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?

Barber’s response is to point out that some philosophers, at least, must also make mistakes about rights, since philosophers disagree so radically among themselves. It is, according to him, precisely because philosophers (and the rest of us, committed to this or that philosophy) disagree that we need politics: “Politics,” writes Barber, “is what men do when metaphysics fails.” Or, “under conditions of epistemological uncertainty” political conclusions are necessarily “sovereign” over philosophical conclusions. If we all agreed on some prepolitical set of moral principles, politics as we know it would never have come into existence. Philosophers who look for agreement of this sort, or even for some hypothetical substitute for it, are enemies of the politics we have. Men and women who defer to them or to their agents cease to be active and virtuous citizens. And insofar as citizens are inactive, unpracticed in democratic debate and decision making, they are far more likely to misunderstand their rights.

But to claim that politics is made necessary by “epistemological uncertainty” is not to claim that political practice (democratic debate) can or should proceed entirely without philosophical guidance. Barber moves rather quickly from the first to the second claim. He seems to believe that the world of politics is conceptually autarkic—“s domain whose categories [rights, justice, obligation, and so on] are self-generating.” This may be true in the literal sense that political ideas are not just invented by philosophers without reference to the experience of politics. But ideas cannot figure in sustained or serious arguments until they have been reflected on, worked over, elaborated and refined.

This is the central insight of the second or weak version of the philosophical project, whose aim is not to control political “outputs” but to shape political “inputs.” What is at issue now is not laws or budgets or judicial decisions but reasons, arguments, conceptions of interest and value. Understood in this second way, the philosophical project seems to me eminently defensible, and I don’t think that Barber, upon reflection, would deny its usefulness. Since he doesn’t recognize its usefulness in this book, however, I want to say something more about it.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau is Barber’s hero—the political theorist who vindicates politics against theory. Rousseau’s achievement, according to Barber, is to show how decisions and judgments about the common good are politically produced, arising out of the mutual engagement of the citizens. Summarizing Rousseau, Barber comments,

Political judgment is possible only when [the citizens] meet and act in common. Private men…will not be able to figure out what the public good is, for it depends on—indeed it only exists through—the interaction of that public assembled and voting.

The product of this interaction is a “general will” in which all individual wills are simultaneously combined and submerged. Barber makes his bow to the politics of “bargaining and exchange” that Crick defended, but he prefers something more intense: a civic community that will “transform how individuals perceive themselves and their particular interests” and so make bargaining and exchange unnecessary.

For Crick, however, and here I think he is right, this is an antipolitical preference. And Rousseau is one more antipolitical philosopher. It is characteristic of his hostility to politics (even to Barber’s radically democratic politics) that he denies the value of “interaction.” We discover a general will, he insists, only if, when the people deliberate, individual citizens “have no communication one with another.”4 (Communication makes for particularism and rivalry.) Rousseau admires democratic assemblies only when their meetings are brief and their decisions unanimous; he displays no love for the noise and tumult of a genuinely interactive politics. But let us agree that genuine interaction is what we want, whether Rousseau wanted it or not. We want citizens to be engaged, no one excluded or fearful, everyone defending his interests and arguing about the common good. Then there will be noise and tumult enough, and for the reasons Barber gives: not only because individuals have different interests (not so easily “transformed”) but also because they have different ideas.

Where do these ideas come from? They come, very often, though sometimes indirectly, from the writings of philosophers—so that political debate is the renewal of previous philosophical debate at the point of practice, when decisions have to be made. Barber is right to say that the political decision is sovereign; it determines what we do, even—given a legitimate, for us a democratic, decision procedure—what we ought to do. But it doesn’t determine what we think or ought to think. The world is different, perhaps, once a political decision has been made and executed, but the philosophical debate continues.

Consider one of Barber’s examples of a political question: “Do you use a morally repugnant weapon to end a morally horrific war?” Clearly, this question requires a political answer, that is, as Barber says, an answer attentive to actual circumstances and probable consequences. What we should do is not determined in advance by some foundational truth known only to philosophers; we need to make a political judgment. But where does the initial repugnance come from? How do we know when to ask the question? In fact, it is our moral understanding that precedes and sets up the necessary political decision, and this understanding derives in part from philosophical arguments, as well as from previous political debates and decisions. Moral repugnance is not a “self-generated” political category; politics, even participatory politics, is not morally autarkic.

Barber is right to insist on participation; it is, as he says, the prerequisite of political judgment in a democracy, the experience that underlies and supports citizenship. “The citizen is an adept participant in the polity, schooled in the arts of social interaction,” and political judgment, when it is what it should be, is the artful practice of adept citizens. But the account of judgment in The Conquest of Politics begins in medias res with citizens choosing together among competing policies. Not much is said about how the alternative policies themselves are generated or about what we might say in first proposing one or another of them. Barber is, rightly again, unimpressed with highfalutin Germanic accounts of phronesis (practical wisdom). But he isn’t direct enough—or crude enough: his own conception of politics is too elevated—to ask the critical question: phronesis, phroshmesis, what will I say at the meeting tonight? What I say will be determined by my own philosophy or religion or ideology, which I share, at most, with some subset of my fellow citizens. I will make an argument. The rhetorical form of the argument will be political, but what of the content of the argument? Will I be acting badly as a political person, a democratic citizen, if in defending a particular view of distributive justice or individual rights I make use of Rawls’s original position?

