Liberty and Equality, by Raymond Aron (Princeton University Press, 120 pp., $19.95)

The central question of politics is that of justice––the matter of the relation between the individual good and the common good. In modern politics, the common good seems to consist in “two principal objects,” as Rousseau declared in The Social Contract: liberty and equality. If so, then the achievement of justice in modernity amounts to the realization of “liberty in equality or equality in liberty.”

Liberal democracy stakes its claim to justice on securing individual liberty for each by granting legal and political equality to all. The challenge that liberal democracies face is to remain clear about the conceptual difference between liberty and equality, even while recognizing that they are interwoven in theory and practice alike. Yet advocates and critics of liberalism often prioritize one at the expense of the other. The great virtue of the defense of liberal democracy given by French political philosopher Raymond Aron (1905–1983) in his final academic lecture, recently published as Liberty and Equality, is its unwavering clarity about these tensions—and about the temptation to ignore them.

Aron’s lecture concisely recapitulates his lifelong defense of “liberty as equal right,” which he calls “the strict and rigorous definition of liberty.” He refrains from grounding this defense of equal individual rights in an original contract, or even in first principles more generally—not because he dismisses philosophical reflection, but because he believes that metaphysical deduction cannot generate determinate rights for a given society. So while Aron affirms the definition of liberty given in the fourth article of 1789’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—that “liberty consists in the power to do what­ever does not harm another”—he argues that, without greater specificity about what constitutes harm, this famous definition is “in one sense evident and in another sense almost denuded of meaning.” For what counts as liberty, power, and harm in any society must be “determined by the laws” of that society.

Aron thus recalls the great French champion of liberal democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose respect for philosophy was counterbalanced by an abiding wariness of general ideas. “An abstract word,” Tocqueville wrote, “is like a box with a false bottom: one puts in it the ideas one desires and one takes them out without anyone’s seeing it.” Aron was similarly attuned to the allure of such theoretical sleights of hand.

Just as Tocqueville analyzed democracy in America rather than democracy in the abstract, Aron tries to specify liberties in liberal democracies rather than offer “a general theory of liberties for all societies.” This effort demands attention to sociology, since the particular liberties that “democratic, prosperous, and liberal countries” enjoy were not inscribed on a blank slate but grew to maturity over the course of long experience. Thus, as Daniel J. Mahoney has observed, attending to “the specificities of modernity” is as important for Aron’s understanding of liberal government as any general theory of democracy. Yet Aron’s political philosophy does not merely reproduce the self-interpretation of modern liberal regimes, for he is acutely sensitive to the errors to which liberal thinkers are prone—especially the tendency to forget that universal liberties are only ever actual in a particular time and place.

An awareness of the historical conditions of modern liberal democracy does not diminish the need for conceptual clarity, however. At the heart of Aron’s lecture is a penetrating threefold distinction among kinds of liberties—the personal, the political, and the social—that he employs to correct the abstract thinking that keeps us from recognizing, and thus from making good use of, the rights we already enjoy.

Aron elaborates his typology of liberties beginning with personal liberties, which he defines as the protection of individuals from various forms of coercion. Among them are freedom of movement, choice of employment, and freedom of conscience, which, in increasingly secular societies, has grown from religious liberty to include the freedom to express differing political ideologies—even those that are illiberal or anti-liberal. Such guarantees of personal independence are complemented by the political liberties that assure citizens the possibility of active participation in the political process, which “may be summed up by three words: voting, protesting, and assembling.” Mediating between the personal and the political are the social liberties, which depend immediately on material welfare without directly involving either political participation or freedom from coercion. These include the aims of the welfare state, such as “the liberty of being cared for, or that of being educated,” as well as the freedom of groups (such as unions) to organize for their interests within civil society. This final kind of liberty mitigates the socioeconomic inequalities that are a necessary consequence of equality before the law.

If Aron’s stress on the reality of individual liberty indicates his distance from the Left, his defense of forms of collective liberty distinguishes him from the libertarian Right. But Aron cannot be pinned on such a spectrum––not even in its center—because each position on it prizes a particular kind of liberty above others, which is just what he avoids. When liberal democracies are at their best, Aron observes, personal, political, and social liberties counterbalance rather than subsume one another. Liberal regimes flourish, he maintains, when personal, social, and political liberties check and balance one another; they decay when just one form of liberty is considered the true end of political life, rendering the others mere means.

Common to Aron’s threefold distinction among liberties in modern popular government is his emphasis on the priority of the law. Aron’s emphasis on legality reflects his recognition that law is the institutional form in which the general principles at work in modern liberal democracies become concrete, actionable forms of freedom. It also reflects his commitment to a Montesquieuian vision of liberalism. Montesquieu—whom Aron references more often than any other author in this lecture—is emphatic in claiming that the judiciary is the most important branch of modern government for individual liberty. As Montesquieu states in The Spirit of the Laws, someone facing trial in a country with perfect criminal laws would have “much more liberty” than a despot free to live and rule by his own caprice. For Aron, as for Montesquieu and Tocqueville before him, how laws are enforced is as important for the actuality of liberty and justice as what the laws prescribe.

In modern constitutional democracies, this legal justice safeguards the individual twice over: from other citizens, and from the government’s arbitrary exercise of its own sovereignty. Each has its complications. In safeguarding the individual from arbitrary state power, the government seeks to defend citizens from itself. Aron uses the example of ambivalence toward the police, whom we “call for in our prayers in certain circumstances” even as we “curse [them] in a general manner” in others. In safeguarding the individual from other individuals, meanwhile, the government cannot but impose a restriction on the desires and powers of other citizens: to secure the right to assembly, for example, the government must prevent some from impeding the demonstration of others. Citizens must obey such laws, but if we are truly to enjoy personal, political, and social liberties, we must not only submit to the yoke of the law but also recognize the constraint of the juridical as an expression of our rational liberty.

