Tolerance as the Supreme Political Principle

Reprinted from Law & Liberty

I read the response by Doug Rasmussen to Daniel Klein and Daniel J. Mahoney with great enthusiasm for the skill they both convey in representing their positions. What I take from Klein and Mahoney is that liberty is important as an outcome for judging a good political order, but what Rasmussen adds is the observation that political and ethical institutions, while overlapping, are not built of the same thing. Instead, I argue that a principle like toleration should be understood as a way to both increase liberty and leave a space for the ethical.

Klein and Mahoney point out a role for the ethical when they claim that religious institutions have a major advantage of appreciating complexity. They write, “People who learn religious patterns of thought often have less hubris about outsmarting the complexities of life.” The pay-out here is that those that have a religious orientation are going to be skeptical of centralization of power, particularly the temporal power that reminds them of a Rome that would be such an effective supplier of martyrs. This allows for a dialectic, a mutual skepticism between religious groups sufficient to provide a check on each one’s hubris. A moderation of extremism is an important feature of the res publica.

Acknowledging a limit to expertise and the profound complexity of social organization is a starting point for understanding the Scottish Enlightenment. A concept of liberty becomes central in this tradition for political institutions, especially through its influence on the U.S. Founding. I was surprised to see that there is no mention of tolerance in either Rasmussen’s or Klein’s and Mahoney’s essay because it is toleration that creates the conditions for liberty. Tolerance is the institutional form and liberty is the result. In the tradition of Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, I would expect that toleration and not liberty would be the supreme principle of a political order, which would more closely approximate the historical period captured by Smith and his contemporaries.

Rasmussen’s reply was exciting for me because it gave priority to distinctions between the political and the ethical. Rasmussen convinces me that these are not the same thing. Political institutions are the ground rules for how groups interact with one another. Ethical questions are worked out within groups. Rasmussen doesn’t take anything away from liberty as an outcome, but points to its limits as an ethical principle because it is only a condition that, when present, can result in the discovery of ethical truths.

On Toleration as a Political Principle

My disagreement with Rasmussen’s characterization is on the grounds that tolerance—and not, as he says, liberty—is the central political virtue. Liberty flourishes when there is tolerance. After all, the contradictions between any two parties with respect to their own private liberty raise issues when maximizing individual liberty, especially among a group of any size. Resolutions end up being a question of weighting one person’s liberty versus another. Maximizing liberty by measuring across people or groups is going to involve interpersonal utility comparisons that can only resolved by setting priorities. As James Buchanan pointed out, the intransitivity of preferences matters for political decisions, but not market orders. Competition is messy, but that is a feature and not a bug because competition is necessary for discovery.

The conundrum of political hegemony is best resolved by recognizing what role scale plays in political order. Political questions are solved in groups and those groups flourish best when they are able to solve collective action problems. This gives a survival advantage to some groups. When groups get larger, scale requires that larger groups solve collective action problems by limiting options for other people and groups in order to seek efficiency rather than relying on voluntary association common among smaller groups. We despise monopolies not because they lower the costs for everyone and increase output, but because we like the substantiation of choice that comes from more robust competition.

Tolerance is a political virtue because it makes us articulate the limit of the power a majority group can impose on dissenters. When Locke wrote, the idea that you could have a Catholic neighbor who held different views was contrasted with a history where Catholics tried to blow up Parliament under Guy Fawkes, had seized power under Bloody Mary, and were hiding in priest holes around the country luring people into papal enthrallment, if Catholic detractors are to be believed (see Jessie Childs for more context). For Locke to say that tolerance extends to Catholics might be comparable with someone suggesting that we try to find peaceful trade relations with the Taliban.

This counterintuitive result is the miracle of toleration, however. Locke, along with Voltaire’s Doux Commerce, was correct in asserting the tremendous power that commerce could do if we held toleration to be a supreme political virtue. In commercial orders we are too busy making each other better off to have enough time for plotting take-overs of the government and imposing our religion on one another. Mandeville’s observation that vice checks vice could have easily been a statement of toleration, that religions check religions. Adam Smith endorsed religious competition too. Mandeville’s advocacy of an extremely limited constitutional monarchy was a protection against the arbitrary influence that religious wars had on government prior to the time of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Beyond Toleration

But Rasmussen is right that the political virtues do not explain all of social organization. The ethical is necessary for society if political institutions actively preserve liberty. Klein and Mahoney are right that there is something instructive in the groups that form around some idea of tradition. I emphasize toleration because it works despite its limited ability to provide universal ethical principles. To maximize liberty as a supreme virtue would be to work out an efficient construction of rules that would result in the Napoleonic code on steroids, reaching the final answer preserved in a catalogue of ethical principles. Final answers do not work because experts make mistakes too. As I have argued elsewhere, cognitive monopolies are just as bad as retail monopolies for foreclosing choice. To only have one group would be to converge to one version of epistemology. At some point, this limitation on choice becomes a foreclosing of liberty.

