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Flight from Philosophy

The Conquest of Politics: Liberal Philosophy in Democratic Times

by Benjamin Barber
Princeton University Press, 220 pp., $25.00


In 1962, Bernard Crick, more recently the biographer of Orwell, published a short book called In Defense of Politics.1 Crick’s book was a high-spirited celebration of politics in the form of a polemic against a host of enemies, some of them now long forgotten: social engineers and technocrats, political scientists such as Harold Lasswell who actually believed in a science of politics, Marxists who aimed to replace the “government of men” with the “administration of things,” Rousseauian democrats and nationalists aspiring to rule in accordance with a “general will.” All these people, Crick argued, were the enemies of the political virtues he respected. His was a liberal (Madisonian, Tocquevillian) list of virtues—prudence, conciliation, compromise, variety, adaptability, liveliness. What Crick meant to celebrate was the everyday business of politics, peaceful negotiation among conflicting interests. When this worked, he argued, it was a very good thing indeed, and anyone who disparaged it, who promised a holiday from negotiation and interests (or, worse, a millennium) was to be counted as an enemy.

The political philosphers of the 1950s and early 1960s were not on Crick’s enemies list, though he did make clear his dislike for the sort of person who would happily join the political enterprise “if only every issue did not float up into his mind as an issue of first principle.” There weren’t many philosophers around when Crick was writing who believed that “first principles”—rules of distributive justice, say, or theories of individual rights—could be known with such certainty as to warrant their political enforcement. But today such philosophers can be found almost everywhere: not only in university political science or philosophy departments where they no doubt belong, but in professional schools too, on the bench, even in the executive branch of the federal government. They carry their principles in their luggage and are wonderfully eager to put them into effect, that is, to enforce rights, to grant entitlement to various kinds of welfare, to distribute and redistribute wealth (or to refuse to distribute or redistribute it) in accordance with philosophical rules rather than negotiated settlements. So Benjamin Barber, worrying that the world of politics has been “conquered” by philosophy, has joined and extended Crick’s polemic.

Barber, who teaches at Rutgers University, is himself a political philosopher, but he would make more of the adjective than the noun in that phrase. He is a theorist of “strong democracy” (the title of his last book), a follower of Rousseau and of the “participatory democrats” of the 1960s; he believes that a democratic society demands the intense and active interest and participation of each adult citizen in determining its general aims and direction. Crick would probably think Barber an enemy, but he would also, I suspect, find much to agree with in his critique of contemporary philosophy. The Conquest of Politics includes essays on Bertrand Russell, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Bruce Ackerman, Michael Oakeshott, and Alasdair MacIntyre. The essays on Rawls, Nozick, and Ackerman, however, make up the core of the book and carry its central argument; the others are less valuable and of doubtful relevance. Rawls, Nozick, and Ackerman stand in for the corps of “liberal philosophers”—not a bad sample, for the first and last of these three represent the social democratic tendency of modern liberalism and the second represents its libertarian tendency.

Barber takes it for granted that philosophers in general, and these three in particular, are searching for certainty, first principles, foundations. He knows, of course, that there are philosophers of another sort—pragmatists like John Dewey, neopragmatists like Richard Rorty, postmodern intellectual acrobats like Jacques Derrida, who claim not to need foundations—but they lie beyond his concern; they are not enemies, let alone conquerers, of the political world. The philosophy that worries Barber is that which aims at the philosopher’s stone, key to all knowledge, and is most worrisome when it holds that the stone is actually in sight.

These days the claims to have found the key to knowledge are likely to be procedural in character, proposing an ideal method for discovering or constructing moral truths rather than a set of truths directly revealed or intuited. “Thus, we may glimpse,” writes Ackerman at the very beginning of his book on social justice, “the old liberal dream of a philosopher’s stone by which a commitment to a particular procedure of dispute resolution…can be transformed into a commitment to particular substantive outcomes.”2 What bothers Barber is that this “transformation” is not political in character; it doesn’t require either negotiation among political groups or actual debate; it takes place entirely in the mind of the philosopher.


The conquest of politics by philosophers works, according to Barber, by a kind of displacement. Once we have or think we have the philosopher’s stone, possess an ideal method for reaching substantive conclusions, know (by using this method) the first principles of justice or the definitive list of individual rights, we will answer the political question, What Is to be Done? with a simple series of deductions. We will have no need of negotiation or compromise or conciliation, for these “methods” are unlikely to match the results of the ideal method, or even except by luck, to come close. Philosophical certainty takes the place of political choice; the claim to know, says Barber, is the claim to rule. This is certainly true…sometimes. If we begin the story of philosophy with Plato (rather than with Socrates), we can even say that it has been true from the beginning: Plato is Barber’s original enemy and probably a more realistic enemy than the latter-day philosophers upon whom he centers his polemic.

