The Corner

Re: The Open Society and Its Critics

On Ramesh’s recommendation I read the Paul Cella essay, and I must say I liked it a great deal, both substantively and stylistically. But I also agree with Ramesh that Cella might be overreading the phrase “open society.” It’s not at all clear to me that Rich and Ramesh couldn’t have said “free society” instead of “open society” and thus defused Cella’s critique from the outset without changing their meaning much, if at all.

That said, the one thing I thought was missing from Cella’s essay is the point that America’s “open society” (i.e. its free society) was born from an explicit philosophical maneuver to close off an entire realm of debate. Indeed, it might be the most famous such effort in mankind’s political history. It goes like this:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….

As anybody whose ever trifled with philosophy knows, it’s actually very hard to prove that those self-evident truths are True. Hence the brilliance of the founders’ decision to simply take them as a given. Moreover, they did not envision an open society where “all questions are open questions”; they envisioned — and fought for — a free society where certain questions need not be proven like a mathematical formula, but are merely and gloriously “self-evident.”

As an aside, I agree with Cella that the “open society” is in fact another kind of orthodoxy. But I also think the open society is nonsense. There cannot be a true open society where all questions are open questions because some questions will always be closed. What’s interesting is to ask which ones, because what is closed and what is open does change — a lot (none of this will surprise some longtime readers who recall my fondness for arguing for the importance of dogma). In other words, where are the self-evident truths today? That’s a good subject for argy-bargy in the Corner, I think.

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