How Liberal Societies Decide




                                                                       “Truth isn’t truth.”   


                                                                                           A Trump Administration Legal Advisor

                                                                                           Meet the Press, 8/19/18  


                “If understanding is common to all, then reason; by which we are reasonable, common to all.

                  If this, then also a reason which instructs what is to be done – and what not, common to all.

                  If this, then the law. If law, then we be fellow-citizens.” 1


                                                                                            Marcus Aurelius


                                                                                             Book IV, IV


Politics in liberal societies requires reasonableness and personal trust. The basis of reasonableness is a common understanding of the complex world in which we live. The basis of personal trust is the willingness of another person to take into account your interests. This essay describes how liberal societies reach decisions on what is to be done.


To preserve order, all states are based on a single unifying (and comprehensible) concept. As examples:


1)      In traditional command and control states, the very simple idea was, “obey the sovereign.”

2)     The Middle Ages held the idea that the sovereignty of one God should be realized through the Church, in diverse political jurisdictions.

3)     The Enlightenment held that in the state of nature, all men were “equal and independent,” by

virtue of their reason; and that as sovereign beings they could freely consent to found a liberal state. 2


The challenge for liberal states in the 21st century is the preservation of reasonableness, in increasingly diverse societies facing increasingly complicated problems.




At the start of his career, political philosopher Isaiah Berlin realized that there are a plurality of values; and that since these values are not infinite, “…the possibility of human understanding” of those who are different.” 3 “If…respect between systems of values which are not necessarily hostile to each other is possible, then toleration and liberal consequences follow…” 4


In his famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” he describes two very different types of knowledge (this also applies to long-term or short-term investors).


“The quarrel between (two) rival types of knowledge – that which results from methodical enquiry, and the more impalpable kind that consists in the ‘sense of reality’, in ‘wisdom’ – is very old. And that the claims of both have generally been recognized to have some validity: the biggest clashes have been concerned with the precise line which marks the frontier between their territories. Those who made large claims for non-scientific knowledge have been accused by their adversaries of irrationalism and obscurantism, of the deliberate rejection, in favour of the emotions or blind prejudice, of reliable public standards of ascertainable truth; and have, in their turn, charged their opponents, the ambitious champions of science, with making absurd claims, promising the impossible…undertaking to explain history or the arts or the states of the individual soul…when quite plainly they do not begin to understand what they are…all this because they will not…admit that too many factors in too many situations are always unknown, and not discoverable by the methods of natural science.” 5


These two views of knowledge also exist in politics. James Madison helped design the U.S. Constitution in bold strokes, “If angels were to govern men, neither external or internal controuls on government would be necessary…It is evident that each department should have a will of its own…” 6 The British statesman, Edmund Burke had a much more cautious view, “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and, therefore, no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs.” 7 These are two different ways of preserving “ordered liberty” in society, the first structural, as befitting a large-scale democracy; and the second organic, as befitting a constituent community.


Berlin pragmatically writes, “Better, surely, not to pretend to calculate the incalculable, not to pretend that there is an Archimedean point outside the world whence everything is measurable and alterable; better to use in each context the methods that seem to fit the best, that give the…best results...8


But how do increasingly diverse liberal societies determine what is to be done, especially developing policies that are “reasonable” given the complex economic, social and historical forces that all societies are now subject to?”


The ancient Greek concept of justice (dike) was law, the same for all. John Rawls (1921-2002) was a professor of political philosophy at Havard, whose works are “frequently cited by the courts of law in the U.S, and Canada.” 9 In “The Theory of Justice (1971),” he argued from first principles, for social justice, advocating equal opportunity and promoting the interests of the least advantaged members of society. Twenty-six years later, he published, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited (1997)” where he advocated a “reasonable pluralism,” based on common understanding, remarkably close to the idea of Marcus Aurelius, who had a large amount of practical experience.


