LIBERALISM has clearly come on hard times. Above all else, liberal philosophy is committed to progress, the relentless growth of human material and technical resources. Today, limits face us everywhere, in ourselves no less than in the environment. Despite its premise of individual liberty, philosophic liberalism managed to adapt to bureaucracies and mass organizations of a collectivist age, but conditions of scarcity and the need for sacrifice have proved more indigestible.
Bruce Ackermann's Social Justice in the Liberal State has no remedy for that condition. Ackerman, a professor of law at Yale, is intelligent, subtle and concerned with impending problems like "genetic manipulation." He has flair: a good part of his book is set in an imagined spaceship in which people possessing a "perfect technology of justice" discuss what they will do when they reach their destined planet. But this excursion into "ideal theory" explores no new worlds; it stays in familiar atmosphere.
Ackerman begins with human beings concerned to control their bodies and the world around them, isolated individuals locked in a struggle with nature, which gives them too little and menaces them with eventual mortality. Since scarcity is the rule, we are also in conflict with one another, and the "struggle for power" is basic in human relations. All life is not "power lust," but only because "social institutions" may "permit us to turn to better things." Nothing in this argument would surprise Locke or Hobbes, the great founders of liberalism. Ackerman accepts their view that the first principles of human nature are defined by our bodies, and hence by our physical separateness, that our natural condition is conflict, and that we escape from this "state of war" only through institutions that we contrive or make.
For the most part, in fact, Ackerman's book is devoted to an argument with other liberals. Ackerman contends that liberalism ought to be understood as a kind of dialogue rather than a set of institutions (social contract theory) or a way of calculating policies (utilitarianism). The social contract and utilitarianism, Ackerman argues, are half-truths, and both schools are forced to rely on a "higher judge," some observer detached from the social situation. Ackerman contends that his own theory roots legitimacy in dialogue between the people involved in political conflict without the need for a "higher judge."
Ackerman's emphasis on dialogue does give his argument some unique features. It leads him to deny rights to any party who cannot participate in dialogue, and hence to justify abortion and to allow parents great authority in dealing with children. Moreover, Ackerman sees, unlike many of his liberal predecessors, that private power can endanger dialogue as much as public power. In Ackerman's view, all domains of power are suspect, and he is unusually sensitive to the complexities of inequality and exploitation.
Nevertheless, Ackerman does not "save" liberalism. In fact, he spends very little time defending the premises of liberalism. Only about 10 pages of his book discuss his principles of liberal dialogue, rationality, consistency and neutreality. Neutrality, the most problematic of the three, tells us that (1) we may not assert that we are "instrinsically superior" to our fellow citizens, and (2) we may not claim that our idea of the good is better than that asserted by a fellow citizen. Let the first condition pass, although it is certainly contestable. The second condition tells us that we cannot say the most important things we believe, which are likely to be the things we most want to say.
Ackerman advocates a "constrained conversation" like the great liberals of his tradition. Liberal dialogue does not suppress any questioner , but it does suppress certain questions . Logically, in fact, it makes political discourse almost impossible, since any statement that "X is better than Y" turns on some implicit "best" which defines the "better," and any discussion of "the best" is taboo.
In fact, Ackerman's dialogue is not "neutral" at all. A great many people believe that their ideas of the good are more rational or better grounded in nature than competing notions. Ackerman will have none of it: they are not to be allowed to make such arguments because Ackerman is convinced that their beliefs are false. He warns us against the claim to "know," which, he says, is the "vital nerve of the philosopher-king myth," but a few pages later he tells us, "the hard truth is this: there is no moral meaning hidden in the bowels of the universe." Ackerman "knows," then, that nothing is "right by nature" and that we alone "give meanings" to the world. He does not hesitate to play the philosopher-king: those who hold the contrary view are ordered not to state it in liberal dealogue. Socrates, Plato's model of kingly philosophy, was more open than that because, pace Ackerman, his claim to rule rested on his knowledge of ignorance rather than Ackerman's certainties about the nature of things.
Ackerman's book is replete with "dialogues" intended to illustrate his method, but they are unmistakably a philosopher's catechism. They do not read like real dialogues because people are not so easily constrained. Plato's dramatic dialogues are genuine because Socrates knows he must persuade his partners to follow his argument; he cannot impose his rules of discussion as preconditions. Liberal "neutrality," by contrast, imposes, in public discussion, the liberal idea of the nature of the good.
Taking "liberal conversation" as established, Ackerman derives the "bill of rights" of his liberal society. We are all entitled to be free from "genetic domination," and if we suffer from handicaps we are due appropriate compensation. We have the right to a liberal education. We are entitled to start adult life on terms of material equality with our fellows, and we have the right to freely exchange these "initial entitlements."
Evidently, this free market will make our initial equality short-lived. Ackerman expects a "great disparity in personal histories," a decorous way of saying that initial equality will lead to radical diversity and inequality. Ackerman's conversation is ruled by the rough egalitarianism of the assertion, "I am at least as good as you." But Ackerman's practice permits -- even aims at -- inequalities of wealth and power. Ackerman does argue that we must leave the next generation a regime as liberal as that which we created or inherited. Inheritance of private fortunes is, hence, excluded prima facie. But if it will "spur productivity" to let people leave money to their children, we may waive our right to an equal start if the gain in GNP seems worth the social cost. Economic growth and the war against nature can overrule equality, especially when they side with individual freedom. Equality, in the liberal state, is a matter of convenience only.
This is in the tradition of liberalism which created a state in which we are "equal before the law" in order to safeguard private diversities and inequalities. That disparity between what liberals say in public and what they do in private is the reason that it is so easy for young people to unmask the "hypocrisy" of liberal parents. Public life is a kind of hypocrisy for liberals, a series of necessary fictions needed to cover over the disorder of nature.
Like his trdition, Ackerman sets a low value on public life. This shows in his relative indifference to limits to growth. Ackerman does concede that we may need population control if material wealth does not keep pace with population (since we are entitled to as good a start as our predecessors had). He ignores, however, the more important case: if citizenship is defined by the ability to participate in dialogue, then each citizen has a right to the opportunity to participate in public dialogue . If so, it is not true that "ideal theory" sets no "absolute quantitative limit" to population. Population must be limited to the number of citizens who can participate in deliberation. In a mass society, for example, only a few of us can speak and most of us must listen. Ackerman unconsciously acknowledges this by setting his dialogues in a space ship small enough so that the citizens can assemble. As he is right to observe, a citizen's views must be "taken seriously," but to do that, we need to hear them. It is not enough for citizens to "make choices" or to have a chance of "deciding political outcomes." Voters in 1980 know how little of what they wanted to say was reflected in their choice, and Ackerman should too. Ackerman allows growth to subvert dialogue, an old liberal principle but one contrary to Ackerman's own contribution.