Liberalism Reconsidered. Edited by Douglas MacLean and Claudia Mills. Rowman & Allanheld, $32.50; $16.50 paper.; Strong Democracy: Participatory Polities for a New Age. By Benjamin Barber. University of California, $16.95.
August 14, 1984        

One of the likable things about liberals is their lack of self-confidence. Conservatives are complacent, radicals are brash, but liberals are diffident, often down right apologetic. This is as it should be: contemporary liberalism is, philosophically and programmatically, a mess (per haps also, as neoliberals believe, an anachronism). Still, the prospect of extinction concentrates the mind wonderfully, so the New Right’s anti-liberal jihad may yet inspire some rigorous, hence radical, thinking about liberalism.”

If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, what’s a radical? Perhaps a different sort of liberal, one who’s gone to meet his mugger, rather than merely called the police. Whatever else liberal democratic societies have had in common, there’s this: they’ve all been rich. The two pillars of liberal ideology—the right to undisturbed enjoyment of one’s property and the right to a lair share of society’s resources, at least enough for a decent subsistence—may be fundamentally inconsistent, but the contradiction has usually remained implicit. There’s generally been enough money around to keep everyone off the streets, except for a minority of desperate or adventurous souls, quickly crushed by the National Guard and the secret police. In a society that makes more promises than it can keep, prosperity is the root of all harmony.

When prosperity fails and those promises are called in, choices have to be made. Writing a few years ago, Robert Lekachman outlined the choices:

“Contemporary (and largely justified) demands for group equity are too large to be satisfied at probable rates of future economic growth without substantial redistributions of income and wealth, and such transfers can occur only in the context of serious democratic planning for sustained full employment...

In the ‘70s and later, familiar liberal objectives, notably equality of opportunity and full employment, can be approximated only after substantial structural alterations in the relation between public and private economic activity. Liberals accordingly can either trim their goals because their attainment involves changes they deplore, or they can persevere by advocating means which imply radical change.”

Lekachman goes on to suggest that it may be “time to retire honorably the word liberal and continue the debate as a dialogue between radicals and conservatives.” Predictably, few liberals have volunteered for rechristening. But the more thoughtful among them understand that economic growth cannot indefinitely make difficult political choices moot. How liberals redefine themselves in the ‘80s will decide whether they save their souls and a good deal more about our collective future.

“Liberalism Reconsidered” is a collection of essays by academic philosophers, political theorists, and social scientists. Most are liberals, so the reconsideration is largely sympathetic (though in the end, the two radicals—Theda Skocpol and Christopher Lasch—steal the show). Ronald Dworkin is, after John Rawls, probably the best-known contemporary liberal theorist; his essay “Neutrality, Equality, and Liberalism” leads off the book. It is a beautifully written and reasoned defense of liberalism that nevertheless aches with unarticulated socialist implications. Dworkin begins by noting that historically liberals have had two main objectives: freedom from government intervention in citizens’ private (religious, sexual, family) lives, and equitable distribution of wealth through government action. Both parts of this traditional liberal program—neutrality and equality—are now under attack. Dworkin hopes to vindicate both by deducing them from a single, abstract, universally accepted principle of justice.

Here is his candidate principle: government “must impose no sacrifice or constraint on any citizen in virtue of an argument that the citizen could not accept without abandoning his sense of his equal worth.” This unexceptionable formula clearly implies neutrality, i.e., that government not enforce any private morality. But it has a distinctly laissez-faire ring: how does it justify redistribution? Why should “equal worth” entail any thing more than equal opportunity in a free, competitive market?

Dworkin proceeds, quietly but decisively, to impugn the moral foundations of the market economy. Defenders of the market argue that the vast disparities of wealth and power it generates are legitimate because they result from individual differences in talent, character, and taste. As long as markets function efficiently, the results must be fair. Liberals have usually accepted this reasoning—except for those, like Galbraith, who recognize that the notion of an efficiently functioning market is an archaic fiction—and argued for redistribution on other grounds, such as compassion or the preservation of social peace. Dworkin attacks the idea of desert directly. Inequalities are legitimate, he urges, only if they result from free, informed choices, like the choice of poetry over medicine as a life’s work. Yet not only inherited advantages of wealth, education, and upbringing, but also the skills and even, to some extent, the virtues that the market differentially rewards—all these are not matters of choice. Nor are the substantial advantages or disadvantages attached to a person’s race or sex. Nor is good or bad luck. There is not, if you think about it philosophically, very much about our success (or lack of it) that we are responsible for; or to put it more carefully, as Dworkin does: “Some people who are perfectly willing, even anxious, to make exactly the choices about work and consumption and savings that other people make end up with fewer resources, and no plausible theory of equality can accept that as fair.”

Dworkin concludes that “it is impossible to discover, even in principle, exactly which aspects of any person’s economic position flow from his choices and which from advantages or disadvantages that were not matters of choice.” If he’s right (and I think he is), then competitive individualism, and with it liberalism, are ethically obsolete. The relevant question be comes: how should we—with visible hands—produce and distribute the common wealth? Dworkin does not answer this question, does not even pose it explicitly. But his reasoning leads to it and so leads beyond liberalism.

