A review of Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, by Michael Walzer
J”ustice requires equality for equals and unequality for unequals.” Whether Michael Walzer would admit it or not, his Spheres of Justice is an attempt to apply this ancient maxim to the conditions of modern Western democracies—especially the American one.
Walzer attempts to demonstrate that there exists a variety of kinds (“spheres”) of human goods; for example, not only health and wealth, but also honors and offices and leisure. To this variety, Walzer contends, there answers a variety of principles for their just distribution: Superior wealth ought to go to the clever and industrious ones, love to the charmers, superior honors and political offices to the most talented and popular ones, and so on. The essential heterogeneity of human goods is the “Pluralism” of Walzer’s subtitle. The “Equality” of the subtitle consists in “maintaining the boundaries” among the “spheres of justice,” such that superiority in one sphere is never the condition for superiority in another, much less for dominance in all. For example, wealth ought not be able to purchase political office. Therefore, for Walzer, inequality in the distribution of one kind of good is just, at least insofar as it does not destroy the equality of the various spheres. Equality, Walzer insists is “complex.”
Despite this, Walzer has not written “A Defense of Inequality and Equality.” Such a defense, indeed, would not be quite proper for a professed democratic socialist. But it is not only Walzer’s political position, but also his philosophic stance that makes him squeamish about inequality. Walzer claims to continue the tradition of philosophy founded by Socrates. He intends to philosophize, but he also means “to stand in the cave, in the city, on the ground.” Accordingly, “social meaning” (i.e., opinion) is the primary object of philosophic understanding. Human things, Walzer claims, are emphatically social; their goodness cannot be evaluated apart from their particular social context. For this reason, Walzer is, for example, reluctant to condemn the ancient Athenians for preferring the public provision of baths, gymnasiums, and theater to food-stamp programs for the poor. Perhaps, he hints, tragedies and comedies were more important than food-for the Athenians. All of the charm of Spheres of Justice derives from Walzer’s openness to the social meaning of institutions which are alien to contemporary Western society. Indeed, his social sympathies are so broad that he can view the Indian caste system (as it has been brilliantly interpreted by M. Dumont’s Homo Hierarchus) with as much equanimity as American free enterprise.
Some may wonder whether Walzer is too philosophic. In Spheres, he seems to be at least as much at home in ancient Athens or a medieval Jewish community as he would be, say, in Anaheim or Azusa. Furthermore, this book is strangely apolitical. For example, he only mentions recent presidential politics in order to apologize for John F. Kennedy’s nepotistic appointment of his brother as Attorney General. He never mentions party politics. Nevertheless, I do not think his sympathies are universal.
One must consider which “cave” Walzer stood in when he wrote this book. He describes it precisely in his “Acknowledgments”; in short, Walzer is from Princeton, out of Harvard. Spheres has social meaning, above all, in those communities and their moral equivalents. It is no surprise, then, that Walzer pays less attention to the most powerful opinions in the contemporary West-to say nothing of the opinions of the American people and their representatives-than he does to the opinions of two leading citizens of Harvard-Princeton, Robert Nozick and John Rawls. Of course, the leading opinions at Harvard-Princeton are of some importance for the United States, and so for the West. Therefore, we should welcome this report from Walzer’s cave, the cave of Eastern academe.
From its beginnings, socialism has defined itself primarily by its opposition to individualism. In this respect, Walzer merely follows in the footsteps of Fourier, Marx, and Durkheim by opposing the radical individualism of Nozick. In more recent times, however, eastern academic socialism has faced a new rival: the “simple equalitarianism,” as Walzer calls it, of John Rawls and his followers.
Plainly, Walzer’s democratic socialism has been tempered by Nozick’s arguments into a deeper suspicion of bureaucracy and a new trust in the soundness of the choices of free men. Indeed, his romanticization of the moral world of the “petty bourgeoisie” would make the most avid supply-sider blush; one wishes he had held as much social sympathy for the workers and managers of giant corporations. Yet Walzer’s sympathy for capitalism on a small scale would not seem new to one who has followed American democratic socialism for the past three or four decades. Socialism, in fact, has always presupposed individualism.
What is new is Walzer’s critique of Rawlsian “simple equality” and his attempt to recast democratic socialism in the form of “complex equality.” Although Walzer supposes that his critique leads necessarily to his own democratic socialism, we shall see that, however sound that conclusion may appear to be in Walzer’s cave, it cannot survive the brighter light outside.
The theoretical heart of Rawls’ equalitarianism is his doctrine of “the original position.” According to it, all human beings would freely choose to distribute the same amount of all goods to each, if they were in the original position; i.e., if they were unconscious of their own natural or social advantages over one another. Since the original position is one of unconsciousness, the goods to be distributed are primarily external; Rawls’ doctrine is essentially materialistic. A sufficient objection to it might seem to be that human beings, living like human beings, are always conscious to some extent of their own relative merits and demerits. Thus Rawls was compelled to argue that no natural or social advantage is, or ought to be, regarded as a moral advantage. Yet Rawls could not deny the existence of moral superiority: “Inequalities are justified only if they are designed to bring, and actually do bring, the greatest possible benefit to the least advantaged social class.” Rawlsian moral superiority is consciousness of the moral worthlessness of all natural or social advantage.
The regime corresponding to this notion of moral superiority is the redistributive state. At best, this regime is a bureaucratized social order whose rulers maintain their political inequality in order to benefit the poor, racial minorities, females, the handicapped, and other “disadvantaged classes.” So, as a matter of course, Rawls’ opinions are popular among American bureaucrats, and no less so at Harvard-Princeton, which is the alpha and the omega for the lives of top-level bureaucrats.
