Jacob Levy’s New Book Referencing Montesquieu

Here is a comment on Jacob Levy’s new book by Annelien de Dijn, a very gifted Belgian political theorist who has also written a good deal about Montesquieu. Her essay is called “Jacob Levy as an Historian of Political Thought. She writes: “Throughout the book, Levy contrasts and compares this pluralist liberalism with another and more familiar brand of liberal thinking, a liberalism that sees intermediary groups – groups that are often organized on the basis of illiberal principles – not as a protection of but as a major threat to individual freedom. As a result, this kind of liberalism has tended to see the state as a friend rather than an enemy of freedom. Levy describes this liberalism, somewhat confusingly, as ‘rationalist’ – by which he means not that it prioritizes reason but that it opposes arbitrary and irrational distinctions and prioritizes equality before the law. The contrast between the two traditions, Levy explains, is perhaps best illustrated by the differences between Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill. While Tocqueville was greatly preoccupied with the danger posed by an overweening government to freedom, he was less appreciative of the potentially tyrannical nature of traditional institutions such as Victorian marriage. Mill, on the other hand, was very much preoccupied by these localized forms of oppression. But unlike Tocqueville, he had a blind spot for the dangers posed by the expansion of state power, especially imperial state power. So far, so good. But Levy does not simply present us with the results of a historical excavation. Instead, his book is also and indeed primarily normative. In Levy’s view, pluralist liberals have something important to say about problems we are still confronted with today. While we are obviously no longer in danger of being ordered around by an absolute king, as Montesquieu and his contemporaries were, he argues, the problem of state power has not simply gone away. The abuse of government power is still very much an issue, even though that threat is more likely to come from majoritarian tyranny than from royal despotism. Moreover, contemporary liberal theorists, who are the heirs of rationalist liberals rather than of their pluralist counterparts, tend to be rather blind to this problem. By ignoring pluralist liberalism, Levy maintains, we have therefore cut ourselves off from an important resource for thinking about these problems. This is exciting stuff, and I found myself agreeing with much that Levy has to say about the contemporary relevance of the pluralist liberals. That the danger of despotism has not simply disappeared in the wake of the democratization of our political systems will be clear to anyone who has observed how specific minorities such as Muslims are treated in both Europe and North America. And that contemporary liberal political theorists tend to have a rather limited set of solutions for these problems is equally clear. Levy’s book therefore illustrates how historians of political thought, by unearthing forgotten intellectual traditions, are capable of throwing new light on contemporary political problems, of steering the conversation into new and more fruitful directions. At the same time, however, Levy’s book also brings into focus one of the main problems that follow from this approach. If pluralist liberalism was indeed largely forgotten in the wake of the triumph of rationalist liberalism – and I agree with Levy that this was indeed the case – it leads one to wonder why this was so. Perhaps there are good reasons this way of thinking was pushed to the background? Perhaps John Stuart Mill was onto something when he came to the conclusion that any despotism is preferable to local despotism? I am not necessarily saying that I think that this is true. But it is a question that needs to be addressed if we are expected to take pluralist liberalism seriously as a doctrine that is still relevant for today’s world. Annelien de Dijn – Annelien de Dijn is a Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands as well as a NIAS Senior Research Fellow (2015-2016). Her research focuses on the history of political thought in Europe and in the United States, from 1700 to the present. She has a particular interest in the fraught and contested history of freedom in the West. She has held visiting appointments at Columbia University, Cambridge University, the Remarque Institute at NYU and U.C. Berkeley. A past recipient of Fulbright and B.A.E.F. fellowships, Dr. de Dijn was educated at the University of Leuven in Belgium and at Columbia University. You will find this essay by Djin at: bleedingheartlibertarians.com/

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