Mark Sagoff, responding to Dworkin, takes a further step toward socialist morality. Like most liberal theorists, Dworkin wants to discover an abstract, more or less procedural criterion of equality or fairness, by which market-generated in equalities may be judged and corrected. The rightness of competition is taken for granted, though it’s recognized that the competition can never be quite fair. Government must be, in Dworkin’s well-known phrase, “neutral among competing conceptions of the good life.” Sagoff points out that in public questions this is not possible. “Civil society is hardly a Brownian motion of autonomous and atomic individuals cowering before the Leviathan. It is itself a collection centers of authority and coercion, many of which may make the push-me-pull-you bureaucracies of government seem tame and unthreatening by comparison.” Either we choose a future, collectively and democratically, or someone will choose for us. If the government does not give us an environmental policy (or a consumer- protection or occupational-safety policy), the corporations will.

Sagoff walks right up to the socialist solution, and then walks away. The essential difference between liberals and socialists, he writes, is that socialists “have well-worked-out dialectical and historical arguments—full theories or explanations, as it were—of public virtue and of the good society,” while the liberal “acknowledges that he does not know and for that reason remains suspicious and critical of what he does.” This is an evasion. Either socialists’ well-worked out arguments—against concentrated private power and for public control of investments—are right or they’re not, and Sagoff knows they are. I think he just wishes socialists were more bashful.

Dworkin’s and Sagoff’s essays are the most interesting in the book, philosophically. But liberalism is not only a theory; it’s a program, with a history. Theda Skocpol and Christopher Lasch subject that history to a radical critique. Both focus on the New Deal, from which ‘‘liberalism’ in its contemporary American usage has acquired its principal meaning’” (Skocpol, quoting Samuel Beer). Both argue that the New Deal failed, and that any similar approach—trying to appease the disadvantaged through transfer payments, social services, and interest-group bargaining, while leaving the basic structure of economic and political decision-making intact—is bound to fail again.

As Lasch tells it, American history thus far is a fortuitous escape from the consequences of liberalism’s “internal incoherence,” i.e., its conception of the public good as merely the outcome of competition among private interests. Only economic growth has saved us from chronic class warfare. The New Deal was the first attempt at the federal level to cope with the results of a sustained lack of growth. Lasch shows that the attempt faltered because Roosevelt and his experts shrank from challenging the primacy of corporate power. Instead they resorted to “a series of improvisations. . . hoping that other organized interests, with a little help from the state, would somehow hold the corporations in check.”

Lasch carries this story forward to the present, shrewdly analyzing the post-World War II social contract and prophesying its breakdown. He argues that working people (including the lower middle class) have always paid a disproportionately high share of the costs of liberal reform, mainly through a regressive tax system, and that their accumulated resentment over this inequity is currently being exploited by corporate apologists and exacerbated by the condescension of managerial and professional elites. Despite his usual crotchets about “the well- publicized campaign against the nuclear family” and other “liberal attacks on [working-class] values,” Lasch’s essay is an effective critique of “pluralist” mystifications.

Theda Skocpol tells a similar story in more detail. She shows that the New Deal’s failure was assured when the liberals could not or would not consolidate a new political constituency in the early 1930s. According to Skocpol, they missed several key opportunities: to forge a coalition of Southern blacks, poor farmers, and urban workers; to generalize their urban reforms and welfare measures into a system of national economic planning; and to create a civic rhetoric of community and cooperation, rather than justifying their program by appeals to individual ism and equal opportunity. She ascribes these failures mainly to the abiding power of Congressional conservatives and to the “anti-statist” tradition in American culture, but also to the liberals’ lack of political imagination and will. And she has little difficulty showing that contemporary liberals—at least the Democratic variety—have learned nothing and forgotten nothing since the New Deal.

What should have been learned, Skocpol argues, is the impossibility of serious reform without increased popular participation. Conservatives are right, she grants: incoherent, piecemeal, centrally administered measures of the traditional Democratic sort are inefficient and don’t help much. But Skocpol’s answer is “an expansion of community, regional, and national planning and. .. a broader, rather than narrower, public sphere in [the economy] and society. And such expansion of public authority must be accompanied by an extension of political participation... into the huge and growing ranks of those Americans, disproportionately less privileged, who now avoid politics altogether.” Will this recommendation leave liberals behind? Skocpol has no doubts: “Are we to believe that the existing Democratic Party, with its recent reforms partly revoked to strengthen the hand of already elected party officials—can serve as an adequate organizational and ideological vehicle for [this] vision? . . . The notion really strains the imagination.”

As if to fill Skocpol’s prescription, Benjamin Barber has written “Strong Democracy,” a brief for participatory politics in the electronic age. “Participatory democracy,” once the slogan of the New Left, is on hardly anyone’s lips nowadays. Yet in “Considerations on Representative Government,” one of liberalism’s canonical texts, John Stuart Mill praised it with faint, and now perhaps outdated, damns:

“It is evident that the only government which can fully satisfy all the exigencies of the social state, is one in which the whole people participate: that any participation, even in the smallest public function, is useful; that the participation should everywhere be as great as the general degree of improvement of the community will allow; and that nothing less can be ultimately desirable, than the admission of all to a share in the sovereign power of the state. But since all cannot, in a community exceeding a single small town, participate personally in any but some very minor portions of the public business, it follows that the ideal type of a perfect government must be representative.”

