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Basic Structures and Equal Concern

September 28th, 2006 · 1 Comment

I went to see Ronald Dworkin speak on Tuesday about his new book Is Democracy Possible Here?, about which I’ll presumably have more to say once I’ve actually read it. One thing that struck me, though, had to do with his principle of “equal concern,” which is one of two he thinks should structure all public political discourse. For Dworkin, the idea that public policy must be grounded in equal concern for all citizens has a moderately robust redistributionism as its obvious upshot, since any economic system in which significant numbers of people are badly off past some level must not have been designed with adequate concern for those people in mind.

But it seems there’s an obviously antecedent question of scope here. If I run an ice cream parlor, treating my customers fairly and equally basically entails giving people the same service and charging them the same prices. “Equal concern” does not require that I give extra sprinkles and a free second scoop to the guy who got dumpted earlier that day, though, of course, in the role of personal friend, showing “equal concern” might well mean giving that guy some extra time and attention.

Now, the obvious response is that government establishes the “basic structure of society” (to use Rawls’ famous phrase), so the scope of its concern is naturally going to be, if not quite all-inclusive, then at any rate quite broad. But if you think about it (and as Rawls is well enough aware, I should add) a great deal of a society’s basic structure consists of things that aren’t, probably shouldn’t be, and at any rate probably couldn’t be politically determined in any but the most indirect way: Think language, background culture, religion, literary and artistic traditions, technology. Not, obviously, that this fact in itself rules out governmental action in any of those realms—certainly not the economic, where the more specific argument will be that the government does set the basic rules for economic interaction, and so has to consider any outcomes flowing from that—but as a matter of framing I expect it makes a big difference whether you start out looking at the political realm as one narrow system among many or as a kind of master domain with at least partial responsiblity for outcomes, of any sort, for anyone.

For some people—small governmenty folk in particular—this might seem too stupidly obvious to be wasting a post on. But I think a lot of us are apt to slip into a form of justification that implicitly (albeit maybe just to grant an interlocutor’s premise for the sace of argument) concedes the scope question and argues in substantive policy terms. So, for instance, we might argue that for this or that reason, inqeuality per se is not necessarily unfair, which insofar as some people are going to disagree with us on the scope question is a fine point to try to make. But notice that pitching the argument at that level does at least suggest that whether the distribution of resources is, in some broad sense, fair is a question of political justice, when it might be more plausible to grant that there’s a perfectly intelligible sense in which a distribution is unfair, but that certain kinds of unfairness, even arising in a system of government-defined economic rules, are not in the realm of justice.

Now, for other people—certain sorts of consequentialists, especially those for whom “political philosophy” is not really a distinct subject matter from morality in general—this will all sound like a sort of nonsense. For they’ll be inclined to think there isn’t really a scope question distinct from the substantive policy question, or a “realm of political justice” distinct from the general moral mandate to produce the best outcomes. On this view, if government will tend to produce better outcomes in some domain (without worsening them more elsewhere, either directly or through diversion of resources), then that area is part of the proper scope of government, and if it will tend to do the opposite, then that domain is outside its scope. Plenty of libertarians hold this sort of view too. But Dworkin, and plenty of other sympathetic liberal theorists, don’t. That is, it’s not just that certain kinds of iniquities—romantic and interpersonal, say—are outside the scope of goverment action for practical reasons, but that there are kinds of moral wrongs that aren’t violations of political justice.

Anyway, I expect Dworkin probably has a word or two to say on this in the new book, and if not, certainly in Sovereign Virtue (which—bad philosophy geek!—I’ve yet to read). Maybe some less rambling and sketchy thoughts when I’ve had a chance to look at that and reread John Tomasi’s Liberalism Beyond Justice, which it’s just occured to me is largely concerned with this question, but which I haven’t cracked since I was working on my undergrad philosophy thesis some (oy) five years ago.

Tags: Libertarian Theory



1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Tim Waligore // Sep 30, 2006 at 11:08 am

    You can also attack Dworkin from the cosmopolitan end: why is the scope limited to a political community. “Sovereign Virtue” refers to the sovereign virtue of political communities. But why is equality conditional in this way? G.A. Cohen attacks the consistency of Dworkin’s position for this in his ‘if you’re an egalitarian, why are you so rich?’ Cohen is asking not just a cosmopolitan question, but also (roughly), if justice requires institutions to redistribute wealth according to equality, why don’t Dworkin and others say that justice requires individuals to take “charitable” actions where institutions are not fully just. So there are two scope questions: if you’re concerned about equality, why only equality among certain people, and also, what is the scope or extent of the basic structure or whatever it is that it is permissible to evaluate and reform for justice? Off the top of head.