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The Natural History of the Night Watchman State

Liberalism, in all its guises, is a vision of the final form of political association.  All history is viewed as a slow and painful struggle toward the realization of the liberal state.  Other forms of political association are not denied value, but only because they can be seen as approximations to liberalism.  The universalism of liberalism is of a peculiar kind; it is not a universalism rooted in and inseparable from a tradition ordered by a vision of the good.  Liberalism rejects the idea of an overarching good in favor of a plurality of heterogeneous goods.  And what makes these goods good is that they are the preferences of someone.  The goodness of a thing is its being chosen.  Hence, the central moral idea in liberalism is rights.  Rights are devices that enable us to make the choices of a life plan.  And rights are thought to be neutral in respect to the good.  As Ronald Dworkin says, “rights are trumps.”

In a truly liberal society, the good is seen as a private matter.  The public realm is the realm of rights and choice making, as in a market where preferences are traded.  It is this distinction that enables liberals to insist on the separation of religion and state.  Why this obsession to keep the public space unstained by religious culture?  One reason is the liberal’s understanding of good.  If the essence...

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