountable institutions have a wide range of discretion to make laws within certain fairly clear constitutional limits?
The large ambitions of this short book are as evident in its silences as its affirmations. A public philosophy helps us discern the most urgent moral demands on our political order. In making "maximum feasible accommodation of diversity" the leading imperative of a new liberalism, Galston implicitly demotes liberalism's traditional egalitarian impulses, which are tied to support for the authority of the democratic community. He avoids discussing the agenda for social welfare. Galston's New Democratic multiculturalism highlights the alleged marginalization of religious people, but not of gays and lesbians or the poor.
Should we sign up for Galston's diversity liberalism? Must we do so if we accept the premises of Berlin's value pluralism? My answer to both of these questions is an emphatic "no." Galston's "maximum feasible accommodation of diversity," understood as a principled requirement on a par with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is a dangerous assault on the democratic authority to make public policy. It is not justified by Berlin's value pluralism and, indeed, serves political values antithetical to modern democratic liberalism.
Liberal pluralism, I want to stress, has many valuable things to teach. Galston uses value pluralism, for example, to explain why public-policy questions are often so difficult. The plurality of values on both sides of many public-policy debates creates reasonable bases for many-sided disagreements and should lead all of us to wonder whether our own convictions represent the whole truth. In politics, unlike in personal life, we must try to justify hard choices to one another and should both seek a fair consensus and hedge our bets with respect to our own convictions by taking into account the "most cherished values" of people with whom we disagree. Most importantly, Galston insists that value pluralism is no warrant for skepticism; there are better and worse ways of weighing and combining complex considerations.
While emphasizing this complexity, however, Galston gives the principle of "maximum feasible accommodation of diversity" special status. In place of complex weighing and balancing, the diversity principle places a heavy thumb on one side of the scales in disputes between democratically chosen public purposes and the interests and values of particular communities.
If elevated to constitutional status and interpreted strictly, the diversity principle would radically alter our legal system. As things stand, the courts regard as legitimate general laws and policies made according to fair democratic procedures -- even if particular groups feel that their activities and projects are burdened. Our legal system suspends the presumption of democratic legitimacy only for laws that restrict fundamental liberties or that impose special burdens on "discrete and insular minorities," such as blacks, who have historically been subject to systematic discrimination. Within these broad limits, the presumed legitimacy of generally applicable laws made by democratically accountable institutions is essential to the right of the people as a whole to govern themselves.
The principle of "maximum feasible accommodation of diversity" revises the usual presumptions. It says that whenever a law burdens particular cultural or religious groups, the law should be changed or an exemption should be created to accommodate the group in question. Only the most compelling public interests should be allowed to override this respect for group diversity, Galston says, and then only when the policy or law is "narrowly tailored" to minimally burden cultural and religious communities. These are the categories that judges nowadays apply only when basic constitutional rights and guarantees at stake. Applying this stringent test to all cases in which general laws impose burdens on particular groups would hamstring democratic institutions.
Galston seems to think that Berlin's value pluralism supports the diversity principle's constitutional revisionism, but value pluralism tells us only that values are complex and often in conflict. It does not argue for any general imperative to subordinate public purposes and general laws to the particular claims of communal diversity. As others have pointed out, value pluralism is a formal account of the nature of values, not a substantive argument about how particular values should be weighed.
Does the diversity principle itself embody a weighty moral claim that justifies constitutional revision? Diversity is a vague concept. Educational diversity has rival interpretations, as Galston shows. It could mean that education should suit each child's individuality. Or it could mean that parents' own values should find expression in educational choices, regardless of whether they are attuned to the child. Galston seems to think that these arguments work in tandem in favor of educational variety and parental choice, but they do not. Education as the free development of each child's individuality is at odds with education as a means of reproducing communal values, unless we assume that all parents want to induct their children into individuality-nurturing communities -- and that is clearly false. Indeed, Galston wants to restore equal respect for traditions at odds with "enlightenment" values such as individuality and personal autonomy.
Because there are conflicting interpretations of educational diversity, the general idea of diversity settles nothing. The claim that educational diversity should be "maximally accommodated" has no determinate meaning for policy. One possibility that Galston never considers is that public schooling may strike a better balance than a more private system in serving all of the values relevant to education, including the interests of parents, children and the political community. Schools that are controlled by public institutions, that stand for the public values of equality and freedom, and that serve a diverse array of students may be the best means of taking seriously both the child's individuality and our common interest in the child's status as a future citizen while leaving parents ample influence over their children.
In short, neither value pluralism as a philosophy nor diversity as an abstract proposition argues for constitutional changes such as RFRA. The true rationale for this program has to be closer to ground-level politics. To justify a broad presumption in favor of cultural and religious communities, one must think that the current rules and practices of American politics are unfairly biased against sectarian values. Galston and others who support RFRA evidently believe that liberals have not been sufficiently respectful and accommodating toward religious groups and other kinds of cultural communities.
We have been hearing this sort of complaint for some time now from Richard John Neuhaus, Stephen Carter, Michael W. McConnell, Michael Sandel and others. As a general proposition, this claim seems to me astonishing. America is an extraordinarily religious country by any plausible measure. Politicians fall over one another in affirming their religious faith and courting religious voters. The Christian right is mobilized and powerful; its allies occupy high government office. The Supreme Court has given the green light to school vouchers that include religious schools, and the Bush administration is determined to share public dollars with faith-based social-service organizations. While some intellectuals moan that religious speech is silenced, God is invoked constantly in public rhetoric; the change since Ronald Reagan came to office is striking.
The constant complaints about religion's marginalization are signs of the great and growing power of religion in America, not its weakness. The power of sectarianism extends beyond religion: The Supreme Court is reinvigorating pre-New Deal constitutional limitations on the powers of the national government, and serious people are no longer embarrassed to advocate "states' rights." Decades of criticism of the alleged overweening power of government have taken a tremendous toll. What exactly do these people want?
Some, notably McConnell, who is about to ascend to the federal judiciary, want to reinterpret the Constitution so as to circumscribe the powers of the national government in favor of the states and religious communities. Some want public subsidies for religious schools and charitable institutions with no regulations to ensure that public purposes are served. Some want, and are achieving, a constitutionalization of the supremacy of particular communities at the expense of the authority of the American people as a whole. No liberal should touch this agenda. It is not Galston's agenda, but he flirts with it.
As a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council, Galston has urged Democrats to do more to address teen pregnancy and the erosion of family values. He may well believe that voucher programs that include religious schools will improve education, and that increased public funding of faith-based charities will improve the delivery of welfare services. When he addresses specific public-policy questions, he is sensible, well informed and intelligent. Galston's centrist positions play a key role in policy debates across this country. Let these policies be defended and criticized without the help of special constitutional presumptions. There is no warrant for such presumptions, and it is vital to full and fair debate about the public good that we resist them.
The principle of "maximum feasible accommodation of diversity" would further corrode our enfeebled capacity to act as a public on behalf of the public good. Though philosophically incoherent, this principle has obvious appeal to those who would minimize the authority of the national community: libertarians, advocates of states' rights, radical religious pluralists who place the undefined sovereignty of private conscience above the authority of law and others. These old foes of the modern democratic state have long sought to impose constitutional shackles on federal powers, and they might get their way. Their chances improve greatly when influential liberals such as Galston support pale versions of their retrograde agenda.
Galston at his best insists on the value of careful deliberation in the face of moral conflict. Liberal Pluralism at its most worrisome awards special status to a superficially appealing principle of "maximum feasible accommodation of diversity." Liberals need to fight the sorts of presumptions for which this diversity principle stands. At stake is the authority of the American people to govern themselves in light of the whole range of public values.