Those Mischievous Political Philosophers


The Conquest of Politics: Liberal Philosophy in Democratic Times, by Benjamin Barber, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 220 pages, $25.00

One should not infer from the title and subtitle of The Conquest of Politics that the author thinks politics has been conquered by liberal philosophy. Far from it. For him, politics refers to the activities that arise out of differences of opinion and interest among citizens. It is therefore an ineradicable feature of the human situation. Since World War II, some moral and legal philosophers have tried to assimilate it to philosophy; their efforts have failed, the author says, because they have applied a method to a subject for which it is radically unsuited.

Benjamin Barber is a much-respected professor of political science at Rutgers University. For many years editor of Political Theory, an international quarterly, he is a strenuous advocate of direct, or "participatory," democracy. Some of his earlier work draws on the American pragmatism of Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey.

In the present work, he is in the tradition of Aristotle, for whom the conduct of political life, as well as the understanding of it, is a matter of practical judgment, not of theory. Barber may be unduly optimistic in thinking that citizens—even those of the kind he described in an earlier book as "engaged"—can manage the deep divisions that exist in modern life. But he has no trouble showing that they can find no guidance in contemporary theory.

The books in Barber's direct line of fire are John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Bruce Ackerman's Justice in the Liberal State, and Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. Two other theorists—Bertrand Russell and Michael Oakeshott—get a chapter each, although neither quite fits the category of error on which the guns are trained.

All of the works under discussion are contributions to technical philosophy, which is to say that they are hard going for one not trained in philosophy or used to thinking at a high level of abstraction. What Barber says of one—that only a fool would try to summarize its argument—is in varying degrees true of the others as well. It would be no less foolish in a brief review to try to summarize, let alone evaluate, his criticisms of their arguments. Besides, his main point in every case is that the author says nothing that can be of practical importance to ordinary people—that is, to citizens as opposed to philosophers.

Barber judges Rawls's A Theory of Justice to be "the most impressive, one might even say noble," of the postwar crop of Anglo-American political philosophy. But after 36 pages of analysis, he concludes that Rawls never comes close to genuine politics: "A theory of justice that sees nothing to choose between capitalism and socialism," he writes with characteristic politeness, "would seem to have little to offer to citizens."

Nozick's book—the locus classicus of the Reagan era's "aggressive free market privatism"—is probably as repellent to Barber as Rawls's book is attractive. But his final judgment of it is essentially the same: the book is "irrelevant"; Nozick "plays games ingeniously, but playing games and engaging in politics are distinctive projects."

No one, Barber says, has been more adept than Ackerman at combining a philosopher's flair for formal argument with a citizen's concern for real politics. Nevertheless, "the end results are as sterile and unpolitical as the Original Position or the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number."

For MacIntyre, whose After Virtue is an attempt to reconstruct Aristotle's ethics minus its obsolete biological teleology, Barber seems to have little patience. He gives him only 15 pages and takes him to task for his "lugubrious rejection of all that is modern." "There are no answers in After Virtue, only a sermon of despair," he concludes. "MacIntyre's first aid kit is empty."

Oakeshott, like MacIntyre a critic of liberalism, is as skeptical as Barber himself of efforts to bring politics within the fold of formal philosophy. All the same, On Human Conduct gives the reader no advice on defining or remedying injustice. If MacIntyre's first aid kit is empty, Oakeshott, it appears, has no kit at all.

Each chapter has a well-chosen epigraph at its head. The one above the last chapter, which consists of the author's reflections on political judgment, is taken from Daniel Webster: "Governments are instituted for practical benefit, not for subjects of speculative reasoning." That conveys Barber's sense of the matter. A political question, he writes, "takes the form 'What shall we do when something has to be done that will affect us all and we wish to be reasonable, yet we disagree on means and ends and are without independent grounds by which we might arbitrate our differences?' "

The problem is one of conflict, not of knowledge, and it cannot be dealt with by applying abstract standards—not only because there are no standards to which all adhere but also (a point Barber does not stress) because even if there were agreed-to standards, there would be no purely reasonable way of determining what they mean for a particular concrete case. Where philosophy stops, "experience, history, common sense, and common action begin." Recommended readings for the citizen are the Federalist Papers, Madison's "Notes on the Constitutional Convention," and Tocqueville, but in the last analysis it is up to citizens to work things out as best they can by some sort of bargaining process.

Without philosophical foundations, politics may destroy liberal values. Of this Barber is well aware. He is not a relativist, and his case is not against philosophy as such but only that sort of philosophy that claims to establish certainties on the basis of prepolitical knowledge, the metaphysics of either rationalism or empiricism. The objection to such efforts is not simply that they lead to nothing of practical value. "To be unable to think politically in a major book nominally about the state," Barber says, "is in fact no small mischief in troubled democratic times." Presumably the mischief is that such books tend to weaken or destroy the politician's and citizen's understanding of the necessity of bargaining and compromise, their confidence in what experience has taught them and what common sense tells them, and their distrust of so-called experts.

Barber is surely right in concluding that we need better citizens rather than philosophers. He may, however, be overly optimistic about what even good citizens can achieve in the modern world, a world in which moral conflicts seem to be growing deeper and reliance on reason as a means of coping seems to be more widely repudiated. In relation to demand, political judgment may never have been in such short supply as it is now.

Edward Banfield is professor emeritus of government at Harvard University.