This is the introductory post from the February 2024 edition of Hypertext, the Niskanen Center’s journal of liberalism, political economy, and policy. Every month we publish a series of essays – featuring thinkers with a wide variety of viewpoints – that defies the tired dichotomy of left and right while engaging with a vision of America where competitive markets, robust public goods, and an effective state reinforce one another.  This month’s issue focuses on the ideas of political philosopher Gerald Gaus, and how they might influence us to approach challenges to democracy.

These are trying times for believers in liberalism. The populist tide keeps coming back, and now threatens American support for the war in Ukraine. There is ample reason to worry that the democratic experiment cannot be sustained. But as the work of political philosopher Gerald Gaus shows us, we should approach these challenges from a position of confidence.

Gaus, who died in 2020, was one of the foremost thinkers in the “public reason” tradition. Most famously associated with John Rawls, it is a line of thought that seeks a basis of universal consent for the laws governing a society.

In his final work, The Open Society and its Complexities, Gaus offered an optimistic view of liberalism and public reason, arguing that the freedoms of our tightly networked society are difficult to squash and that its ideals could be vindicated through grassroots exploration and consent. 

In our latest Hypertext symposium, Kevin Vallier argues that Gaus’ book successfully challenges the liberal pessimism of Friedrich Hayek, who worried that modern society was at odds with our tribal natures and difficult to legitimate. 

Open societies must somehow overcome their inherent complexity to reach moral justification. Gaus tackled this problem of justification with bottom-up moral reasoning — a new social contract theory inspired by Hayek … Yes, we could justify a shared conception of justice if people would agree to it, but such an agreement is unlikely. Better to justify social rules to diverse, conflicting moral viewpoints. For Gaus, a society’s process of selecting social rules isn’t a single moment of collective choice. It is instead an ongoing, connected social interaction that produces an emergent order. 

Laura Field counters that Gaus may provide theoretical reasons to believe that the open society works, but neglects the problem of actually persuading the public:

It is one thing to justify a political regime in the abstract — to show how it fits together theoretically, in a manner consistent with what we know about the limits of the human condition — but it is quite a different thing to then get political buy-in in the real world … Gaus recognizes the import of cultural activities and the extent to which learning takes place via imitation and the imitative arts, but he doesn’t have much to say about the people and activities that are or aren’t worthy of imitation. He places a good deal of emphasis on (and perhaps too much trust in) spontaneous order, and understates the extent to which design and intentionality have shaped political history.

Ed Dolan reflects on the difficulty facing policymakers in the open, complex society and sees in Gaus a case for incrementalism:

Gaus calls this “climbing gradients,” an expression that calls to mind an explorer trying to find a way through a mountain pass in a dense fog. Such a strategy can be dressed up as “learning-based governance,” although he admits that “muddling through” may be a more realistic description.

Gaus is a fitting philosopher for a deeply divided nation. Throughout his work, he sought to moderate the “public reason” tradition’s emphasis on pure rationality and make participation in its “consent” more accessible. He warned against excessive ambition in devising sets of rules all could agree to as “just,” and suggested moral diversity might actually enable coexistence: 

We may have made a fundamental error in asking ‘do we agree enough to live together?’ We should, perhaps, be inquiring whether the overall pattern of homogeneity and heterogeneity induces coordination on common ways of living together.

But, as a classical liberal thinker, he argued, “The liberal insight is that in a social world of great diversity the only possible sets [of rules] on which we can converge are ones with extensive individual freedom—what Benjamin Constant called the ‘liberties of the moderns.’”

The bottom-up ferment of the open society may be its secret ingredient and the key to its survival. But rather than looking upon that bubbling pot with complacency, we should be inspired to search for the messages and policies that will sustain it for the next generation.

Image credit: AI image generated with Google Gemini