Barber’s argument against Rawls is that hypothetical agreement in the original position is radically apolitical. The more we focus on the Rawlsian account, or on any other account of conversation or reflection under ideal conditions, the less we are likely to understand and respect the kinds of choices that are posed, the kinds of agreements that are possible, in the world of politics. Rawls, says Barber, “substitutes for ongoing political participation a single, hypothetical moment of consent that obviates the need for all future political engagement.” But the need is obviated only on the strong version of the philosophical project, where hypothetical consent controls actual consent. Some of Rawls’s epigones have indeed argued for such control—as if the Supreme Court should begin right now to enforce the “difference principle” (the name of the principle chosen in the ideal circumstances of the “original position” that allows only those inequalities of wealth or status that benefit the least well-off class of citizens). But Rawls himself is probably committed to the weak version: hypothetical talk and hypothetical consent, he would say, help us to grasp the moral force of claims that still have to be tested politically. Politics is sovereign, but it isn’t self-sufficient.

Barber’s criticism of liberal philosophy is driven by his highly particular “participatory” view of politics. A view such as Crick’s would produce an overlapping criticism but one that stopped short (though Crick is a socialist) of “strong democracy.” It is his commitment to a democratic radicalism that has made Barber one of the leading—he is also one of the most intelligent—representatives of contemporary republican political theory. He is, as I have indicated, a passionate advocate of participation, citizenship, and civic virtue and, faithful here to the Rousseauian tradition, a resolute opponent of the division of labor. What need do citizens have for philosophical specialists in justice? Political judgment requires no “special cognitive faculty” and no special academic training. All that is required is the mutual engagement of citizens “in a political process of deliberation and decision making aimed at disclosing what they share in common.” Barber seems to be optimistic about the likely success of this process, though he displays little interest in its actual results. It is successful when it “transforms” the ways in which individuals understand themselves and their particular interests, enabling them to escape from the narrowness of private life. They learn to think in sentences that start with “we” rather than “I.”

In fact, Barber is deeply anxious about this success. He knows that communal consciousness, at once the prerequisite and the product of strong democracy, is always vulnerable and precarious. He is also the author of a book called The Death of Communal Liberty, a beautifully mournful account of the collapse of Rousseauian politics in a Swiss canton.5 He there describes the problem posed by modern life for the small canton of Graubünden, which at the time he wrote was made up of communes in which everyone knew one another and actively participated in decisions on such matters as the construction of a school or a road. This intense political engagement is, as Barber recognizes, hard to imagine in modern, complex, and highly differentiated societies.

In the case of small communities like Graubünden, many of whose citizens have resisted modern forms of economic growth—even banned the automobile—he concludes that

a faltering economy, a diminishing population, and a changed Swiss environment combine to rob the ancient commune of its natural force and make it ever more vulnerable to the creeping cosmopolitanism that is everywhere expunging parochial vestiges of local patriotism, selfsufficiency, and autonomy.

He adds that “it appears improbable that the communes will survive in anything like their traditional, face-to-face democratic form in a world that has abdicated such forms elsewhere centuries ago.” But this anxiety is not allowed to surface in The Conquest of Politics, and so Barber’s republicanism has a strongly academic quality—characteristic, indeed, of the same political position in other writers as well. His defense of citizenship has no obvious bearing on life outside the academy; there is no party, movement, interest group, or even ginger group (like the Fabians in Britain or the Democratic Socialists in America) whose aspirations it explains or supports. Barber describes a mode of political being that seems to belong to an earlier age and a more coherent society.

That is not a reason, however, to surrender to the strong version of the philosophical project, or to any other project founded on special knowledge; no reason to allow ideal talk or foundational principles or scientific discoveries or bureaucratic competence to displace democratic debate. But it is a reason to think seriously about how a democracy might work with part-time and incompletely committed citizens. When citizens talk to one another they don’t talk only as citizens but also as private persons with interests, concerns, loyalties, understandings, and even expertise of their own. It isn’t always illegitimate for them to start their sentences with “I” (for example: “I think that what we should do is…”). Nor is it always illegitimate to recognize a division of labor in the polity as well as in the economy (Rousseauians dislike division anywhere). Just as the citizens ought to stop and listen to a scientist who knows something about pollution when they are discussing environmental issues, so they might well stop and listen to a philosopher when they are discussing issues of distributive justice. We shouldn’t give such people more power than the rest of us, only, sometimes, greater attention.

Of course, ordinary citizens know more about situations involving justice than they do about pollution, and I would hope, with Barber, that in a genuinely democratic society, political philosophy would lose much of its distance and abstraction and become something closer to a common project. I don’t mean that professional philosophers should give way to cracker-barrel philosophers, only that citizens might acquire, in the course of debate and decision making, a new reflectiveness and sophistication. But there are always going to be people who carry reflectiveness and sophistication to far greater lengths than citizenship itself requires—not only people like John Rawls but also people like Ben Barber—and there doesn’t seem to be any good reason not to learn whatever it is they have to teach. We will have to guard against their pride, but pride is a human, not a specifically philosophical, vice. If philosophers did not tell us what to do, someone else would tell us—“strong democrats,” perhaps, berating the always recalcitrant mass of not-so-strong democrats.

This Issue

February 2, 1989