Walzer’s pluralism is an answer to Rawls’ original position. Every society is constituted, he argues, by a shared consciousness of certain things as goods, both in themselves and in relation to one another. Thus, each society is a moral order. If this is so, then to deny that consciousness of particular social advantages has any moral basis, as Rawls does, is to deny the legitimacy of every social order, however democratic or socialistic. In particular, Rawls’ simple equalitarianism would require that worker-owned businesses comply with Affirmative Action guidelines, even though compliance would ruin that sense of workers’ solidarity which Walzer insists is essential to the success of such businesses. Now we can appreciate why Walzer, who loves to drone on about complexity as much as any academic leftist, does not mince words when it comes to simple equality. He calls it “tyrannical.”
The Eastern Cave
Political judgment, more than theoretical understanding of the incommensurability of human goods, guides Walzer’s opposition to the simple equalitarianism of Eastern academe. Political inequality is the special case of inequality because “[p]olitics is always the most direct path to dominance, and political power . . . is probably the most important, and certainly the most dangerous, good in human history.” Thus Walzer’s complex equality is, above all, the means to explain why no amount of equality among the races, sexes, or economic classes can justify the political inequality of equalization experts. For the same reason, Walzer advocates traditional, American limited government; the Constitution’s limits on governmental power distinguish the political sphere from the other spheres of justice. Given this devotion to political equality, Walzer’s inattention to contemporary jurisprudence is a serious defect, for the ideology of simple equality is at least as powerful in the judicial system, including the elite law schools, as it is in the bureaucracy. In general, Walzer’s political judgment is sound, but in the particular-Who is ruling?-there are some problems, as we shall see.
In sum: Walzer’s critique of Rawlsian simple equality amounts to a reassertion of the tradition of free government in America, but the relation of this critique to democratic socialism remains obscure.
Before turning to Walzer’s politics, we should notice the reception of Spheres of Justice by the denizens of Eastern academe.
One of the simplest of the simple equalitarians, Ronald Dworkin, reviewed Walzer’s book for the New York Review of Books (April 21,1983). He accuses Walzer of “deep relativism” for affirming that “a given society is just if its substantive life is lived . . . in a way faithful to the shared [moral] understanding of the members.” This affirmation is as relativistic as Aristotle’s doctrine of natural right: In a just society, the members live the best life of which they are capable; not every people is capable of the best life or even of a very good one, but only tyrants-those willing to rule violently against the consent of the governed-expect a people to live a life for which it lacks the moral capacity. Simple equalitarians like Dworkin are incapable of making this distinction between the (one) best society and the (many) just ones. It is Walzer’s burden, then, to explain this distinction, the principle of political moderation, to Eastern academe. Good Luck to him!
The Neo-Conservative Cave
Predictably, The Public Interest, the organ of the loyal opposition in Eastern academe, complains that Walzer is not relativistic enough. That is, its reviewer recommends that our author abandon his “principles” for “America: its history and its institutions, its people and their aspirations” (emphasis added). For example, whereas Walzer’s democratic socialism causes him to admire the worker-owned Sunset Scavenger Company, Public Interest places its faith in the American people’s common feeling that “there is more dignity in working for a garbage company than in owning one” (Fall, 1983, p. 133). To such subjectivism, Walzer ought to reply, citing Jefferson, that it is more important that individual Americans be economically independent than that they feel dignified; the affective sphere is distinct from, less politically relevant than, and largely dependent upon, the economic sphere. Walzer, however, probably would choose not to dignify Public Interest’s high-rise capitalism with a reply.
As these two reviews illustrate, Walzer’s democratic socialism now occupies the political center in the cave of Eastern academe-a position midway between absolutism and relativism, tyranny and servility, materialism and sentimentalism. For this reason, we should take his politics seriously.
Non-Marxist socialism, of which Walzer is the leading American proponent, posits an heterogeneity of human goods, and denies any hierarchy among them. From this point of view, political power is one more social good among many, albeit “the most dangerous” one. The problem for socialism, then, is to distribute all the goods-health, wealth, honor, offices, education, divine grace, etc., and political power-but to do so “equally”; i.e., as if all goods were equally good. Yet, as Aristotle noticed, all goods are not equal. In particular, the public good is superior to and comprehends all lesser or partial goods. Hence, the political community is the only sphere of justice, and politics is the art by which the spheres of the lesser goods are maintained. Walzer fails to consider why political power has always been the most dangerous social good. It has been because it is the best social good, the only one for which a good citizen could be expected to stake his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor.
Walzer’s socialism proceeds from this failure to comprehend the architectonic character of politics. Like every good socialist, he claims that American society is characterized by “the dominance of money in the sphere of politics.” American history is “the political success story of the rich.” Suppose that these vast overstatements were true. Nevertheless, Walzer’s socialism, which looks mainly toward a national health-care system and the nationalization of major industries, would result in the political dominance of, so to speak, the poor, but not in the maintenance of the boundaries between economics and politics, because political power does dominate the sphere of economics.
Indeed, it is precisely because governmental policies and regulatory fiats have come to have such profound effects upon the production of wealth, especially since 1970, that “the rich” have found it far more desirable than ever before to use their money for political purposes. Still, Walzer’s nonrevolutionary socialism would not politicize the economy, as laissez-faire capitalists and more extreme socialists might suppose. Rather, socialism tends to economize politics, making every issue of the public good an economic issue. And, because economic matters are emphatically private, self-interest has invariably been the only principle of right action with “social meaning” in socialistic societies. Paradoxical as it might seem, socialism is just as radically individualistic, just as corrosive of political community, as laissez-faire capitalism would be.
Free government will have to look outside Walzer’s cave for intelligent defenders.