The Theory and Practice of Equality

By Ronald Dworkin

Harvard Univ. 511 pp. $35


Why Socialism Failed in

The United States

By Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks

Norton. 379 pp. $26.95

America's much-touted egalitarianism stirs little passion for equal status or wealth; more often, we're committed to equal opportunity only to outshine one another in our myriad strivings. But while many strivers lose, the ethos of competition has been a great civic stimulant and a terrific generator of wealth. Along the way, Americans tolerate a lot more material inequality and social chaos than do other developed nations. But when those nations try to redistribute wealth to achieve equal results, they lose prosperity and personal freedom, weakening equality itself--so much so that now many of those regimes and ideologies are moving our way.

Or so we've been told ever since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan nudged Bill Clinton and Tony Blair toward a "Third Way" that affirms most of the above. Prophets of right-left convergence abound. Bourgeois bohemians bestride the globe. That has rattled the intrepid liberal rationalism of Ronald Dworkin, a moral and legal philosopher in the analytic, Anglo-American mode who divides his time between London's University College and New York University. He brings together 20 years of his academic thinking and public advice-giving in Sovereign Virtue.

Dworkin wants to restore primacy not to the old left's self-defeating equality of results but to a more flexible equality of resources that would enhance equality of opportunity by encouraging more personal responsibility. Equality, he contends, can be the "sovereign virtue" it ought to be only if we acknowledge its interdependence with the personal obligations that modern liberal and socialist statecraft have often scanted. If the "Third Way" can be "a unified account of equality and responsibility that respects both--then it should be our way."

Can it be "our" way in America? Dworkin writes that "government is sometimes necessary to provide the circumstances in which it is fair to ask all citizens to take responsibility for their own lives"--a reasonable account of an American liberalism tempered by conservative truths. He suggests that liberals have underestimated the value of personal choices to true equality: A free market, in setting prices that provide "information about the resources that actually exist and the competing preferences actually in play, is the only true measure of whether any particular person commands equal resources." Using an elaborate model of a hypothetical good society, he argues that even if resources were distributed equally, inequities would always emerge from differences in luck, judgment and skill. It would be folly to repeal these, not least because markets generate efficiency and wealth along with freedom.

But free-market opportunities don't inhere in some natural order that must never be tampered with. Dworkin argues well that every polity chooses how to create and distribute wealth through its laws governing ownership, contracts, taxes, labor, civil rights and so on. More than many Americans realize, the same political will that establishes free markets can shape them to enhance participation. The trick is to make the political more sensitive to the personal, not by asserting "difference" in group identities but through a politics that, informed by market models, registers individual differences as they're actually exercised daily in social and economic life.

Such thinking buries socialism and "identity politics," and it's a big departure for those liberals who've viewed markets mainly as impediments to justice. John Rawls's A Theory of Justice fails, according to Dworkin, when Rawls urges that society give priority to its worst-off as a class--and thus make groups the primary units of moral assessment. And, unlike Isaiah Berlin, Dworkin doesn't think that liberty and equality need be in conflict; each flows from and defines the other. That also distinguishes Dworkin's thinking from conservative models that abstract personal choice and obligation from their necessary social nurture.

Alas, the endless conceptual ramparts that fill Dworkin's fortress of speculations may try even sympathetic readers. A second problem isn't the intrepidity of his social thought but its eerily apolitical omniscience, the more insufferable because unwitting. Who, besides the lofty, statist "we" he invokes throughout the book, could anticipate everyone's perspectives and interests? Dworkin is no socialist but he's no democrat, either; beyond a hypothetical social insurance, at levels individuals would select, he offers no alternative to markets tempered by liberal "wise men" whom he never identifies and about whose nurture and elevation he says nothing. It's a blind spot he shares with more than a few academics, policy wonks, and philanthropists and activists.

Another blind spot compromises the book's second, policy-oriented half, many of whose chapters first appeared in the New York Review of Books: Set against the magisterial, theoretical first half, these essays on affirmative action, welfare reform, campaign finance, euthanasia, free speech and other controversies sound polemical. Dworkin's partisan, almost knee-jerk liberal positions strain the standards of his politically sophisticated, market-sustained approach to equality and upset the balance he seeks between collective and personal responsibility. Why sound alarms over the short-term drop in black admissions at some elite colleges that lost strong racial preferences, when he has argued persuasively against designating "worst-off" classes and for giving personally sensitive policies enough time and freedom from institutional groupthink to achieve real equality? Why caricature responsible arguments for reforming welfare? It's as if something were driving him to be the house philosopher of People for the American Way--a noble organization that's not always right.

Dworkin would benefit from Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks's It Didn't Happen Here, not because he advocates the socialism whose failure they describe, but because their non-polemical account of it relies on rich, internationally comparative studies that illuminate American political culture. Lipset, the veteran American sociologist of politics, and Marks, a political scientist who researches comparative government here and in Europe, portray a distinctive mix of American social values that joins the country's populist, communitarian and egalitarian currents to an equally robust, almost libertarian individualism and anti-statism. They show, too, how American politics has doomed third parties nationally, rewarding big, loose, winner-take-all parties rather than practitioners of a more ideologically disciplined, parliamentary politics. And they puncture some labor historians' myths about a class-conscious, anti-capitalist American working class, showing that, by European standards, there almost wasn't any: Workers jockeying for position in fluid economic and cultural circumstances relied more on non-class solidarities--religious, racial, ethnic, regional--alongside (and sometimes in tension with) the values of the self-made man. Lipset and Marks don't mistake workplace militancy for anti-capitalism. It was because many workers (especially the artisans and craft unionists who dominated the American labor movement) believed so deeply in individualism and civic virtue, as well as egalitarianism, that they raged at employers' perceived affronts to such beliefs. But they didn't seek political control of government's power to set the taxes, regulations and structures that might have advanced either socialism or Dworkin's equality of resources.

The book's worst news for Dworkin's ideal is that the United States has always lacked the "powerful causal cocktail" of social-democratic participation in government and strong union organization: "Societies in which social democratic parties have consistently played a role in national government and in which unions are strongly organized tend to have extensive welfare systems and greater economic equality," they write. Not surprisingly, the United States has the lowest rates of taxation and social-welfare spending among affluent democracies. And the most inequality: At least 11.7 percent of Americans earn less than 40 percent of the median income--almost double that of the next most unequal country among the top 20, Australia.

Yet there may be good news for Dworkin, if those who think as he does can tap the currents of American individualism, personal responsibility and market dexterity upon which his equality of resources depends. Read Lipset and Marks carefully enough, and you may find yourself thinking that a Third Way between collectivism and individualism is prefigured well in the America that never took to socialism.

A dimmer view might also be taken, of a United States shadowed by a rampant consumerism that Lipset and Marks don't address. American individualism is measured increasingly by the slender power it gives individuals to make choices in markets that stimulate them ever more intimately as atomized consumers, draining other associations, forcing us to privatize our pleasures and socialize our pains, as Robert Reich put it in his Tales of a New America. The residue: an ethos increasingly anti-social, apolitical, infantilizing (road rage?) and absurd.

That's not an American exceptionalism to cheer about. Then again, in this nation of brave departures, clean breaks and fresh starts, we've always concocted our identities more or less ex nihilo, in a society we often felt was disintegrating. Lipset and Marks highlight some deep, sustaining idiosyncrasies in our unwritten Constitution that Dworkin and other champions of equality may want to embrace.

Jim Sleeper, author of "Liberal Racism" and "The Closest of Strangers," taught a course at Yale University last year on new conceptions of American national identity.