Posted by: captainfalcon | January 20, 2012

Thought for the Day

Louis Seidman on the value of liberalism:

How . . . can we assure obedience among people who disagree with substantive ends that we favor and that have, somehow been at least partially embedded in the constitution?

Including within the constitution some of the trappings of liberalism may provide a solution to this problem. The feature of liberalism most useful in this regard is its uncanny ability (at least in our political culture) to persuade people of their duty to obey even when the politics of self interest and of moral responsibility fail. Viewed in one way, liberalism’s obfuscatory potential is precisely its problem. Supposedly expansive individual rights, supposedly free elections, a supposedly neutral playing field – all of these institutions serve to justify outcomes that should outrage us. On one view, then, outsiders should devote their energy to breaking down this ideology of legitimation.

The other view, though, is that this approach is either hopeless or foolish. It is hopeless because constitutional liberalism is too deeply engrained in our political culture to be displaced. It is foolish because any constitution, even my nonliberal one, will require a mechanism that convinces the populace to obey, and, given our present political culture, liberalism’s pretentions to being transubstantive provide such a mechanism.

It is important to understand just how limited and qualified this endorsement of constitutional liberalism is. First, I emphatically do not mean to endorse liberalism as a principled matter. My view is far removed from John Rawls’ position that liberalism is necessary for political justice in a diverse society. I do not even endorse the view that he rejects – that liberalism might provide a mere modus vivendi for divergent groups. Rather, my view is analogous to that entertained by some Catholics before Vatican II and before John Courtney Murray’s influential reinterpretation of Catholic doctrine for an American audience. Some pre-Vatican II Catholics treated religious toleration as a contingent good to be supported only when and to the extent that it advanced the interests of Catholics.  So, too, we might treat constitutional liberals as “useful idiots” who, at this particular moment in history, deserve our support because, but only to the extent that, they offer some protection to political outsiders and legitimation for good, nonliberal constitutional provisions.

His essay is short and correct in all of its particulars. Worth a read.

Hat tip.



  1. […] an op-ed yesterday, lurefave Louis Seidman lists what he perceives to be the baleful influences of our Constitution: it has […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: