Impractical Equality

Sovereign Virtue The Theory and Practice of Equality, by Ronald Dworkin, Cambridge Harvard University Press, 505 pages, $35.00

Throughout his long and distinguished career as an academic lawyer and political philosopher, Ronald Dworkin has been obsessed with a single theme: to show how an–or, more precisely, his–egalitarian vision of the world can shape the character of our legal, political, social, and market institutions. In Sovereign Equality, Dworkin brings together essays that he has written on this subject over the past 20 years and wages a two-front war to persuade the reader of his grand idea.

The first half is intended to show that the rigorous philosophical foundations of his concept of equality of resources is superior to any rival conception of liberty. More ambitiously perhaps, he argues that his concept is powerful enough to reduce liberty to a subsidiary principle whose chief value is not as a stand-alone ideal, but as an adjunct or component to the complete theory of equality. The second half of the book, much of which consists of reviews originally written for The New York Review of Books, is devoted to applying his egalitarian theories to pressing social issues: campaign finance, welfare reform, universal health care, unemployment insurance, genetic medicine, and cloning.

Dworkin’s influence on current political debate is substantial, at least if the work of any avowed public intellectual ever has any influence on public affairs. He is by any standards an elegant writer and an ingenious debater. His standard ploy starts by expressing indignation about the deplorable state of American practice in some chosen area. For example, campaign financing today is a "disgrace," and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act was "a plain defeat for justice." These broad, largely unsubstantiated, apocalyptic judgments are then used as a lever to force a reconsideration of current practice in light of Dworkin’s grand theory, which promises to remedy the problem at hand. His is an ambitious agenda, but ultimately one that will persuade only those diehards who embrace Dworkin’s egalitarianism from the get-go.

Why? At the most general level, Dworkin leaves his reader with a sense of urgent uneasiness. He is almost too smooth, too slick, and too elusive for his own good. He never immerses himself in the grubby particulars of any institution, case, or practice. His universe of discourse is largely self-contained and conducted only at the highest level of abstraction. Once on Mt. Olympus, he conducts probing dialogues and sharp exchanges, but only with himself. His mini-Platonic dialogues typically state a position, then give–sometimes in quotation marks no less–the imagined reply of some overmatched adversary, which is duly demolished with a clever example or some newfound distinction on the nature of preferences, the multiple forms of luck, or whatever.

His explicit reliance on, or confrontation with, other writers is, with a couple of notable exceptions, virtually nonexistent. He will from time to time address by name (but in passing) writers on the left, such as Amartya Sen or G.A. Cohen, but those of us with conservative, libertarian, or vaguely market-oriented positions are nameless placeholders whom Dworkin never deems worth engaging.

In Sovereign Virtue, Dworkin’s opening gambit reads, "No government is legitimate that does not show equal concern for the fate of all those citizens over whom it claims dominion and from whom it claims allegiance." The categorical force of his declaration is surely incorrect: Let there be a government formed with the universal consent of the governed that seeks other ambitions–the maximum liberty of action for all individuals consistent with respect for the like liberties of others, for example–and Dworkin might be able to argue with some conviction that this vision is inferior to his own model of equal concern and respect. But it takes a lot more to denounce a rival conception as "illegitimate" when it may just be wrong.

Dworkin’s way of putting things can be quite chilling. Some of us–me, for example–do not want the government to be concerned with, or for, their fate, and would prefer, in large portions of their lives, to be left alone to succeed or fail as they may by their own devices. The "concerned" government quickly becomes a meddlesome government, whose cumbersome political processes could easily lead it to do more bad than good. (Go ask those denied access to marijuana if you don't believe me.) An insistence on the limits of government is not a self-interested plea of the privileged or the well-to-do. It is a political ideal that urges the government to attend certain public functions–the maintenance of order and the provision of infrastructure–while allowing people to organize their private lives, free from external interference and without external subsidy, as they see fit.

But the last portion of Dworkin’s fundamental axiom places that private space in peril. A government that exercises "dominion" could come, insensibly, to exercise ownership over individuals, not sovereignty over citizens. A government that demands allegiance claims loyalty and fealty, but may not supply the level of protection and respect that renders it worthy of loyalty from its citizens. As Dworkin states it, equal concern and respect sounds more like a veiled threat than a cherished ideal.

But let us assume for the moment that Dworkin, not Locke, sets out the correct, if ambitious, agenda for government. How then does it deliver its "sovereign virtue" of equality? Here, rhetorically, we should expect Dworkin to begin with a confident assertion of the dominant place of equality in the political and legal firmament. But instead he first takes us through an exhaustive philosophical exposé of the permutations of equality that he does not believe can ground the just political order. In typical fashion, he sets out an opposition between two forms of equality. But rather than speaking of the familiar collision between equality of opportunity and of results, he poses the choice as between equality of welfare and of resources–both of which are actually variations of the equality of results.

For its part, the equality of welfare requires all material resources to be distributed across individuals within the community such that each person derives the identical utility from his bundle of resources as any other citizen. Dworkin rightly understands that this principle imposes impossible administrative burdens on the state, that it encourages certain individuals to develop champagne tastes in order to garner a larger fraction of resources from their more ascetic fellows, and that it requires hopeless hypothetical judgments about how people would value the resources they might command, or the lives they might lead, if they had personalities and temperaments other than their own.

That said, Dworkin does commit himself strongly to the view that equality in the distribution of material resources is sufficiently objective and workable to count as an appropriate social goal. But here he inadvertently accentuates the practical difficulties in executing this system by inviting us to consider how resources would be divided among members of a community who all at once were stranded on some desert island and were forced to make a fair distribution of its virgin resources among themselves. As a general matter, it is a mistake to reason back from extreme situations to routine practices, and Dworkin’s discussion only confirms the dangers of eschewing the real-world supermarket and stock exchange for the imagined desert island.

First off, Dworkin’s desert island example completely elides the first question that his theory must address: What are the appropriate boundaries of the community in which all individuals owe each other the duty of equal concern and respect? Presumably, the ideal of community gains traction because we can identify those individuals who fall outside that community and who are therefore owed only a duty of nonaggression, but not a duty of support, or at least not of equal support. If that difference does apply, then the creation of community boundaries becomes critical to separate insiders from outsiders.

Dworkin’s inattention to the boundary question thus exposes him to the following simple retort: Why are not all human beings part of the same human community, such that the level of redistribution that he champions on a domestic scale becomes obligatory on an international scale–so that those who receive support from others locally in turn could be required to surrender wealth to their less fortunate brethren globally? If Dworkin’s answer is that we should certainly consider the use of foreign aid on a charitable basis to undeveloped nations, the question becomes, Why should individuals at home with lesser needs have stronger rights?

To answer these questions requires a deep Dworkinesque theory about the nature and scope of charitable obligations. But in an odd and perhaps inexcusable omission, Dworkin does not so much as mention the moral grounding or daily practice of charitable work. In his world all these soft obligations are displaced within the community by the inexorable obligation of equal resources.

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