A brutal corrective to coerciveness

Sovereign Virtue
July 28, 2000

John Dunn asks why democracy values equality in theory but devalues it in practice

Sovereign Virtue has taken 20 years to write. It has plainly taken considerably longer to think through. Over that period Ronald Dworkin's already striking reputation as a legal and moral philosopher has filled out and consolidated in a series of impressive books on the nature of law, the theory of justice, the meaning of America's constitution, and some of the most painful issues of contemporary American political choice. Sovereign Virtue is unlikely to prove his most popular work. It is long, obstinate and (for such a careful and persistent thinker) somewhat loosely structured. It is also extraordinarily impressive: supple, suave and enviably deft, like all his work, and in its cumulative effect quite exceptionally illuminating. By its close, it has managed to show, as none of his earlier works quite did, what his distinctive interpretation of liberalism means as a political creed, just how it fuses the values of liberty and equality, and why it requires a comprehensive and equally distinctive interpretation of democracy to go with it. In face of this it is now clear to others, as it no doubt was to Dworkin himself throughout, that he has been in many ways the most systematic moral, political and legal thinker of the past three decades in the Anglophone world. He may lack the personal authority or the singularity of mind of John Rawls. But on this evidence he has a substantially broader range of ambition, a set of forceful moral intuitions, a speed and boldness of intellectual manoeuvre, and a combination of energy and sheer pertinacity that are all his own.

What should we make of the overall conception he now sets out? Sovereign Virtue begins with the recognition that the political history of the advanced capitalist world has for the most part gone against the views it expresses for at least as long as it has taken Dworkin to elaborate them. Equality, his opening sentence frankly acknowledges, "is the endangered species of political ideals". Modern representative democracy may rest its claims to its citizens' allegiance on the equal authority that it accords to each of them. But that is about as far as equality goes. Any more systematic and redistributive egalitarianism is stigmatised for its ingenuous assumptions, denounced for its demoralising consequences and shunned fastidiously and ostentatiously for the damage that it is presumed to inflict on the competitive efficiency, and hence the prosperity, of the deservedly better off. Because the people are sovereign, they must indeed be equal as a source of legitimacy. But the people who command are very different from the people who obey. (Dworkin himself distinguishes as bluntly as Joseph de Maistre between the horizontal and vertical dimensions of political power.) When it comes to obeying, the equal citizens of our own states simply have to put up with whatever distributions emerge from the struggles between the competing teams of career politicians who rule them. Professional students of politics, however bemused they may be as to why all this is going on, are on the whole agreed in echoing the judgement of career politicians that any perceived political weakness for more substantive egalitarianism is now a weighty obstacle to political victory. Since Dworkin himself stalwartly supports a far more egalitarian society and economy than now emerges from the ordeals of democratic political competition, he needs a conception of democracy that aligns this more reliably with his taste in political outcomes and distinguishes it firmly from the tasteless preferences of the electorates we now have (and are).

It requires a certain intellectual agility to combine a powerfully egalitarian vision of what our societies ought to be like with a conception of the political organisation that they also ought to have and that would dependably favour and sustain that vision in practice over time, while also vindicating its claim to be more democratic in doing so than the repeated political choices of the actually existing demos in virtually every relatively prosperous and civilised country for nearly two decades. Dworkin rises effortlessly to the challenge; but he does not wholly dissipate the suspicion that, even after two decades of effort, there remains a certain residual instability in the conception he is trying to defend. This might be because his social and economic ideals are in some way misconceived, as his communitarian critics or conservative enemies have always been at pains to insist. It might be because his vision of politics itself is in some way confused or misleading. It might also be because the two, however carefully and delicately he aligns them, cannot in the end fit comfortably together. Dworkin himself naturally does not share the suspicion of residual instability. He has, after all, built each component, with endless patience, so that they should dovetail perfectly. But anyone who finds themselves unable to match his assurance will need to decide why the whole construction still looks so rickety: why it sways disturbingly in the prevailing wind.

