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Recently I was rereading Rawls on the notion of public reason. This idea is dear to Rawls, because it’s part of his larger vision of participatory democracy. We need to be “in on” the reasons behind public policies, because that’s necessary in order for us to be able to assent or dissent in an informed way to the regime that governs us.

Informed consent (or dissent, as the case may be) is part of the deep meaning of political freedom. Yes, what Isaiah Berlin called our negative liberty can be protected by various civil rights that limit government interference, but positive liberty, what Kant called autonomy, involves willing for ourselves or consenting to what the state requires us to do.

The informed part of informed consent involves our reason, as Rawls recognizes (and codifies in the idea of public reason). But Rawls is a modern man who is conscious of the ways in which bad social circumstances can influence and distort our capacity to reason. Here’s what he writes in an important footnote from Political Liberalism (p. 223): “Freedom at the deepest level calls upon the freedom of reason. Limits on freedom are at bottom limits on our reason: on its development and education, its knowledge and information, and on the scope of the actions in which it can be expressed, and therefore our freedom depends on the nature of the surrounding institutional and social context.”

That’s surely right. We can be indoctrinated and thus end up imagining as reasonable things that are in fact unreasonable. Reason needs to be guided and tutored, as every parent knows.

I want to leave aside the latent contradiction that this insight poses to Rawls’ idea of public reason, which is supposed to be “political” and not “metaphysical,” which means relatively low flying rather than focused on the Big Questions. (The contradiction is that our freedom depends on its proper development, and “proper development” necessarily requires judgments that are “metaphysical.” And thus the idea of public reason only works if people are guided in their reason by more than public reason.)

Instead, I’d like to make an observation about progressives. A traditionalist agrees with Rawls about positive liberty, which is why a traditionalist, religious or otherwise, for the most part endorses the inherited forms of the “surrounding institutional and social context.” There can be distortions, but the traditionalist thinks that the Church, for example, or classical education, or social norms about marriage and family, guide and tutor our reason in the right direction. As a consequence, the traditionalist needn’t turn to politics and the state in order to ensure proper “development and education.”

I’ve come to see that this is not so for progressives, who by definition want to turn the ratchet of history forward so that, for the first time, we can attain true reason. This requires changing “the surrounding institutional and social context,” and this requires expanding and enlarging the power of government. For example, marriage is a traditional institution. The progressive thinks it’s unreasonable and needs to be changed. That will require the hard power of law to coerce and transform the soft power of custom.

There are many examples: the marketplace, of course, as well as cultural issues such as race and gender roles, as well as a whole range of attitudes toward guilt and shame. The conservative or traditionalist isn’t opposed to any particular expansion of the political to control and redirect already existing social and institutional structures. As I said, we recognize the existence of distortions. But the progressive tends to see deep problems that require deep and sustained interventions. The limitless ambitions of progressive educators offer an example. And progressives don’t have much in the way of soft, cultural power at their disposal (as do, by definition, traditionalists, who have the power of tradition). So they’re easily tempted to inflate the hard power of law to ensure that people aren’t overly influenced by tradition. That’s why the activist judges tend to be on the Left, not Right.

I’ve come to see that aside from the fantasy world of libertarians, everybody is in favor of benevolent coercion—for the sake of freedom. The difference is that a traditionalist trusts the dispersed power of culture to do the trick, while the progressive concentrates on the focused power of law and government to create a new culture. For the progressive, the personal is the political. It must be in order to justify government intervention for the sake of educating us in the “right” direction.

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