Pluralism and Toleration 14:19

We need only a few basic rules to live together in society, says Boaz, and shouldn’t use the law to make everyone conform to one view of the best way to live.


David Boaz: Somebody was just talking about Bernie Sanders’ claim that if we didn’t have 23 kinds of deodorant, maybe children wouldn’t be hungry. And somebody said, “Imagine a world in which you go into the store and there’s a box that says ‘soup’ and a box that says ‘cheese’ and there’s only the one kind.” And it reminded me of something Charles de Gaulle said about France, “How can you rule a country that has 107 different cheeses?” well, he had a point. The world is full of different interests and different people and different ideas, even about cheese. 

One of the important facts about the modern world (and really an important fact about the world at any time, but we’re now much more conscious of it), is moral pluralism. We don’t all have the same religious or moral views. We don’t all believe that the virtuous life is lived in exactly the same way. And so if individuals have different concepts of the nature of the world, of the nature of man, of the nature of government, of the nature of God, and we can’t resolve those differences, necessarily, how do we deal with that world?

One response to the fact of moral pluralism is sometimes called perfectionism, which is that we will unite everyone and perfect human nature. Many religions have had that idea. If people truly understood God and what he wants, then everyone would have the same moral views and the same desire to do what God wants, to live the right kind of life. Religion is not the only place that you get that. Communism, also Marxism, offered that idea. If people truly understood the nature of exploitation, the nature of man, then everyone would be rid of false consciousness and everyone would live as New Soviet man or New Marxist man anyway. Well, that didn’t work out so well in practice. It turns out that these differences are real, not to mention the fact that when you try to override them with an essentially totalitarian government, you destroy economic growth, you destroy incentives, and people end up living at a very low standard of living. An alternative to perfectionism is to recognize that people are different, that we live in a plural world. And that’s why pluralism is sort of a corollary of individualism. We recognize that individuals are different. They may have different views of faith, reality, the origin of the world. And we accept that, and we let people live. We tolerate and accept differences among people.

One of the implications of that is minimal government rules. In order to live together, we’re going to have to have a few rules. And I sometimes say, and I wasn’t the first one to say it, you learn these rules in kindergarten: don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, and keep your promises. And if we don’t enforce those rules, then we live in a world of all against all. If we do enforce those simple rules, then we can accept the fact that not everybody agrees with the way I worship God, the way I think of marriage, the way I think of family life, even the way I think of political life – as long as we have minimal restrictions on people. Minimal government allows people to flourish in the way that seems best to them. And one of the advantages of that, of course, is we may find out that we’re wrong. We may look at the family next door or the community across the country and say their systems seem to be working better. So I think maybe I’ve been wrong in my understanding of the best way to live. Certainly, there have been modes of living that people have tried and have tended to be found wanting and not engaged in again. So one of the arguments for a plural society and a minimalist government is precisely that we might learn better ways of living.

One of the ways the modern world has accommodated itself to pluralism is by moving from theocracy (or a single Church that everyone belongs to, really whether they like it or not), to religious toleration, religious freedom, and eventually to the separation of Church and State. Those are not necessarily the same thing. Religious toleration could mean there’s an established Church, but we won’t put you in jail if you go to another church. Religious freedom might mean no established Church, but it’s still got connections with government, whatever. Separation of Church and State is where we ended up, at least in the United States. Everybody in America is free to worship the way he wants to, go to whatever church they want to, start a church, leave a church. Government won’t have anything to do with that, the separation of Church and State. And we might think about why we think that’s a good idea. And I can think of three reasons:

First, it’s simply wrong to interfere in the individual conscience. What can be more a part of your humanity than what’s in your head, what’s in your heart, what you believe about God, what you believe about your own immortal soul? It’s wrong to coercively interfere. It is wrong to point a gun at people and say, “Swear you worship my God. Do not say that you have a different view of the world.” It’s wrong to interfere in individual conscience.

Second, we get social harmony out of it. Once we acknowledge, once people figure out that not everybody agrees… Maybe there was a time when everybody thought that everybody else agreed with what the priest was saying or what the commissar was saying. But once people figure out that not only do I have my doubts about what the priest is saying, but it turns out other people do too, then you tend to get conflicts. People start agitating. They want the right to do things differently. And some of them want the right to impose their religion on everybody instead of that other religion. And you can understand why people think this. If you truly believe in the faith that you believe in and you believe that people will lose their immortal souls if they believe wrongly, then you would be a cruel person not to want them to come to the proper understanding before they have to face their Maker. But we found out that that leads to wars. In Europe, they were known as the wars of religion for a while. So we said more social harmony can be achieved if we allow everybody to worship in their own way. And if you have a better idea, go out and preach to them.

