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Live and Let Live

Two Faces of Liberalism

John Gray
New Press, 161 pp., $25.00

Philosophers enjoy simple oppositions. Locked in metaphysical combat, monism battles pluralism, and idealism struggles against materialism: the world is one or the world is many; the world is mental or the mind is material. Political philosophers share this liking, pitting order against liberty, conservatism against progressivism. Reality is complicated, but the philosopher simplifies it, or more usually oversimplifies it. Isaiah Berlin took the title of his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” from Archilochus—“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”—to warn his readers against the hedgehog’s passion for oversimplifications, but Berlin himself went on to write Two Concepts of Liberty. He subverted the tidy conclusions suggested by the title by writing about many more and much more various topics than that. Nonetheless, most of his readers thought he was saying that the one big thing about freedom was that negative liberty, the right not to be interfered with, was good, and positive liberty—the right, for example, to benefit from state-sponsored programs for self-improvement—could be bad.

John Gray’s Two Faces of Liberalism is squarely in the tradition of Isaiah Berlin’s inaugural lecture. Far from being concerned with two of anything, it is a series of reflections on an unresolved tension that marked Berlin’s writing on politics. On the one side was Berlin’s emphasis on the plurality—indeed the contradictoriness—of human goods. Berlin, famously, argued that not all good things can be had within one life, or within one society, or within one way of life. The military hero displays one set of virtues, the ascetic monk another. To emphasize this is not relativism, nor is it skepticism: the virtues of the military way of life are genuinely virtues, and so are the virtues of the monastic way of life, but they cannot be practiced together, even though a given person may be pulled toward both ways of life. “This,” Gray writes, “is not only because they involve the cultivation of attitudes and dispositions that do not coexist easily in the same person. It is because the virtues of some are the vices of others.” The psychological conflict faced by someone torn between two ways of life rises to the level of tragedy when each of them demands total commitment, and each also demands the suppression of something vital.

The same conflict is visible in politics. Did Athenian democracy depend on the existence of slavery, as Benjamin Constant thought?1 If so, would we rather that there had never been a democratic Athens? Does the relatively tranquil liberal democracy practiced in Britain and the United States create political apathy and a widespread inability to think seriously about public affairs? If so, would we willingly sacrifice peace and the rule of law for the sake of a more bracing intellectual and political life? What ought a liberal to think about such conflicts? These were the questions that Berlin asked, and that John Gray also asks.

On the other hand, Berlin himself was an unequivocal liberal. What sort of liberal he was is debatable: his heroes were Alexander Herzen and Ivan Turgenev, rather than John Locke and John Stuart Mill, and he wrote passionately and at length about cultural and intellectual liveliness and hardly at all about taxation and the welfare state. How were his pluralism and his liberalism connected? Many commentators on his work thought that his pluralism and liberalism were of a piece, and Berlin himself often said that he believed that the irreducible variety of human aspirations and values was an argument for allowing individual lives to blossom as best they could, and an argument against cramping them into one mold. It is easy to see how such an argument could also support a certain sort of liberalism in foreign relations: one society should not impose its way of life on another society, which means that self-defense is one thing, but spreading our values by force quite another.

More critical commentators have thought that Berlin’s emphasis on the plurality of values simply rules out any case for saying that liberal values trump all others. Indeed, one might think that a convinced pluralist would more consistently be a conservative practitioner of the politics of modus vivendi. If ways of life are irreducibly different and no argument can settle the superiority of one over another, should we not lower our sights and simply try to keep the peace between them? How the peace is best kept is a matter of political prudence. The greatest thinker to discuss this question with the seriousness it deserves was Thomas Hobbes, who was not a liberal but a defender of absolute monarchy. Hobbes argued that religious toleration was a good thing when it was practicable: writing in the aftermath of the wars of religion and the English Civil War, he approved of “the Independency of the Primitive Christians to follow Paul, or Cephas, or Apollo, every man as he liketh best. Which if it be done without Contention is perhaps the best.” But he also observed that where it was not practicable, the state must enforce uniformity for the sake of peace. The liberal idea of a right to free expression he repudiated as anarchic nonsense.

It is this second view that John Gray defends. Like Hobbes, he thinks that freedom to express ourselves in general is a good thing; but different freedoms conflict, and the idea that a First Amendment right to free expression is an absolute is, he thinks, an absurdity:

When free speech collides with other liberties, or with a weighty public interest, is it always wrong to restrict it? Let us be more specific. May not freedom of (political) speech be rightly curbed when it is used to promote racism?

It is a salient fact that Britain and most other European countries have legislated against racist speech. So has Canada. In none of these cases can the law be described as merely regulating freedom of speech. Curbs on racist speech do not regulate speech. They curb it.