Before Sovereign Virtue , I would have taken more seriously the possibility that it was the theory of distributive justice that was principally to blame. Those first two chapters remain difficult to take in,even after repeated readings; and the preferred interpretation of equality of resources, modelled through the device of a protracted desert-island auction, sits uncomfortably with more demotically (or bovinely) egalitarian sensibilities. But Sovereign Virtue vindicates the weight and depth of this approach with imposing force. It shows why Dworkin is so confident that his way of seeing the relations between equality and liberty meets the demands of a unified theory of value, and that it and it alone recognises both the equal importance of every human being and the special responsibility of each of them to select and live out their own shape of life. In a just society its denizens have no entitlement, independent of the lives they live, to an equal quantum of welfare. They simply set out from a fair baseline with an equal endowment of the resources at its disposal; and they live the lives that they proceed to choose. As a would-be unified theory of value Dworkin defends this vision effectively against all its current rivals. Any society that exemplified it in practice would feel very much freer, and be far more equal, than any now in existence; and it would have a rationale (though not an imaginatively very accessible rationale) that was clearer, stabler, and normatively more compelling than those that purport to validate the dynamics of any society.

The imaginative inaccessibility, however, matters. It is as a theorist of value that Dworkin is so potent. What he lacks is the normative or social imagination to make his readers see their own society differently, and still more to cause them to feel differently about their own individual lives. He is a moral realist with virtually no power of evocation; no capacity to force his readers to recognise what they would most prefer to ignore. He is at his best in settings where theory can go furthest, as in the repeated, subtle, and politically pointed explorations of the market for life and medical insurance: a collision zone for our most sophisticated understandings of what it is to be prudent, and some of our most cruelly un-Samaritan responses to our least fortunate fellow citizens.He is at his most confident and indefatigable in settings where theory is permanently in effective demand: in the modulation of America's constitutional heritage in the reasoning and decision-making of its Supreme Court justices. He is least instructive in face of the actuality of contemporary democratic politics throughout the advanced capitalist world, and most of all in its globalising trend-setter, the United States itself.

What democracy should not be, for Dworkin, is a majoritarian cacophony, staged within the epic injustice of every one of these societies, with its loudest noises funded by those with the largest stakes in the scale of this injustice. What causes the scale of this injustice, he notes on two occasions, is failures in will and imagination, in energy and industry, and indeed in philosophical apprehension. What is not obvious is whether he has any clear and coherent view of why the balance has continued to tilt so very far in the wrong direction.

At just one point, he addresses this question directly. American politics is a disgrace, and money is at the root of its being so. The present American law on campaign finance effectively enables politicians to buy electoral outcomes, since it enables them to accumulate virtually unlimited campaign funds and to spend these funds in an instrumentally effective manner. The richest campaign simply wins. It also, therefore, if a trifle more surreptitiously, enables those who can contribute the necessary funds to buy this verdict through their increasingly docile agents.

In response, Dworkin understandably proposes a revision of these campaign finance regulations to render them less blatantly inimical to the correct unified theory of value. So far, so reasonable. But the obstacle directly encountered here is not just a philosophical misapprehension. It is the serried electoral choices of such Americans as bothered to vote, and of those whom they proved to elect, iterated across the last two decades. These are not merely the source of much of the injustice. They are also, as Plato some time ago complained, in much of their own substance (imagination, will, desire, preferences, call it what you will) instances of, or at least complicit in, this same injustice. It will take more than a decade or so of further philosophical edification to shake their purposes or cleanse their souls. The conception of democracy Dworkin here sets out does indeed align it neatly with the theory of what we should value, which he develops so majestically. What it misses almost completely is why democracy is such a powerful political formula across the world today, and why the states that claim to embody it nonetheless remain so resolutely deaf to its presumed sovereign value. On this matter, Plato was closer to the truth. Democracy is not best understood by thinking of it as a potential implementation device for the correct unified theory of value: an endless seminar under ideal chairmanship. Rather, it is a permanent, brutal, spite-filled, fantasy-ridden, but perhaps still just on balance, salutary challenge to any possible claim not merely to see that theory clearly, but to exercise coercive power in its name.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality

Author - Ronald Dworkin
ISBN - 0674 00219 9
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £21.95
Pages - 511

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