In the exciting final chapter, Barber argues that, given current technology and the will to use it, Mill’s formerly unanswerable case for representative government is no longer unanswerable.

Most of “Strong Democracy” is a demonstration that if liberalism is the theory, then alienation—what Barber calls “thin democracy”—must be the practice. The inadequacy of representative government, at least in its American incarnation, and the poverty of contemporary American political culture—this is a case that urgently needs to be made, and the materials are at hand. Walter Dean has shown that disenchantment and apathy are epidemic among the American electorate. William Domhoff has shown that yes, there is a ruling class, and it is astonishingly small and cozy. Elizabeth Drew and Amitai Etzioni have shown the pervasive and pernicious influence of money over the legislative branch of government. Ralph Nader and associates have shown the systematic bias and incompetence of the executive branch. Richard Westbrook has shown that election campaigns are now usually run like advertising campaigns, increasingly by advertising agencies. And any one who watches MacNeil/Lehrer or “Meet the Press” knows that there is scarcely a politician in America who is not an acute embarrassment to a self- respecting citizen.

Unfortunately, Barber does not use this rich lode of material. He takes an a priori approach: he slogs through the history of political philosophy, trying to prove that liberalism—and by extension, representative government—is based on a faulty epistemology, metapsychology, and methodology. No doubt it is, but so what? Why trot out such chestnuts as: “Like empiricism, rationalism seeks to escape the subjectivism of reflexivity” or “Thus does the solipsism of Cartesian epistemology serve to reinforce the radical individualism of liberal democratic political theory”? Surely everybody knows that.

These and other unfortunate formulations are intended to suggest that the discourse of contemporary political theory is inadequate to support a healthy public life (what the author calls “strong democracy”). Inasmuch as anything that disturbs the self-satisfaction of political scientists is a good thing (Barber is an academic eminence and will doubtless get plenty of professional notice), this suggestion is a good thing. Yet to the rest of us, much of “Strong Democracy” will seem like philosophical boilerplate. Marx and Engels observed that “philosophy is to’ ‘the study of the real world as masturbation is to sexual intercourse “ Even allowing masturbation its due, I feel that Barber spends too much time wanking.

But the book’s last chapter engages with the real world, and it is a splendid coupling. Barber at last gets down to specifics and outlines a sweeping program for the reform of American democracy. To wit: a nationwide system of neighborhood assemblies, initially with deliberative and eventually with legislative functions; a national initiative and referendum process, with several stages and flexibly worded, multiple-choice proposals; a civic communications cooperative— essentially a two-way public cable channel, broadcasting documentaries, debates, and regional and national assemblies; a public videotext and information-retrieval service—a sort of societywide library reference room, supplying the materials of public debate; a subsidized postal rate for print media (possibly financed by eliminating the commercial junk-mail subsidy); extension of the principle of selection by lot for jury duty to service on planning, zoning, housing, and education boards and on road, water, and conservation commissions; experiments with electronic balloting, limited voucher schemes, and worker self-management; and a program of universal citizen service—mainly myriad decentralized Peace Corps and VISTA- style programs, but including a military-service option.

These tantalizing ideas are developed in respectable, though not abundant, detail. But then, Barber is not hawking a blueprint, he’s trying to start an argument. In this he ought to succeed—at least, if anyone else is interested in participatory democracy. Hardly anyone else appears to be, however; and the severest criticism that can be made of “Strong Democracy” is that perhaps Barber should have devoted more effort to figuring out why most people are inactive rather than fiddling with techniques that an active people would soon enough discover and surpass on its own. Various left-wing explanations, Marxist and antimodernist, have been proposed to account for popular passivity, most of them more rigorous than Barber’s noodlings about thin democracy. Barber’s criticism is abstract and his speculations are concrete—just what Engels derided the utopian socialists for.

Still, it’s not clear that Engels is entitled to the last laugh. Barber assumes that Americans’ oldest civic ideals— equality, self-reliance, good-neighborliness, distrust of central authority—have some residual meaning in a corporation-dominated consumer culture, and that a contemporary political reformer can use fully appeal to those ideals. That assumption is naive and unmaterialist, but I think it’s right. Granted, the American ruling class has never believed in strong democracy: Madison praised the new Constitution for requiring “the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity” from [any share in] government, and Washington was bitterly opposed to the egalitarian aims of Shays’ Rebellion. But we the people have always believed in it, with a fitful and inchoate but potentially subversive faith. Barber wants to draw out the implications of this faith and show that they challenge rather than legitimize politics as usual. For all its limitations, this is a style of argument that the left should attend to respectfully. To be radical, after all, is to get to the root; and it is at least plausible that the root of American democratic ideology is a vision of something like the lively, egalitarian, participatory politics sketched out in “Strong Democracy”.