It is better to have groups that form more like what John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty. In this approach the individual moves between groups. This act of choosing between groups has two effects. The first is that as groups gain members, that group will ascend in influence. The second effect is that groups, being partial, will make errors, and as a part of the bundle of ideologies that they adopt, they will be limited. This is where a Lockean appeal to tolerance is most useful. To have a commitment to tolerance is to recognize that the majority cannot use efficiency arguments to compel the minority into compliance. A true political virtue of tolerance would desire erroneous minorities to exist, if for nothing else, to remind us of errors.

If there is a trade-off between efficiency and liberty, then this is where the illiberal temptation gets extreme. The commitment to find a uniform set of principles ranking groups hierarchically with reference to their intellectual and metaphysical foundations will allow for dominant groups. Such a move is an efficiency argument approach that justifies foreclosing groups that have norms and beliefs that are beyond the pale (strangle baby Neros in their crib!). Everyone knows that too much liberty for fundamentalists might result in less liberty for everyone else, a result so obvious that it doesn’t even have to be measured. But then intolerant means are serving the goals of liberty, which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. Political order subordinates ethical purity to tolerance a large portion of the time. The views of extremists are moderated by upholding this principle. The result is robustness, not efficiency

This appeal to intolerance in the name of ethical purity is reflected in the postmodern movement toward inclusivity. The rejection of tolerance outright is seen in the commitment to root out bad ideas. The university now routinely protects students from thoughts that might remind them of traumatic experiences, and that definition is expansive. This is institutionalized intolerance and the opposite of a political order maximizing liberty. This trend moves toward a type of intellectual hegemony that is both illiberal and leads to something like Machiavelli’s “pious cruelty” which Klein and Mahoney rightly caution against. Tolerance is the only form of political ideal that can stand up to hegemony, and we are not practiced enough in its application to use it well.

Tolerant Political Institutions

Institutional approaches to tolerance are necessarily political, because the idea helps us select rules that limit our influence on others. Political rules and our ethical commitments are both formed in groups, but the political can extend between groups to provide balance in the social order. Tolerance was discovered as a political ideal through experience. Locke drew on contemporary history to observe how conflict was resolved through force, but advocated instead for tolerance.

By the end of the 17th century, a sort of truce between groups was enshrined in the state’s approach to religion. The toleration act of 1689 paved the way for an England that was open for various Protestants in addition to the Church of England. 1791 was the first official recognition of tolerance for Catholics, but non-trinitarians would not be granted this right until 1813. This tolerance was discovered over time, and it is hard to imagine it forming through deliberate interventions. We can’t imagine the Puritans had tolerance of Catholics as a priority when they held out for their own rights, but tolerance worked and England got richer and freer. At this same time, the rise of political economy offered solutions to policy issues through a common language of utility calculus. Jeremy Bentham’s goal, at least, was to ground morals in claims that were independent of the various popular traditions and side-step religion entirely by going back to the psychological roots.

Bentham should be critiqued if what he wrote only rejected the tacit notions of tradition and replaced them with the data that could be generated by happiness measures. Klein and Mahoney would sanction Bentham for rejecting complexity. Reducing human experience to abstractions creates the same problems plaguing social welfare functions in the 20th century. All sorts of problems abound in the utilitarian approach, and many of the applications of this reasoning are distinctly illiberal.

It is illustrative, however, to consider that Bentham’s main goal was to ground policy debates in an extramural foundation for morals, such that no one group could capture the moral high ground. Bentham’s quip about natural rights as “nonsense on stilts” is evidence of his frustration with these perceived platitudes that foreclosed minority views. Bentham’s approach was an ersatz morality constructed rationally by synthesizing the various erroneous religions prevailing at the time. Bentham wrote, Not Paul, but Jesus anonymously provoking his contemporaries to abandon their partiality. The message was that the competition over whose ethical rules won completely undermined the search for true ethical rules.

What Bentham understood is that error is essential in a world that values tolerance. This was okay as long as we learned from error. Mill understood the importance of groups in On Liberty, but perhaps didn’t apply this consistently in other writings. Mill’s conflict over the principle of liberty comes from the fact that a broadly defined principle of liberty might be used to justify uses of that liberty that are truly heinous. Tolerance defines a balance and challenges us to create political institutions that result in robust liberty, without giving undue weight to any one principle or any group. Those groups that are limited in maximizing their exercise of liberty as a result of other people’s liberty will make rights claims and argue that their liberty is being abridged, and often they will be right. This is what makes the pursuit of tolerance a political ideal rather than a political rule.

Klein and Mahoney are right that religious practices remind us of the complexity of human institutions. Rasmussen is right that ethical principles are discovered, but do not map well to political institutions. Because groups can always exploit ethical claims to play interest group politics, a political virtue of tolerance is necessary. Interest groups will focus our attention on efficiency rather than tolerance to seek power or influence, but we should be armed against this rent-seeking. Tolerance is the primary political virtue because it prevents convergence to any one sect’s vision of a good social order.