The university of queensland legal research series

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Suri Ratnapala, Professor of Public Law, T C Beirne School of Law, University of Queensland; Fellow of the International Centre for Economic Research, Turin, Italy2


Cultural diversity is a fact of political life. How would a Nozickian society with an ultra-minimal state cope with cultural tensions that arise from illiberal norms of cultural communities, victimisation of minorities within minorities, claims for state help in cultural preservation, separatism and immigration? A society that gives pre-eminence to individual freedom of choice has no interest in promoting or preserving culture but relies on fundamental laws of just conduct and the free exchange of goods, labour and ideas to resolve cultural conflict. There is reason to think that such a society will be more harmonious than one where the state seeks to manage culture.

An Overview

Cultural diversity is an enduring fact of social life. Cultural differences exist within nations and nations share a planet that is home to many different cultures. Even in the most homogenous of countries, where people recognize common ethnicity, speak the same language and largely share one faith, there are subcultures shaped by circumstance such as cast, occupation, wealth and geography. In many countries different ethnic, linguistic and religious communities interact while seeking to retain their group identities. In the history of humankind it is difficult to find a social system that is more tolerant of diversity than liberal society. Religious and ethnic minorities live under the protection of liberal institutions and even groups that bitterly oppose liberalism flourish within liberal democracies while they observe the laws of the land. Yet, not all cultures are compatible with liberalism in the classical sense and the failure to recognize this fact may imperil liberal society. The challenge for liberal society is to maintain the greatest degree of freedom compatible with its own existence. This essay considers the classical liberal responses to certain key questions posed by cultural diversity. It needs to be made clear at the outset, that the term ‘liberal’ is used here in its classical sense and not in the modern North American sense.
Cultural diversity raises five issues for liberal society. The first concerns the extent to which liberal society can or should tolerate illiberal norms and practices of cultural communities within it. How can liberal society protect its institutional framework without self-inflicting similar harm? The second concerns the claims of cultural groups for state aid in the preservation of their cultures. We consider here the politics and philosophy of multiculturalism. The third concerns claims of cultural groups for political self-determination leading to various degrees of devolution of power from federal arrangements to complete separation. This kind of claim is most plausible when an ethnic, linguistic or religious community occupies a historical homeland that has been forcibly absorbed into a larger state. The fourth concerns immigration into liberal societies. Will large scale immigration of persons from culturally different parts of the world weaken the institutions of liberal society? If so what is the appropriate liberal response? The fifth concerns the defence of liberal society against its external enemies. Samuel Huntington’s thesis that in the post cold-war era, the major sources of conflict are not ideological but cultural, though flawed by its attempt to separate culture from ideology, nevertheless highlights the cultural element in the hostility that liberal society evokes. (Huntington, 1996: 28) The last mentioned issue raises a plethora of questions that cannot be given the critical attention they merit within the limits of this essay and hence must be left for another day.
In the following section I explain the sense in which ‘liberal society’ is understood in this essay. The fundamental value of liberal society is identified as the freedom of choice. In the remainder of the essay, I discuss in more depth the appropriate liberal responses to the first four issues raised. This paper is not an attempt to resolve all these issues but is a discussion of the liberal principles relevant to their resolution.

Liberal Society

The liberal society of this inquiry is an ideal type that does not exist. Most societies that are considered liberal fall well short of this ideal. So why base this discussion on the non-existent in preference to the real? A useful way of improving our condition is to posit an ideal model and see how it works in relation to the problems that we wish to address. If it is seen to work well, it will provide guidance to action and if it is seen to fail, we still benefit from knowing why.

There are two ideal types that compete for our attention. One is the natural order of the anarchist libertarian. In the natural order, all assets (including roads, rivers and forests) are privately owned and individuals freely deal with each other to satisfy their needs. No person or authority has coercive power over another and necessary help in the protection of person and property from violence is secured by contract. There is no state and hence no state lands or state welfare. (Hoppe, 2002) Despite its great value as a description of the ideal condition of liberty this model must be rejected not only for the pragmatic reason that very few people live in such conditions but also because it is inherently unstable except perhaps on a very small scale. Among larger populations, as Nozick demonstrated, a minimal state could arise from anarchy even though no one intended this or tried to bring it about, by a process which need not violate anyone’s rights. (Nozick, 1974: xi) If it could arise, then it will arise in some societies.

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