The Maternal State and Justice as Dessert
Equality and Liberty, by Kai Nielsen, Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allanheld, 320 pages, $29.50
Kai Nielsen's Equality and Liberty is not the kind of book likely to be read with joy by any friend of liberty. It is a long, abstruse defense of what Nielsen terms "radical egalitarianism," which for him describes a society characterized by an almost completely equal distribution of power and economic goods. He argues that in postindustrial societies this egalitarian goal can only be reached with a socialism that would make, for example, Sweden pale in comparison. Not surprisingly, then, he hails the "progress" being made in Nicaragua and Zimbabwe.
Yet within these pages, at times clever and even cute and at other times sloppy and ponderous, are some concessions that should warm the cockles of an individualist's heart. Unlike doctrinaire Marxists and many leftists, Nielsen argues that the protection of basic, noneconomic human rights, and the concept of a human right itself, is a valuable first step in the attainment of justice. He goes to some lengths to allow for the possibility that a person might be rewarded for hard work and possess private property. These may, of course, seem like very small bones indeed, tossed to satisfy common sense, but in the rarified atmosphere of academic leftish political philosophy (especially in Canada, where Nielsen lives), they are concessions to be noted and treasured.
Like much philosophy being written these days, this book would be Greek to anyone not intimately familiar with the most stylish names, views, and turns of phrase in contemporary academic philosophy. The problem of readability is here especially severe, since this is a book written by someone who is constantly looking over his shoulder: to philosopher John Rawls, whose weak-kneed method of "considered judgements" and "reflective equilibrium" he laboriously defends and borrows and whose theory of justice as fairness he regards as insufficiently egalitarian; to Robert Nozick, whose racy defense of a limited state and of justice as the protection of basic rights he totally rejects; and to a host of others in the modern pantheon.
Nielsen is pessimistic about the prospects for an "objective" ethics, or even for any systematic moral theorizing from basic principles. This "subjectivist" piecemeal view of morality—an "infection," one is tempted to say—has little positive evidence for it other than its practitioners' disappointment that moral theory is not so quick and easy (like physics or logic) as they had once hoped in adolescence.
Given Nielsen's hasty retreat from systematic moral theorizing in the tradition of Aristotle or John Stuart Mill, his attraction to the extraordinarily tentative method of Rawls's "considered judgements" is not surprising. A consequence for the organization of this book is a smorgasbord approach to moral theorizing, picking scraps from organized theories according to whether they match or conflict with these intuitions. In the hands of a Rawls, this leads to tepid conclusions indeed—a defense of a Johnsonian Great Society. Nielsen, one must admit, at least uses the method to arrive at more lively conclusions.
Nielsen's obsessive excursions into the weaknesses and strengths of other theories obscures to the point of invisibility what he believes are reasons for his own radical egalitarianism. So far as I can determine, he offers but two reasons for his thesis that only a radical egalitarianism properly provides for true justice.
Nielsen believes, first, that the very different life prospects for equally talented and energetic children of a black, slum-dwelling, single parent and of white Scarsdale professionals conflicts sharply with "our sense of justice." There are many on the political right who feign to be unperturbed by such scenarios, but I for one do find that they conflict with deep moral intuitions. But is this sense of wrongness to be located precisely with the concept of justice and with what governments can and should do something about? Shouldn't we separate our ethical from our political "intuitions"? And, once this is done, isn't it an open question whether we really have any distinctively political intuitions about justice? Isn't it more likely that many "political" considered judgements are just confused ethical intuitions, derived from treating the state as an individual who must do what is "right"—like a mother distributing dessert to her children?
Second, Nielsen believes that their lack of power and authority creates in most citizens of industrialized capitalist societies a grievous loss of self-respect and moral autonomy. A great many leftist political theories, of course, arise from making self-respect (or a similar concept) the summum bonum of life, then arguing that capitalism wantonly creates a loss of self-respect and that some other arrangement would greatly enhance it. Such views can be seen in Karl Marx, Tom Hayden, and John Rawls, to name a very diverse few.
The concept of self-respect is rarely looked at too closely, however, and the major premises concerning what supposedly enhances or destroys it are highly suspect. Did the almost total lack of power and authority Mozart had over his life—however annoying and even destructive it was—really lead to a loss of self-respect? Do inherited millions really translate smoothly into healthy self-respect for children of the high and mighty? Aren't we as human beings far more resilient than these nervous Nellies tell us we are? Haven't we for thousands of years often cultivated a sense of self-respect and of moral autonomy in the most unlikely settings? Is others' power over us always so damaging?
The most outrageously naive claim Nielsen makes is that participation in a democracy greatly enhances one's self-respect. Therefore, democratize everything, especially the economy. He specifically glories in the right that he, as an ordinary Canadian citizen, has over the operations of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation through a citizen's letter of concern.
What people, however, are absurd enough to derive their self-respect from having their letters serve as the make-work fodder of a nameless professional letter-reader in a gigantic bureaucracy? The sole consolation, it seems, is that no one has any more power. But does this really enhance self-respect? If self-respect is indeed a primary good, much homework needs to be done on what exactly it is and what enhances it. Nielsen and others have told us only tall tales, with self-respect as a central buzzword.
It is a promising sign that various limited-state views have come of age when even a tract such as this one must attempt to defuse them. Nielsen takes on only Nozick's arguments for the limited state, dismissing defenders such as Jan Narveson, Eric Mack, Tibor Machan, and Antony Flew as "epigoni" (undistinguished imitators) of, and "bulldogs" for, Nozick. (Amazingly, the name of distinguished philosopher and one-time presidential candidate John Hospers is not even mentioned.)
Even if some attention is better than none, such remarks are surely the low-water mark in criticism of philosophies that build a case for the "limited state." They also reveal a massive ignorance. Not only were the views of these figures published well before those of the trendsetting Nozick (no fault of Nozick's), but to group the neo-Aristotelian theory of Machan with that of Nozick is sloppy to the point of being unprofessional. The name-calling could be mildly amusing if Nielsen had some grip on his scholarship.
Randall Dipert teaches philosophy at the State University of New York College at Fredonia.