For these are liberal philosophers, who would probably not recognize themselves as conquerors of politics or of anything else (though Nozick, as a libertarian, certainly wants to confine politics to a very narrow space). What kinds of ambition can they plausibly be said to have? We need, I think, to distinguish two different versions of the proper application of political philosophy to politics. The first is the strong version, according to which philosophical discoveries and constructions ought to determine what actually happens in political life—a result that can only be guaranteed if, as Plato argued, philosophers rule the state. None of Barber’s subjects seek this radical guarantee. But they sometimes seem to suggest, or their epigones suggest, that the principles they take to be true or right should govern the behavior of the rest of us.

The issue here is not one of substance so much as of procedure. Barber himself would accept some of Rawls’s, Nozick’s, and Ackerman’s substantive conclusions and reject others. But the only principles that ought to govern our behavior, he believes, are those that democratic citizens decide upon in the course of a long process of struggle, debate, and voting. We can best understand the disagreement here if we look briefly at the arguments of Ackerman and Rawls as they seek to establish principles of justice. Both these philosophers rely on a discursive procedure—a hypothetical conversation among hypothetical men and women under ideal conditions. Rawls, for example, gives an account of how rational people might choose rules of distributive justice if they were behind a “veil of ignorance,” in what he calls the “original position,” i.e., with no knowledge about their material interests or particular situation in society. The hypothetical speakers represent all of us precisely because they don’t know which of us they might be, whose fate they might share. Hence their conclusions are universal and authoritative, that is, they are the conclusions that actual people would reach in actual discourse if they were sufficiently selfless.

Ackerman is Barber’s chief example of a philosopher committed to this sort of designed or “constrained” conversation, and his chapter on Ackerman (probably the best in the book) is written in dialogue form and itself designed to show how radically philosophers control the conversations they imagine. Of course, the claim of all philosophical defenders of designed conversation (what the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas calls “ideal speech”) is that they exercise no such control. If one gets the design right, establishes the appropriate conditions, then, on their view, what issues from the conversation is not what the author wants to say or personally believes about distributive justice or rights, but what any moral person would want to say and ought to believe about these things. Rawls happily allows for soliloquy as well as dialogue, which probably makes the hypothetical discourse easier to imagine. All we need in Rawls’s original position, behind the veil of ignorance, is a single speaker who, since he doesn’t know which part is his, takes all the parts and speaks for all of us. The result, according to the strong version of the philosophical project, is an account of distributive justice—particular rules for distributing particular goods—that takes precedence over any account produced by actual conversations or by the ordinary sorts of internal reflection.

So, on this view, hypothetical talk is better than real talk in democratic assemblies and committees. And if better, why not more effective? The tendency of philosophers who accept the strong version (I doubt, again, that any of Barber’s subjects fit this description, though some of their admirers come close enough) is to think that philosophical conclusions should be embodied immediately in political decisions. Philosophers should themselves determine what political scientists call the “outputs” of the system: policies, laws, budgets, judicial decisions, and so on. If we know what rights are, we should enforce them; if we know the rules of distributive justice, we should make sure that distributions of wealth in our society fit the rules. But who is this “we”? Not the sovereign people, the body of citizens arguing among themselves—for such arguments never reach philosophically authoritative conclusions. If rights and rules of the right sort are to be politically enforced, philosophers must find political agents, the contemporary equivalents of Plato’s guardians, Marx’s workers, Lenin’s vanguard.

Who are the agents that will enforce the conclusions of liberal philosophy? Barber doesn’t answer this question in The Conquest of Politics, where he is, somewhat curiously, more interested in the epistemology than the politics of philosophical ambition. (His earlier book, Strong Democracy, is more helpful, for he is concerned there to describe in detail the institutional structures, neighborhood assemblies, for example, that would encourage democratic participation and to criticize those that exclude it.3 The most readily available agents and the agents most likely to take an interest in philosophy, are judges. This is probably why Rawls’s Theory of Justice was so enthusiastically received in law schools around the country and why so many contemporary philosophers—like Ackerman or Ronald Dworkin or Solicitor General Charles Fried—are also professors of law. Judicial review is the crucial institutional device through which the philosophical conquest of politics takes effect. Insofar as judicial review is effective, political issues like abortion and school busing are shifted from the legislature to the courts and resolved by methods that rarely involve negotiation or democratic decision. Though he doesn’t discuss judicial review in his new book, Barber is implicitly hostile to it. For him, the “philosophical vindication” of such rights as those of privacy and equal pay for equal work, on which the courts at least partly depend, is less important than their popular recognition and interpretation. But what if the people do not correctly identify such rights?

  1. 1

    Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962; University of Chicago, 1972.

  2. 2

    Social Justice in the Liberal State (Yale University Press, 1980), p. 14.

  3. 3

    Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (University of California Press, 1984).

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