The United States and the open society: a response to Gara LaMarche

Roger Scruton
11 July 2005

In his openDemocracy essay “The crisis of democracy in America” (30 June 2005) Gara LaMarche makes no secret of the fact that he is a passionate liberal (in the American sense), committed to a broad-left political agenda, and to values that he associates with the European Enlightenment. But he also recognises that, in a democracy, people who do not share his beliefs and values may very well from time to time obtain political office. In such circumstances it is always tempting to think that the procedures of open debate and free competition have been abused or are being confiscated, and LaMarche is quite convinced that this is happening.

It may help to put his article in perspective if I try to say, from the standpoint of a conservative who is not at all convinced either by the broad-left agenda or by the Enlightenment values to which LaMarche makes appeal, what I think ought to be meant by the “open society”.

I am second to none in my admiration for what George Soros intended and achieved under this rubric, in the dark days of the Soviet empire. Almost alone among the many who had escaped to the west and made a fortune, he remembered those whom he had left behind and who needed his help. But this good man’s sense that the open society is at risk in the United States has no more intrinsic authority than my belief that it is – all things considered – in fairly good shape.

Gara LaMarche is right that there have been abuses of the political process, of judicial appointments and of legal procedures. But the question is whether the abuses are so widespread and incorrigible as to amount to a breakdown of the open society. I don’t think LaMarche has given us proof either that this is so, or that the abuses, when they occur, are the result exclusively or even primarily of right-wing machinations.

In the case of the supreme court, for example, it is undoubtedly true that the court has become politicised in recent decades, in a way that would have astounded the “founding fathers” of the US constitution. But it is also clear that the politically-motivated attempts to block the appointment of judges – which went as far as total character assassination in the cases of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas – have not always been carried out by the forces of the right.

Nor is it clear that interferences in academic freedom have generally originated in right-wing conspiracies. On the contrary, it is extremely hard for someone known for expressing right-wing opinions to obtain an appointment in the average American humanities department. Those who openly question the orthodoxies of American feminism or gay liberation put their academic career at risk, and conservatives have begun to adopt a siege mentality, forming societies for their mutual protection such as the National Association of Scholars, or gravitating to the dwindling number of departments and programs that are prepared to tolerate their presence.

Nor should the case of Laurence Summers be dismissed so lightly. After all, if you cannot express unorthodox ideas in a university without risking your career, what remains of open discussion? If LaMarche’s complaints about America have any force, it seems to me, it is precisely in relation to the universities, in which a belligerent orthodoxy concerning the important issues that confront western society is beginning to make open debate impossible. But this is not the doing of any rightwing or fundamentalist conspiracy: quite the contrary.

The open society: procedure not substance

So what, then, ought we to mean by the open society? Karl Popper coined the phrase in very different political circumstances from those that prevail today. He was attempting, however, to give a new slant to an old idea – the idea of toleration, as defended by John Locke and the founding fathers, and subsequently by John Stuart Mill.

An open society is one in which opinions can be freely expressed and debated, in which institutions that confer political power are open to competition from outside the established elites, in which economic activity is based in free exchange, and in which the rights and freedoms of the citizen are secured by an impartial rule of law.

Popper had particular enemies in mind, and gave controversial accounts of Plato, Hegel and Marx. But he was strongly influenced by the Austrian economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, who saw the free exchange of goods and the free exchange of ideas as parts of a single social achievement, valuable not merely because freedom is intrinsically valuable, but because free exchange is the source of social knowledge. I am not at all sure that an open society, defined in that way, need conform to any particular idea of democracy: indeed, as Mill recognised, democracy can easily become a “tyranny of the majority”, and therefore a threat to minorities such as yours or mine.

It seems to me, therefore, that defenders of the open society should be clear that it is openness, not majority rule or ideological orthodoxy, that they wish to secure, and that openness is a procedural, rather than a substantive idea. It was Popper’s contention that ideology, as opposed to genuine scientific thinking, would disappear under the influence of open debate, though it is arguable that he underestimated the human need for conformity of opinion.

Even where there is some prevailing ideology an open society may still exist, provided people can freely express their own beliefs, devise their own budgets, and make their own choices in matters that concern them most deeply: such as religious faith and the education of their children.

It is not a threat to the open society that a conservative pundit should call on fellow conservatives to cease funding universities, for example, or that parents should express their unwillingness to expose their children to material designed to normalise homosexual relationships.

It is not a threat to the open society that rightwingers should express their views in the media or protest when public funds are devoted to financing institutions that systematically avoid open debate.

It is not a threat to the open society when judges are appointed on the basis of their legal skills and without consulting their political beliefs.

It is not a threat to the open society that people should speak out against progressive ideas or propose political programmes that involve reversing policies favoured in recent decades by the left.

On the contrary, all those things are proof of openness. Whether American society is genuinely open in all those respects may certainly be questioned. But it is worth saying that the US is one of the few states in the modern world where you can safely take your children out of school if you disapprove of what they are being taught there – a privilege secured through a constitutional battle by the Amish, and proof that those old-fashioned religious fundamentalists are not all averse to the cause of liberty.

How not to debate

Gara LaMarche’s article suffers from two defects that make me doubt his commitment to genuine openness of debate.

First, it makes no comparative judgements, except in a brief aside comparing the American response to terrorism to that of various European states. The initial response to the attacks of 9/11 was of course angry and careless: but the process of rectification is already in place, and it is surely a proof of the openness of American society that the treatment of suspects is now openly debated and a matter of legal appeal and political pressure.

There are those who see Guantànamo Bay as the sign that the old principle of habeas corpus, the fundamental guarantee of our common-law freedoms, has finally been abandoned in the United States. There may be some truth in this; but the criticism is openly made in America, by Americans who go unpunished for saying it, and who indeed are actively pressuring the administration to change things. That is exactly what an open society requires.

Moreover, there are other quite reasonable views of the matter: prisoners of war have never benefited from the writ of habeas corpus, and the war with terrorism might after all be a real war. How do we know what the European response would be, were something as horrendous as 9/11 to occur on our soil? In the wake of the London bombings on 7 July, resistance to identity cards is noticeably weakening; and were the government now to propose interning those British subjects who had been through the al-Qaida training camps, protests would be real, but by no means unanimous.

It is worth comparing the American response to 9/11 with the response to terrorist atrocities in Saudi Arabia, Russia and India. And it is worth asking: where else than in the US could a foundation like the Open Society Institute exist, devoting money which only the free economy of America makes so abundantly available to a refugee, to the cause of undermining the political establishment that currently holds power in that country? It would be reasonable to compare the situation of George Soros with that of Boris Berezovsky.

The second defect is that of name-calling. It is not a contribution to open debate to target the other side as “neo-McCarthyism”, and thereby to summon a knee-jerk reaction of distaste that effectively deprives the opponent of any place in the dialogue.

Nor does it help to describe the new combination of conservative forces in the US as creating “something resembling a theocracy”. Is LaMarche really comparing Harvard with Al-Azhar, and George Bush with Ayatollah Khomeini? In an open society, conservatives with strong religious beliefs are allowed not merely to exist, but to express their views and to contend openly for office. And they are entitled to criticise their opponents and to alert the public to what they think is wrong with them. None of this is anything like what Senator McCarthy was up to, nor is it what happens in a theocracy.

My own view is that advocates of the open society ought to respect their opponents, and to be more prepared than Gara LaMarche shows himself to be, to acknowledge the possibility that it is their opponents, and not they themselves, who are right. For that is what open debate means.

Further links:

Open Society Institute

National Association of Scholars


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