In the course of securing citizens’ liberties, the legal order inevitably shapes the character of the citizenry by encouraging particular desires and proscribing others. When citizens recognize obedience to the law as the expression of liberty, the legal order can also inculcate a general respect for law-abidingness. Such civic education is not an education to virtue as in ancient political regimes, but it remains an essential condition for modern free government. Nor is this lawfulness simply a means to free government—it is a goal in its own right, an expression of human reason and human freedom. The citizen of a democratic regime “realizes himself as a free man in obeying the law,” and the civic spirit required for such freedom, while not the whole of morality, is a part of it. To flourish, liberal democracies require a dynamic interrelation between city and soul, wherein the rationality that justifies the constitutional order and the rational action of the individual both find expression in the free subordination of particular desires and interests to the law. To the extent that a liberal regime achieves this interrelation, its cultivation of autonomy extends well beyond permitting citizens to manage their own affairs, and liberal political life becomes more than mere rule-following for the sake of securing private goods.

Aron aspired to bolster our commitment to liberal democracy by clarifying the meaning of our liberties and the value of the legal order that enables them. Yet he worried that the lawful protection of modern liberties does not offer a sufficiently robust ideal that would inspire citizens to rally to its defense. A decade after the social upheaval of 1968, Aron was skeptical about whether the notion of the autonomous and law-abiding liberal citizen could excite the moral imagination, especially among the young. The anti-constitutionalism of contemporary political activists—whether in left-wing calls to pack the courts or right-wing flirtations with Caesarism—suggests a related sickness in the political body. It indicates that the principal virtue of liberal citizens in America is taken for granted, if not regarded as outright weakness.

Malicious political actors are not the only culprit. Intrinsic to liberalism is a threat to the liberal ideal. Since our law permits citizens to choose for themselves how to live, the question of what particular goods that law promotes necessarily remains indeterminate. Liberal regimes are thus themselves necessarily indeterminate, as they define themselves neutrally or, as Aron says, “negatively, by the rejection of an ideology or by the liberty given to all ideologies.” Consider, for example, the liberty to criticize the government, which liberal governments protect even to the point that “the liberal principle itself may be questioned.” The government protects our questioning even to the detriment of its citizens and itself, and it must do so to protect the pluralism that is the very hallmark of liberal societies.

Such neutrality risks the degeneration of the liberal idea of autonomy. The understanding of liberty as “choosing one’s path in life” and obeying the law can easily devolve into the liberty of choosing “one’s conception of good and evil.” From there it is but a short step to “the liberation of the pleasure principle,” which Aron saw as emblematic of “the moral crisis of liberal democracies.” Liberalism struggles to halt this slide from rational autonomy to sensual hedonism. Asked why autonomy is valuable, the liberal cannot easily appeal to a politically accepted standard for the good. And while liberalism needs to promote a particular kind of citizen to flourish (autonomous, law-abiding, and tolerant), it justifies itself on the basis of not promoting any particular vision of the good life.

Liberalism therefore lacks conceptual resources for defending individual self-direction under the law. If it must be neutral even toward its own chief moral ideal, then doesn’t liberalism refuse to defend itself in principle? Liberalism can offer a more robust self-defense by stressing the consent of the governed—a principle that retains all but universal approval. But tasked with defending its virtues or ideals, it struggles even to recognize them. The attempt to recall and revive such grounding liberal ideals is nonetheless vital. When liberal societies’ native skepticism toward their own ideals becomes pervasive among citizens, liberal democracy’s defenders lack all conviction while its critics are full of passionate intensity.

Though the vices that emerge from liberalism’s neutrality are not entirely separable from its virtues, Aron believes that they need not overwhelm our hopes for the liberal order. On the contrary, he draws our attention to liberalism’s weaknesses so that we better recognize its many blessings––both the political good of self-government as an end in itself and the private goods that a liberal society enables its citizens to pursue. Aron’s final word is thus an exhortation to gratitude and the preservation of historical memory: “We ought never to forget, to the extent that we love liberties or liberty, that we enjoy a privilege rare in history and rare in space.”

Studying Liberty and Equality offers a final political lesson. Aron’s sober prose, which the translator aptly describes as “Periclean,” is itself part of his argument. The public realm exists above all in our discourse with one another about the good, the beautiful, and the just. Since speech about political affairs is itself a political deed, the preservation of civilized politics begins with politic speech. To speak politically about political ideals is to practice the rare virtue of prudence, and to combine such moderation with radicality in theoretical inquiry is the hallmark of truly philosophic statesmanship. Aron’s lecture provides a model and an ideal of such statesmanship.

Ironically, the liberal regime’s tendency to nurture its own critics is most pernicious in the absence of palpable threats to its existence—for, lacking a truly menacing enemy, we often forget what a rare achievement liberal democracy is. As Mark Lilla notes in his preface to Aron’s lecture, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine may be a wake-up call: “Sometimes it takes a direct confrontation with despotism to remind us of the value of the liberties we enjoy. May that happen again when the guns finally fall silent in Ukraine.” We should be grateful to Pierre Manent for editing Aron’s final lecture, and to Samuel Zeitlin for his careful translation. There exist few more sober, reliable, or serious guides to thinking about the virtues and vices of liberalism than Raymond Aron.

Photo: Jean-Pierre Bloc / Getty Images


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