William Galston’s liberalism

Kort sammanfattning av Galstons liberalism.

William Galston’s liberalism is built on two basic concepts: “expressive liberty” and “political pluralism”. In the “diversity state” which William Galston sketches as an ideal, individuals have expressive liberty, which basically is “a robust though rebuttable presumption in favour of individuals and groups leading their lives as they see fit” (2002, 3). More specifically, it is defined as:

[The] absence of constraints, imposed by some individuals on others, that make it impossible (or significantly more difficult) for the affected individuals to live their lives in ways that express their deepest beliefs about what gives meaning or value to life. (2002, 28)

What does this entail? One illuminating example is Galston’s stance on the case of Ohio Civil Rights Commission v. Dayton Christian Scools, Inc. The case involved a private fundamentalist school that decided not to renew the contract of a female teacher due to its religious views on gender roles, views that included the belief that mothers with small children should not work outside their homes. Galston supported the faith school and argued that to force it to rehire the teacher would hinder the religious community (that send their children to this school) to exercise its religious views in practise (1995, 532). To decide otherwise would be an infringement on expressive liberty, as this is meant to protect “the opportunity to enjoy a fit between inner and outer, belief and practise” (2002, 28). Expressive liberty thus carries over into an emphasis on freedom of association; it implies a presumption against “external interference with individual and group endeavors” (2002, 3). In the case of Dayton, this means that the sexual discrimination committed by the school does not warrant intervention by the state (to force it to rehire and compensate the woman). There must be limits on “the polity’s ability to enforce even core public commitments on subcommunities when these principles clash with religious convictions” (1995, 532).

Still, the presumption for non-intervention is “rebuttable”. Galston enumerates four kinds of reasons that may licence liberal public institutions to restrict the activities of individuals and groups:

[F]irst, to reduce coordination problems and conflict among diverse legitimate activities and to adjudicate such conflict when it cannot be avoided; second, to prevent and when necessary punish transgressions individuals may commit against one another; third, to guard the boundary separating legitimate from illegitimate variations among ways of life; and finally, to secure the conditions — including cultural and civic conditions — needed to sustain public institutions over time (2002, 3).

This might be seen as a fairly conventional list; what makes for Galston’s diversity-state is rather his conception of where the boundaries are to be drawn regarding each of these conditions. Importantly, the boundaries are to be drawn in such a way that there exist ”social space” even for illiberal groups to live as they please. Looking at the conditions above this involves both the third condition, a wide scope of the range of legitimate ways of life; and the second, a narrow conception of what is to count as “transgressions” between people. Specifically, Galston does not in general count as a transgression those illiberal practices between individuals within such groups.

This idea of social space brings us to the second key concept in Galston’s thought: political pluralism. This is the recognition of that social life comprises of multiple sources of moral authority; and that none of them — individuals, civil associations, religious communities, the state — ought to be dominant in all spheres of life and on all occasions (2005, 1-2) Liberal public institutions should not be “plenipotentiary”: there exist no carte blanche for intervention in the internal life of groups or the workings of all the intermediate bodies and associations that make up civil society.

Expressive liberty and political pluralism together provide a case for giving great priority to freedom of association whenever this clashes with other values. Galston’s liberalism thus implies a “systematic deference to associational claims”. The state “bears a burden of proof whenever it seeks to intervene” (2002, 9).

Not to take this burden of proof seriously, and thus regard the state as plenipotentiary, Galston in his latest book calls “civic totalism” (2005, 24–28). Totalism is the rejection of political pluralism: it is the demand that the liberal principles guiding the political institutions must also “ramify through the rest of its citizens’ lives” (2005, 28). Hence the intermediate associations and communities in between the individual citizen and the state — in short, civil society — must be organized along these principles. Galston, however, rejects this notion that “the inner structure and principles of every sphere must mirror those of basic political of basic political institutions” (2005, 3). One recurrent example is that religious communities may fill its positions of authority along gender-based norms. While such norms would be forbidden in public and business life, the state must not interfere with such communities. The public principle (in this case gender-equality) might be both liberal in content and democratically chosen, and yet liberal-democratic societies should not impose it.

“We often use the phrase “liberal democracy,” but we don’t always think about it very carefully. The noun points to a particular structure of politics in which decisions are made, directly or indirectly, by the people as a whole, and more broadly, to an understanding of politics in which all legitimate power flows from the people. The adjective points to a particular understanding of the scope of politics, in which the domain of legitimate political decision-making is seen as inherently limited (2005, 1).

In reminding about this notion of the limited scope of politics, Galston emphasise that liberalism’s principal value is that of toleration. A notion that, “rightly understood”, Galston says, “means the principled refusal to use coercive state power to impose one’s views on others” (2005, 4).

These are the general features of Galston’s liberalism. To support them theoretically he now invokes the notion of value pluralism. This is “the account of the moral world offered by Isaiah Berlin” (2002, 4). As Galston notes, the closing pages of Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in which Berlin propounded the idea of value pluralism, sparked a lively interest in this idea amongst political and moral philosophers. Let us now turn directly to those passages in Berlin, and then to one of those philosophers, Bernard Williams, before returning to Galston and the way he makes use of these ideas.


William Galston (1995), ‘Two Concepts of Liberalism’, Ethics, Vol. 105, No. 3, pp. 516–534.

William Galston (2002), Liberal Pluralism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

William Galston (2005), The Practise of Liberal Pluralism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).


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