Public Reason


In his essay, Rawls crucially distinguishes between public reason (about the public good) and a person’s private comprehensive reason (e.g. his religion). The first recognizes diversity and a public understanding of things. The second, at a different level, recognizes that people have different creeds and perspectives that give comprehensive meanings to their lives. The first belongs to Caesar; the second belongs to God. He advocates a principle of reciprocity among different groups. In liberal democracies, people simply ought to do unto their neighbors what they wish to be done to themselves. The origin of this doctrine is, of course, religious. Rawls notes, “Citizens’ mutual knowledge of one another’s religious and nonreligious doctrines expressed in the wide view of public political culture recognizes that the roots of democratic citizens’ allegiance to their political conceptions lie in their respective comprehensive doctrines, both religious and nonreligious. In this way citizens’ allegiance to the  democratic ideal of public reason is strengthened for the right reasons.10 On 9/18, Senator John McCain was eulogized for his political and personal decency and courage, core values also of the U.S. military in which he and his family served.


“Public reasoning aims for public justification. We appeal to political conceptions of justice, and to ascertainable evidence and facts open to public view, in order to reach conclusions about what we think are the most reasonable political institutions and policies. Public justification is not simply valid reasoning, but argument addressed to others: it proceeds correctly from premises we accept and think others could reasonably accept to conclusions we think they could also reasonably accept. This (ought to meet) the duty of civility…” 11 The people of New York City should ask what the people of Topeka, Kansas think; and vice-versa.


Citizen Legislators


How is the ideal of public reason realized by citizens who are not government officials? “…ideally citizens should think of themselves as if they were legislators and ask themselves what statutes, supported by what reasons satisfying the criterion of reciprocity they would think it reasonable to enact. When firm and widespread, the disposition of citizens to view themselves as ideal legislators, and to repudiate government officials and candidates for public office who violate public reason, is one of political and social roots of democracy, and is vital to its enduring strength and vigor (our note)….This duty, like other political rights and duties, is an intrinsically moral duty.” 12


Social Discord


Rawls’ doctrine is very applicable to societies rent by religious and economic divisions, “…when a society is sharply divided and contains many hostile…groups, each striving to become the controlling…political force.” 13 To take a broader view, “…the primary subject of political justice is the basic structure of society’s understood as the arrangement of society’s main institutions into a unified system of social cooperation over time. The principles of political justice are to apply directly to this structure…” 14


The purpose of public reason is to enable people to live together, developing a common understanding that makes possible a reasonable pluralism especially at the national level.  This defines the common good, leading to the long-term success of society.




In our last essay, “The Contours of Change,” we noted the crucial role of personal and social trust for local economic development.


In national politics, such trust is also crucial. The reciprocal expectation that others will be willing to take into account your interests, or those of your constitutents’, is the basis for getting things done. Botsman (2017) further notes that trust in another person depends upon their:


1)     Competency

2)     Reliability

3)     Honesty (intentions) 15


Common Problems


The solutions to common problems facing U.S. society require a common understanding of the large problems of climate change, automation, the social safety net and immigration.These problems won’t solve themselves. To preserve our liberal democratic system, it is important that government be able to handle these well.









On Fareed Zakaria’s 9/9/18 GPS, Carl Bildt, the former Prime Minister of Sweden, discussed the reasons for the growth of the far right in Sweden and in other countries. He said that the world has become complicated. People are reacting against:


1)    The EU and European integration

2)    Immigrants, although now the flow has decreased to a trickle

3)    The economic downturn of 2008


(In the case of Sweden…) The immigration of 2015 triggered  a backlash, when 1MM immigrants flooded into the EU in only a couple of weeks. Sweden took 160,000, the largest proportion as determined by its population. As a result, there is now a concern in Sweden about integrating them into the labor market and educating them. People are worried about strains on law and order and on the welfare state.


Mr. Zakaria then notes that a lot of politics is also emotional reactions, rather than just the facts. *  Mr. Bildt says people get defensive, “We need to get hope back into politics.” Hope is really necessary, because having a deep pessimism and trying to replicate the 1950s in a fast-changing world will inevitably lead to bad results. Hope will drive a search for practical solutions. To quote FDR’s First Inaugural Address in 1933:


     “…first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless,

       unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”




* The U.S. Presidential Election of 2016 was won by a candidate who pandered just to the emotions of the electorate, and appealed not to their reason.