And the third reason, I think, is that competition generates better results. It may even generate truth. There’s no real truth about what’s the best car. Competition will help to produce better automobiles, better computers, better shoes, better food. But maybe even, competition of ideas helps to produce better ideas. There are a lot of stupid things people have believed in the world that no one believes anymore because we tested those ideas and we found then wanting. So competition produces better results. 

Now when we think those are the reasons we have separation of Church and State, then we might start thinking, “Well, where are the other areas that that also might apply to?” I would suggest family. How about separation of family and State? We don’t need the government telling us what kind of families we should form. We don’t need an establishment of certain kinds of families. And any positive government laws (tax program, Social Security programs, whatever) are going to have an impact on the way family structure is accounted for the more minimal the government, the less such intervention there will be. That means people get to follow their own conscience. That means we get more social harmony because you don’t create groups of people who are angry that their family choice is either banned or excluded from government programs or whatever. And maybe it gets better results. Maybe you find out that certain kinds of family structures don’t work very well. People come to see that.

Education seems a perfect example. The reason we have separation of religion and State is because religion is so tied up with our deepest emotions, our deepest values. Well, so is education. The kind of school your child attends has a lot to do with what that child learns about the nature of the world. One of the things we do in America is we exclude religion from the public schools. We no longer have school prayer. We don’t allow it. A lot of schools are so scared, they won’t even teach the Bible as history or literature because it appears to be the establishment of religion. But remember, when you tell people you must send your children to public school or pay a whole lot more money to go to some other school and religion will not be allowed in that school, you are telling the children, and to some extent, the family, religion is not that important. Of all the things your children need to learn as they grow to maturity, religion is not one of them. Now the secular state would respond, “No, no, it may be important, but it’s for the parents and their minister to teach.” Still, kids spend half their waking hours in school. If ideas are not presented in a religious context, then they get the message that religion doesn’t have anything to do with history, values, science, whatever. I may believe that religion doesn’t have anything to do with those things, but I don’t think the government should have that as an official policy. So why not separate education and State? Then we wouldn’t be interfering in people’s individual conscience. We wouldn’t create social disharmony. At the Cato Institute, we have a conflict map on our website that shows conflicts in the public schools over what’s to be taught, who’s to teach, what kinds of teaching will be done. When you have private schools, you don’t have to worry about any of that. If you want a Catholic school, go to a Catholic school. If you want a school that emphasizes science and math, find a school like that. If you want a school that emphasizes art or music, that’s fine. When it’s in the public school, then you have to fight over whether you’re going to have prayer, whether you’re going to have gay teachers, all that sort of thing. Put all the schools in the private sector; you don’t have those conflicts. 

And then think about art. If religion touches our deepest emotions, doesn’t art also if it’s successful? And so if the government is involved in subsidizing some kinds of art and excluding from subsidy other kinds of art, then it’s kind of creating an establishment of art, set up an establishment of religion. And what if [inaudible] again? We’re interfering in the individual conscience by pushing certain kinds of art, which touches certain kinds of emotions, on people. Sometimes we create some social conflict because some people don’t like the art that the government subsidizes, whether it is a piece of art that demeans Christianity, that demeans homosexuality, that seems to exalt the enemies of America – all kinds of art that might offend somebody. If the government is picking which one is to subsidize or which ones to ban, then you’re going to get some social conflict. And even in art and music, competition might produce better results. 

In all of these areas, I think we should broaden the notion of the separation of Church and State to the separation of conscience and State. Anything that touches on the individual conscience, the farther we can keep it from the State, the better. Remember, the State is power. The State is coercion. It’s force. So any time you say the State or the government should be involved in something, you’re saying force should be involved in this. We should force people to pay for these schools and force their children to go to these schools. We should force people to pay for this art. We should, in some cases, force people not to look at this kind of art. That seems a bad idea in a pluralist and tolerant society. So the corollary of individualism for libertarians is a society that recognizes the fact of pluralism and tolerates all sorts of peaceful activities. One of the great founders of the modern libertarian movement, Leonard Reed, wrote a book called Anything That’s Peaceful. That was his definition of a free society. You can do anything that’s peaceful. It may be offensive, it may be stupid, it may be self-destructive, but we will not use force. We will not point a gun to prevent you from doing anything that’s peaceful. That’s the nature of a plural and tolerant society.