Elsewhere he speaks well of Singapore’s treatment of religious liberty:

In Singapore there is full freedom of religious practice and belief, but proselytism is forbidden. In prohibiting missionary activity Singapore does not protect what in liberal societies is regarded as the unfettered exercise of the right to religious freedom. Yet, perhaps partly for that reason, Singapore has in recent times avoided religious strife better than have some liberal regimes.

But John Gray writes as something other than an academic philosopher, and what he writes is quite other than an exercise in philosophical clarification—though there is a good deal of conventional philosophical analysis in Two Faces of Liberalism as well. Gray occupies an interesting and unusual place in the British intellectual landscape. He was recently appointed Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, whose director, the sociologist Anthony Giddens, has been trying to provide Tony Blair’s government with a theoretically coherent account of the “Third Way.” John Gray is thus one of those rare creatures, a “public intellectual.” In less picturesque terms, he is a professor of politics who is also a fluent polemical journalist, and whose career has taken him from one end of the intellectual spectrum to the other.

Gray began as something very like a disciple of John Stuart Mill, and wrote an interesting though difficult book defending the main arguments of Mill’s essay On Liberty.2 No sooner had he established a reputation as an expositor of Millian liberalism than he abandoned Mill for F.A. von Hayek; for some years he was regarded as an intellectual ornament of the New Right, and reckoned by Mrs. Thatcher to be “one of us.”3 Given the timing of this change of heart, some of his colleagues thought that he had traded in his allegiance to Mill in order to swear fealty to Mrs. Thatcher, and looked for an ulterior motive. More surprisingly, it seemed that he had at the same time abandoned the view that philosophers should be moved by argument, that he had ditched both Mill’s passion for independent thinking and his dislike for Victorian capitalism in favor of Mrs. Thatcher’s passion for capitalism and her contempt for discussion. But this was not the end of the road. Before Mrs. Thatcher was evicted from office by her Conservative Party colleagues in the autumn of 1990, Gray had decided that she was a menace to intellectual life, and more generally a menace to the sense of community of the British people.

Mrs. Thatcher made herself notorious by observing in her only excursion into political philosophy that “there is no such thing as society.” This was, of course, an exaggerated reformulation of Hayek’s insistence that one of the many things wrong with a centrally planned economy is that there is not, and cannot be, an entity called “society” whose welfare we should attend to. John Gray turned his back on that view, and in the 1990s seemed to have become something of a communitarian, arguing that you can share Hayek’s antipathy to central planning and still maintain that the free market may smash a community’s traditions, and undermine the social obligation to provide care for people in need.4 Once again, skeptical colleagues were inclined to say that he had found another bandwagon to climb aboard: this time the bandwagon on which Tony Blair and “New Labour” were soon to roll to power. Any suggestion that this is what he was doing runs into an obvious problem. Tony Blair and his “Third Way” allies are enthusiasts for some version of globalization, while John Gray is deeply and thoroughly hostile to globalization. Over the past few years he has earned the admiration of George Soros for his ferocious assaults on the light-minded optimism of the enthusiasts for globalizing tendencies.

In False Dawn,5 but also in the second edition of his Hayek on Liberty, John Gray explains what it is that he dislikes about the emerging global economy; unsurprisingly, it is the very same thing as the wrong sort of liberalism that he attacks in Two Faces of Liberalism. Many forms of globalization are inescapable and irreversible. The world has been linked by trading routes for many centuries. But until now, it has been taken for granted that the countries linked by trade will practice their own politics and their own economics; they will not necessarily be committed to the vision of the free market that animated Adam Smith, Victorian Englishmen, and post–cold war Americans.

Gray’s antipathy to globalization is an antipathy to the idea that we might create a “universal civilization” and that universal civilization will take the United States as its model. The antipathy is founded on at least three distinct thoughts. The first is that the United States is an unhappy and unsuccessful society, riddled with racial tensions, uncaring for its poor, incapable of sustaining stable families, and addicted to coping with its problems by incarceration and execution. As a model for other societies, it is, thinks Gray, a nonstarter. The second is that the ideal of a universal civilization as the Internet unites the globe and e-commerce flourishes is liberal utopianism; it is the liberal version of Marxian utopianism. Where Marx envisaged a universal utopia founded on the common ownership of the means of production and exchange, globalization in this sense imagines a utopia built around a free market. But the free market, Gray argues, is not a moral ideal; it is only a more or less successful institutional arrangement for producing and distributing what we need.

  1. 1

    Benjamin Constant, De la liberté des anciens comparée à celle des modernes, in Political Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

  2. 2

    Mill on Liberty: A Defence (London: Routledge, 1983).

  3. 3

    Hayek on Liberty (London: Routledge, third edition, 1983).

  4. 4

    Beyond the New Right: Markets, Government, and the Common Environment (London: Routledge, 1998).

  5. 5

    False Dawn (New Press, 1999).

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