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. 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 …

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